Written debate with Bjorn Lomborg

A debate in Prospect Magazine through correspondence between Bjorn Lomborg and me, published across August and September of 2001. My two letters to Bjorn Lomborg can be found below, and the whole debate accessed through Prospect.

Dear Bjorn,

Let me begin at a point on which we have much in common.

There is undoubtedly too much sanctimony, self-righteousness and, indeed, self-satisfaction within the environmental community. These are common failings of all intellectual ghettos and they are indeed to be found in the green ghetto. Disagreement, dialogue and debate are an essential feature of democracy which withers their absence. Unchallenged ideas always become tired and irrelevant. So I do welcome your challenge.

I am sorry that you find so many people suffering from ‘poor individual perception’ about the environment but it is clearly true that perception and reality do not always closely conform. This is not a new or previously unremarked phenomenon, and it is certainly not confined to the environmental field. It does, as you say, often lead to a considerable wastage of financial resources when compared to some idealised optimum. If only we could invent better people and get them to behave more closely in line with the dictates of economic rationality……! Sadly, we are stuck with the people we have got and we must stick with them.

It is also true that some environmentalists sometimes exploit the gap between perceptions and reality. There are those who have played on people’s fears in order to generate headlines and revenues.  But, in doing so, they were only following a well trodden path established by the business world and those seeking political office: when did you last see a tiger get out of a petrol tank and just how big was the famous Kennedy missile gap? Wrongs never add up to rights and I would certainly prefer to live in a world with a more rational and judicious realm of public discourse but, sadly, this is no easier to find than the one with better people.

It is, however, a gigantic leap of logic to go from here to the idea that the whole environmental community of some tens of millions of professional and volunteer members has colluded in an implicit conspiracy with the mass media to gull most people into to thinking the environment is in a much worse state than it really is.

Your book is written to dispel a collection of false beliefs propagated by this conspiracy, a collection you call ‘the Litany.’  The Litany you describe is a caricature of your own creation which is perhaps why you chose to cite two science fiction writers as its most compelling exponents. It certainly bears no resemblance to the contemporary environmental debate in which I am engaged.

There is indeed an environmental litany. It is a litany of tragedy. It reads: DDT, Bhopal, Torrey Canyon, CFCs, Sveso, Flixborough, Minimata,  Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, Chernobyl, ………  These are not words that people have written, but events that have happened. These events, and many more, were brought to the public’s attention by the carelessness or ignorance of businesses and governments, not by environmentalists. In my thirty years as an environmentalist nothing I or my colleagues have ever said or written has had as much influence on the public as these events. Journalists and environmentalists, and professors too, spend more time riding the waves of public opinion than making them.

But we differ over more than just the way the world works. A central thrust of your argument is that environmentalists, and Lester Brown in particular, in order to promote their message of doom, have ignored the dramatically rising trajectory of human well being throughout the 20th Century. You, together with your British soul mate, Matt Ridley believe that all will be well in humanity’s future. And that it will be more so, and sooner, if only we were not so distracted by pessimistic environmentalists peddling illusory problems.

This sunny enthusiasm leads you not only to misrepresent Mr Brown but also to miss the point. This is very well illuminated in your discussion of his views on food which you subject to some of your most excoriating criticisms. Mr Brown, you say, keeps on ‘telling us that food production is going down the tubes’. He does no such thing.

He did say, in the passage you quote, that he wrote in 1965, ‘ the food problem emerging in the less developing regions maybe one of the most nearly insoluble problems facing man over the next few decades.’  He was right. It has been a nearly insoluble problem.  In 1974, Henry Kissinger promised the World Food Conference that by 1984 no-one would go to bed hungry.  In 1996, governments at the World Food Summit in Rome cut this target in half and doubled the time they aimed to take to reach it. Three years later they agreed that even this goal was unlikely to be achieved.

You rightly point out that food production has greatly increased and that the proportion of people starving has gone down. Mr Brown agrees and has said so often. You also both agree that the absolute number of people starving has remained almost constant because of population growth. The point you miss here is that what really matters to human well being is not what has happened to food production, but whether or not that will continue.

Where you disagree is over Mr Brown’s warning that the world may not sustain such a high rate of growth in food production. Your argue that he is misled by only looking at short term trends and set against a longer term background all will be well. His judgement is that there is growing evidence that we are already failing to keep pace with the increasing demand.

