The Skeptical Environmentalist
In his new book of this title (Cambridge 2001), Bjorn Lomborg of Denmark begins with a quotation from Julian Simon, Professor of Business Management at the University of Maryland, who died in 1998 (just after I had met him):
"This is my long-run forecast in brief: The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today's Western living standard. I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse."
Lomborg was an environmentalist, a member of Greenpeace . Then he met Julian Simon, and convinced that Simon was wrong he parceled out Simon's many statements about the environment to his students, asking them to do the research to prove Simon wrong. Instead, the students reported that they had found Simon correct in case after case. So Lomborg became skeptical about his former beliefs. As a scientist, he makes up his mind on the basis of evidence (not hearsay or ideology), and he will change his mind if the evidence shows he was wrong. Not many of us will do that.
Let me quote from a review of The Skeptical Environmentalist that appeared in The Economist (8/4/01):
Furthermore, all the trash that the United States* will generate over the next century would (according to Lomborg's estimates) fit within a landfill eighteen miles square and 100 feet deep. In 1997, the Worldwide Fund for Nature stated that two-thirds of the world's forests are lost forever. The truth is nearer 20%, and much of this occurred in Europe during the first millennium CE. The land covered by forests has actually increased since World War II.
Let me now quote from myself:
For decades we have been concerned with overpopulation. Now we discover that Europe, Russia, Japan, and other countries are deeply disturbed about loss of population. (See TQE #6 for the rest). Population is growing in the Third World, where however the growth rate is decelerating and is expected to reach zero by 2050.
The Washington Post is enthusiastic about Lomborg. Here is a quotation from Book World (10/21/01):
I have read Lomborg and find his data compelling. They either fit with what I had already known (as in population growth) or his sources are scholarly. But I do have some caveats. Everything we do or do not do, that impacts upon the environment, involves risk. Without the green revolution, millions might have died from hunger. At the time of the green revolution, however, we did not know the environmental consequences (which turned out to be benign). The same may be so today on genetic engineering and global warming.
Why do many Americans especially Quakers continue to believe the litany? Maybe the story of the five monkeys will help us understand that. Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water.
After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result: all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it. Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him.
After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted. Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that's the way it's always been done around here. And that's how company policy begins...
Do you believe that story? Would you tell it to someone else as true? I asked my source if the experiment had been ever done, and he did not know. So far as he knew, it was just a story that makes a lot of sense. If repeated enough times, soon "everybody" will believe it, and it will become part of the culture. Is that the way popular acceptance of the litany came about?
If you had lived in Caesar's time (d. 44 BCE), would you have believed in Roman gods because "everybody" did? (Actually, not everybody did).
If you had lived in France in 1572 (Bartholomew Massacre), would you have believed that everyone had to adhere to the same religion, or the nation would fall apart?
If you had lived in Italy in Galileo's time (1564-1642), would you have believed the sun moves around the earth?
If you had lived in Salem, MA, in 1692, would you have believed in witchcraft?
So, what's different about 2001?
Lomborg carefully examines the sources of information that "support" the litany. He does not minimize problems of the environment. He cites studies showing that pollution and other negative effects are occurring. But he finds them vastly overblown in the public mind, and he puts them into perspective. It is a book that everyone concerned with the environment (and who isn't?) ought to read.
In the next Letter, I will take up global warming, citing Lomborg and other sources as well.
Yours in Peace,
Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer! The email address is tqe-comment followed by @quaker.org. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.
Thank you for your witness through your Quaker Economist messages. It is good to read a point of view that departs from much of what passes for conventional wisdom among unprogrammed Friends.
In diversity, strength ... and that also is vital if we are to glean truth in our threshing. Keep on keeping on. In His Light,
John Rich, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.
I believe that abundance is the natural state that God intends for us. For those who believe that scarcity is the natural state, since the Fall, then there is guilt wherever the possibility of abundance is to some extent realized.
J.D. von Pischke, Friend from Reston, VA.
I have some qualms also about your quotation of reviews, since I don't know from your email what the qualification of the reviewer is. For example the person who reviewed the book [Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environment] for The Washington Post (with what qualifications?) is overly impressed by the number of footnotes, and states, "neither need we fear anything from the genetic modification of organisms." This seems like a remarkably bold statement! I am not one of those who is paranoid about genetic modification, but a statement as bold as this reminds me of the optimism behind the "too cheap to meter" nuclear reactor optimists. I think that a statement like that tends to make me somewhat discount the entire review.
Roger Conant, Mt. Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
You didn't mention one very important measure of the human environment, that is some measure of the overall quality of life. We can talk about whether people are fed and housed, but sheer numbers do matter and seriously affect quality of life. I highly value uncrowded places and open space, I highly value other species, and commonly wonder whether humans really are the top life form, as we commonly proclaim. Sheer numbers of humans and constant growth require a constant battle to stay ahead of environmental degradation brought on by that continuing growth in human population. Unfettered population growth of the human species is the single biggest problem we face worldwide. It feeds and exacerbates the other matters we so commonly concern ourselves with, conflict, war, social and economic injustice.
Richard Andrews, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
At the November Friends Committee on National Legislation discussion of the new environmental policy, the most frequent question was, "What makes this a religious policy?" Many complained that Friends have not yet begun meaningful discernment on what are the issues in environmental policy, or of our individual and corporate niches in the answer.
Jack's letter did not effectively address these questions: Where do we get our information? What do we believe? What is important and what is not worrisome? Where do our responsibilities lie?
Karen Street, Berkeley (CA) Friends Meeting
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