Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bjorn Again

I haven’t yet read more than a tiny fraction of the Anti-Lomborg webpages I’ve come across, and can’t contemplate the process of wading in against them. I find it astonishing that he can have aroused such vitriol. It is also hard to believe that many of the critics have even read the book, the straw man they attack has so little resemblance to the book I have been reading. The Skeptical Inquirer’s review is a particularly feeble hatchet job that cherry-picks a few examples of logical fallacies- which could be found in practically every popular science book ever written- and never mentions the central thesis of the book. Other critics accuse Bjorn of naively assuming that the market and business as usual will take care of everything, while he actually argues strongly for government action in the form of debt for rainforest swaps, research into renewable energy, multinational mangement of oceanic resources, etc.

I think Bjorn is trying to say something very simple that ought to be utterly uncontroversial:
Since we do not have infinite resources, we need to set priorities. If we do not do this explicitly, we will end up with a set of priorities based on media sound-bites that will be grossly inefficient. We need to set our prioirities rationally, in the light of a proper study of the possible costs of our problems and the possible costs of fixing our problems.

It is legitimate to argue about the best way of doing these cost benefit-analyses, and it is both legitimate and easy to poke holes in Bjorn’s specific analyses. He is just one person, analysing data that is in the public domain, and I am sure he would agree that every calculation he makes is provisional and subject to large errors. The point of the book seems to me that simply that such analyses should be made and should form the basis for environmental policy.

I think critics are also wrong to snarl at Bjorn’s relentless optimisim. I remember years ago, pre-Lomborg, reading a book by David Suzuki called ‘The Japan We Never Knew’. In it he recounts with apparent approval a scene in a Japanese classroom where an environmentally aware teacher is asking students if they think various facets of the environment will be better or worse when they grow up, and they all agree that things will be worse. I wanted to shake David Suzuki. Hang on, those are all things that I know have gotten better in the past few decades! If this teacher is any good, she should be convincing students that they can make a difference. She should be telling them about the successes of the environmental movement and the way people have managed to change things for the better, not inoculating her students with despair for the future. If you are Dictator of Eastasia and your environmental advisors keep telling you your environmental problems will cost more resources to solve than you have, wouldn’t you just say ‘the hell with it’, spend your resources however you feel like it, and hope your environmental advisors have got it wrong? I know I would. Before we can solve our problems, we need to believe our problems are soluble.


Marco said...

I like your work. I'd like to build a straw man out of the environmentalist critics, but I will resist. However, if I were to pick a respected
"environmentalist" who represents everything I think is wrong with the environmentalist movement, it is Peter Garrett. He is the pessimistic grossly inefficient media sound-bite king. It would be good for the environment to politically marginalise him.

Marco said...

I'd put in something more, but I'm continuing the "doomed forever to argue" thread back at "Anotherblog" :)