Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Skeptical Environmentalist

Have finally gotten around to reading "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and am finding myself surprisingly absorbed in it. Its a daunting tome of a book, but quite lucidly argued and definitely applies to the debate we covered in Uganda.

One of the most frustrating things we saw in the African malaria debate was the technique of emotional argument, which was really pervasive on both sides. Perhaps this is appropriate during a casual conversation, but when deciding matters of national health policy, it seems best to rely on data. Which is what this book is full of. Literally half of the thing is footnotes, graphs and charts. The rest is an insightful analysis of the data.

I haven't finished it quite yet, but Lomborg's thesis is that the world (from a human perspective)has improved rapidly in the last century (the green revolution, the global economy)and that instead of assuming a doom and gloom outlook or a romanticized version of the past, we should use long term trends and data to asses the "real state of the world". Then we can take another look at the problems of poverty, disease and environmental degradation and work on prioritizing them.

The fact that he purposely assumes a human perspective is significant in this debate, because the environmental movement tries to utilize nature's perspective. Lomborg argues that this creates a dilemma because no matter the intentions, ultimately environmental lobbyists represent people and not nature itself. He points out that we readily acknowledge that chemical companies and big business have an agenda when it comes to environmental legislation, but that we don't acknowledge the same to be true for environmental lobbyists and this skews the debate.

Lomborg's look at the big picture suggests that life on earth is more sustainable than we often hear. He does not diminish the problems the developing world faces, instead he attempts to put them in proper perspective. In this way we can choose which problems to prioritize where we can get the biggest results.

This book also reinforces the age old wisdom that fear of the unknown is the most powerful and pervasive fear of human kind. Its easy to believe that things are going to hell because A) It feels true B)You hear that it is all the time and C) it relieves you of the obligation to try to make changes (nothing can be done to stop the inevitable, so you don't even have to get off the couch!)

One of the strangest things about living in a post modern world is the difficulty in ascertaining truth. Every method we have is flawed, science included. However, these are the only available tools, and we have to continue to try. Flawed tools are quite different from useless ones. We have to admit that amazing strides have been made very quickly. And much more is possible if we care to examine the options and make intelligent use of our resources. All in all, an intriguing read.


Sabina's hat said...

This was interesting to read because I've been thinking a little bit about these issues lately. I just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma which takes an ecological perspective on the U.S. style of food production, which was interesting and well-written, but a little too anti-scientific for my tastes.

Anyway, I'm interested in what you mean by saying that Lomborg takes a "human" rather than "nature" perspective. A friend of mine recently took a class in environmental ethics, and one of the bigger debates in that field is where exactly to place the locus of value in these conversations. In other words, why should we value the environment?

There tend to be three different viewpoints. The first says that we only value the environment instrumentally, i.e. for the harms and benefits that it provides to humans. It sounds to me like this is Lomborg's view. The second says that nature has intrinsic value, so that even if there were no human beings nature it would still be valuable (and so as humans we need to preserve that value. The third agrees that while we do value nature for its own sake, and not just for its instrumental value, this sense of intrinsic value is contingently created by human beings.

Now, I think this is an interesting debate, but I'm not sure how it would make a real policy difference. Evidently Lomborg thinks it does. How so? What I mean is that the worries raised by environmental scientists, such as pollution, global warming or the lack of biodiversity, are all serious problems that demand our attention. If we are able to prevent these harms then we should (at least if the cost of doing so is not greater than the cost of suffering them).

So I'm curious how Lomborg thinks that taking a "human" perspective would lead to a different result from taking a "nature" perspective, as it seems that whether you put the problems of environmentalism in terms of harms or in terms of the sanctity of nature we should minimize them in both cases.

Miss B said...

Josh, you raise interesting points, and of course, you'll have to read this book to evaluate his argument for yourself. My understanding of his point here is that in the current debate (which has important implications for public health policy, food production and the global economy) no one wants to be "anti-nature" and we fail to recognize that people who are working for environmental causes are still human.

A tree cannot vote, so a person who can vote has to make decisions for it. And people naturally come to different conclusions. So even if we try to assume nature's perspective, we are still human beings making human choices.

What he is also saying here is that we have to recognize that environmental lobbyists are beholden to the people who fund their activities in exactly the same way as pesticide lobbyists are beholden to chemical companies and that we need to be aware of this in the debate. Just because they are working for "nature" does not mean they have no agenda. Just as the chemical companies have an incentive to minimize the environmental impact of their products, so environmental lobbyists have an incentive to portray the earth as in great danger. To find out what the truth is we need to recognize the biases on both sides and rely on data instead of emotionally charged arguments.

In my (admittedly limited) experience with public health policy making, I've observed a lot of reluctance to make value judgments on these kind of issues. It's all or nothing and it gets very dramatic. In Uganda, I saw firsthand that it was people from the developed world forcing whatever was fashionable onto suffering poor people without paying due attention to scientific evidence.

It profoundly altered my perspective on many issues. My point here is that the debate on which perspective to adopt when making environmental policy does have a profound effect on people (especially the poorest people) around the world.

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