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The Leap Backwards

09.09.2001 | BOOKS

The Washington Times recently published an article called "Overcooked Statistics" by Arnold Beichman, which hailed the upcoming publication of a new book called The Sceptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg, a professor at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. The article refers to the book as a "demolition job of...environmental crusade statisticians whose targets are free trade and globilisation." In the article statisticians is in quotes, but I am not quite so eager to use high-school writing devices to show scorn.

I regret to say that I have not had the chance to read this book yet, so all my comments on it are directly springing from quotes in the article and summaries of its points. I do plan to read it when it comes out, but the article proves more than sufficient for an argument not to. It is hard to tell whether the unbridled stereotyping of all environmental activists as "enviro-fabulists," in other words sign waving, doom-prophesying scare-tacticians, stems from the author of the book or the article. One can only wonder if the tone of Mr. Beichman's article is a product of his own obvious contempt for environmentalists, or merely an attempt to sell the book. I will say that in the article there is no mention of any NGOs or any of the hundreds of institutions world-wide who work round the year to provide alternatives that are both more environmentally and economically sound to development plans of MDBs (Multi-lateral Development Banks). Of course, what can one expect from a journalist who uses the word "hooey" not once but twice in a national publication. I'm not sure that Mr. Lomborg appreciates having these specific words put into his mouth. I wonder if The Washington Times would publish an article typifying all conservatives as gun-toting, hood wearing clinic bombers. Probably not.

Mr. Lomborg's book refutes what he calls "the Litany," or the four central predictions made by environmental groups, which Beichman insists only carry weight because they have been repeated ad nauseum.

  1. Natural resources are dwindling.
  2. Because of a growing population, food resources are dwindling.
  3. Clean air and water are dwindling.
  4. Species are dwindling as are forests and fish stocks.

Mr. Beichman brazenly slaps a "false" after every point, either showcasing his "head in the sand" position or his total ignorance of what the word "dwindling" means. Perhaps it's the latter, because he states that "what's dwindling are the reputations" and names a few people he doesn't like. A reputation can't dwindle, pal, as it is not made up of smaller parts. Next time have a dictionary, or at least someone a bit more well-versed in vocab than you, around.

Now that we've had enough fun with Mr. Beichman, we should take a look at a Mr. Lomborg's refutations.

  1. Mr. Lomborg states that energy and other natural resources have actually become more abundant. We can perhaps agree that energy is more abundant, all living so close to a nuclear power plant that was started to produce a surplus of energy that other countries will not buy because they were opposed to the opening of the plant in the first place. Well, he's got them there. His proof that non-renewable natural resources are becoming more abundant (anyone else smell something?) is apparently based on a bet centering on the metals market. The bet was that any five metals chosen by Stanford's Paul Ehrlich would be cheaper in 1990 than in 1980. If there is any condemnation of environmentalists worthy of print in this article, it is that a learned man like Paul Ehrlich participated in such an idiotic bet. Of course all five metal were cheaper, but as anyone who has the most basic knowledge of free market economics will realise, and I'm not even sure that I fit into this category, this merely means that there are more metals available on the market, not in the world. This of course also means that mining and production of these metals has increased, which is of course one of the most environmentally damaging enterprises.

  2. Mr. Lomborg in his book tells us that more food is produced now, per capita, than at any other time in history, and that fewer people are starving. It would be quite strange if with the increase in manpower as well as staggering advances in farming technology that food production had decreased. Beichman cites that food production in developing countries has increased by a "whopping" 52 percent since 1961. "Whopping?" With all the technological advances, most of which have occurred over the past 40 years, is 52 percent "whopping?" And why is there no mention of the fact that while food production may have increased, and that prices may have declined world-wide, but development projects by MDBs have geared agriculture in under-developed countries toward single crop production for export, like cotton, which decreases national foodstores and often forces importing of basic foodstuffs, which puts the price out of the reach of the nation's poor. As for "fewer people starving" I would imagine that Mr. Lomborg, a statistician, is using statistics as the basis for this claim. At the beginning of the article, Mr. Beichman uses a quote from Mark Twain (?) to express his opinion that statistics are the worst kind for lies. Apparently this only applies to statistics he doesn't like.

  3. Instead of actually dealing with the claim that clean air and water are dwindling, something that can hardly be refuted by anyone who has breathed Prague air or drank water from the tap, is not dealt with in the article (and therefore probably not too extensively in the book) and replaced by the argument that the problem of natural reserve is an economic one, and instead of pulling himself from the gutter by suggesting heavy investment into alternative forms of energy, he suggests more emptying of the word's few remaining major reserves. Very forward thinking.

  4. The author recommends not "not restricting economic growth, but...accelerating it." as a solution to deforestation and species extinction, as he is of the opinion that most major environmental complaints are associated with the early stages of production. Early phases of production are associated with environmental problems mainly because the companies behind them normally refuse to comply with regulations until the last possible moment, in the name of saving money. There is no reason to think that if restrictions were loosened or done away with, that the companies would not continue in this vein for the entire process of production.

The danger that this book and the article praising it are not in the facts contained, the validity of which I do not call into question. I haven't, as I said, read the book, so I can not make any statements to the facts contained within, but again the facts are not the problem, because the average uninformed individual isn't very concerned with facts anyway. The danger is that this book seems to tell the average schlub exactly what he wants to hear; that there are no real problems, that all those flag-waving hippies are just trying to scare him, and that he can go back to sleep. The shameless stereotyping and distortion of facts that go on in this article, and presumably in the book it's pushing, will persuade the average individual not to make a fuss when his or her backyard forest is ripped down to build a shopping park, and to think of all activists as the government (any government) does: sociopathic, subversive and dangerous. This way people get less upset when the police shoot someone and then run him over in a Land Rover.

About the Author
Stanley Holditch is a writer and activist based in Prague, Czech Republic.
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