Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How Bjørn Lomborg deceives the public

BjГёrn Lomborg is articulate, attractive, youthful-looking and the supposed voice of reason in the debate over environmental policy. So, it is no surprise that he is making the rounds in the media this Earth Day season. In a piece in USA Today he recycles claims from previous work that "many key environmental measures" are getting better.

As you sift through the piece, you will see that his "key environmental measures" relate almost exclusively to the health and well-being of humans. And, this is what he uses to build a three-fold strategy to deceive the public. First, he equates human well-being with the well-being of the planet as a whole largely ignoring declines in the functioning of the very ecosystems that support human life. Second, he knows that humans are particularly eager to hear good news about themselves, especially when it is wrapped in rhetoric that makes it appear that we are not undermining our environmental support systems. Third, he accuses those who call for blanket curtailment of practices such as the burning of fossil fuels of having no concern for the poor.

Let's take each strategy in turn.

Human well-being is the same as planetary well-being. It is easy for people to think that general conditions on Earth are getting better if those people are well-fed and have access to adequate housing, education, economic opportunity, and recreation. If a person has been alive long enough, he or she will probably notice that many waterways are cleaner than they were a generation ago and that the air in many cities is now clearer than it used to be. Lomborg is playing on the tendency of humans to judge conditions on the planet based on their own personal experience and to assume that this experience is the best indicator of those conditions. Of course, major planetary systems such as the oceans, the forests, the soil and the climate are moving in dramatic and measurable ways that are hostile not only to human survival, but also to the survival of virtually every other living thing. But these changes are not readily apparent to the average urban dweller who neither experiences them directly nor has the apparatus or training to measure changes in such systems.

What humans have actually been doing is overtaxing the Earth's ecosystems and that makes them feel, well, great--at least for a while. Humans have had such spectacular success at increasing their numbers, longevity, health and overall material wealth that it is hard for them to surmise that something is wrong. But our trajectory as a species is the very picture of overshoot. And, we have become ever more confident in our path even as the carrying capacity deficit builds. Ecologically speaking, what characterizes population trajectories such as ours is a steep and seemingly unstoppable rise followed by a rapid crash as the carrying capacity deficit exceeds critical levels. In other words, everything is all right until it isn't! That's why measures of human well-being are not very useful in judging the health of ecosystems.

Humans are particularly eager to hear good news about themselves. Think back to when you were a child and received praise from your parents or from teachers about your grades; your performance in a school concert or play; your prowess on the football, basketball, soccer, or other field of play; or just about anything that you did well and in accordance with the wishes of your parents and teachers. Who doesn't want to be praised? Well, Lomborg is full of praise for what we've supposedly already done to "improve" the environment. He doesn't claim there is no work yet to be done. But in a week filled with dire warnings about environmental catastrophe, Lomborg's message is designed to stand out. It's an excellent public relations ploy.

Those insisting on drastic policy shifts have no concern for the poor. This is an especially pernicious claim by Lomborg. It makes people who advocate swift and thoroughgoing changes in environmental policy out to be monsters. What Lomborg doesn't want readers to think about is how the existing system is responsible for creating the huge disparities in income and therefore the degraded and perilous conditions of the world's poor. He acts as if the very system that enslaved the world's poor will be the one that somehow alleviates their condition.

It is all too easy for privileged Westerners to convince themselves that they have done a great service for the world's formerly preindustrial cultures by colonizing them and then forcing them into the industrial model. That said, Lomborg is correct on one point. It is hypocritical for those living in wealthy countries to insist that the world's poor forego the benefits of a Western lifestyle in order to "save the planet" if these same wealthy countries are unwilling to make drastic changes themselves. But that doesn't mean that drastic and rapid changes aren't necessary across the board to prevent the collapse alluded to above. Essentially, Lomborg's argument is that the world's poor need to be lifted out of poverty by continuing business-as-usual, only more equitably practiced. This argument allows those of us in wealthy countries an excuse for continuing on our current trajectory even if we are supposed to do it using green technology.

Whether Lomborg is cynical or merely blind to his own subterfuges, I cannot know. But his clever rhetoric has kept him in the spotlight year after year. Maybe that's all it was intended to do.

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