These are perfectly legitimate differences of opinion over interpretation of the facts. Facts do not speak for themselves and they are rarely all present. But this is a normal part of the human condition and we are well used to exercising our judgement as to whose interpretation of the available facts carries most authority. Incidentally, most of Mr Brown’s data sets now cover four decades raising an interesting question of when exactly a short term trend becomes long term.

The broader point you miss is that environmentalists are not arguing that that life has not got better for many people, but that it has got better in ways that cannot be maintained if they are to be shared with everyone – all of the 9 billion or so that we must expect to be sharing our economy and our ecology with this century. The point is not to stop things getting better, but to ensure that they get better in smarter ways.

It is ironic that in setting out to storm unoccupied positions and slay already dead dragons, you have committed all of the offences that you so robustly, and occasionally correctly, criticise in the environmentalists. You exaggerate for effect, substitute forceful assertion for weight of argument, sometimes make sweeping generalisations from particular instances, are inconsistent in your use of logic and selective in using evidence and quotation.  These are the familiar, and allowable, features of polemic. They are only illegitimate in scholarship. What renders your book dishonest is its claim to tell you the real truth about the state of the world: its pretence to scholarship.

Dear Bjorn,

There you go again – putting words into the mouths of other people so that they make a better target for your statistical stunts. What I said was quite precise. Namely, that you had chosen two science fiction writers to cite as your authorities for the existence, of the Litany. To remind you, what you said in the footnote was ‘Perhaps the most concentrated statement exemplifying all the Litany comes from Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl’s book…’  Leaving aside the fact that no other environmentalist I know, sceptical or otherwise, considers this book to be ‘influential’, my point was that you could not find any authorities from the environmental community for the existence of the Litany simply because there are none.

I would not pick you up on this rather minor quibble but for the fact that it exemplifies a consistent pattern in your writing. I do not ‘accept that many people have a poor perception of the environment’. I disagree with you about how they come to have the perceptions they hold. My ‘litany of tragedy’, please forgive the use of a metaphor but it seemed appropriate to the occasion, did not attempt to ‘show that the environmental decline is real’ or ‘to demonstrate environmental decline’. As I could not have made clearer in my article, my point was only that these events have had much more influence of the perceptions of the general public than I and my colleagues in the environment community have ever had. You are entitled to disagree with my view of the way public opinion is formed, but you are not entitled to challenge me for holding views I do not hold.

Yet this is exactly what you have done throughout your book to those you have targeted for attack. You present your audience with an incomplete and heavily skewed account of their views and then demolish the position you have constructed for them. This is done with such consistency as to go beyond simple carelessness or lack of knowledge and understanding of complex technical issues. The debates into which you jump with such brash abandon are full of issues in which what constitutes reality is deeply contested by thoughtful and informed participants. Their positions on unresolved matters are carefully nuanced not because they lack courage or conviction but in recognition that reality is elusive and a little humility helpful in its pursuit.

Take Norman Myers. You are robust in your criticism of his 1979 estimate of a loss of biodiversity of some 40,000 species a year and quick to take him to task for not providing ‘other references or argumentation.’ But you omitted to point out that Myers himself made it clear that this was a first cut assessment, preliminary and exploratory in character.  And somewhere along the line you seem to have forgotten the 80 odd papers he has written in the 20 years since 1979.  Even more surprising given the genesis you claim for your book, you seem to have forgotten the 1994 publication of a detailed account of the long running debate between Myers and your mentor Julian Simon on this very issue.

And it is not just Myers who is overlooked. You make much of the work of Ariel Lugo on Puerto Rico but say nothing about Storrs Olson’s repeated rebuttal of those findings. You rest great weight on the views of Heywood and Stuart on scientific uncertainty, but say nothing about the work of Peter Raven, Michael Soule and David Woodruff among dozens of others on the same theme. You are confident in your belief that there is a natural extinction rate of about two species a decade but fail to mention the work of Jablonski, Erwin, Raup and a host of others who take a different view. How right you are to stress the importance of putting opinions into ‘perspective’!

Space only allows me to pick up one other point in your letter. I had missed the central importance you place in your book on the use of models. Models are not reality as you are at some pains to point out in your chapter on climate change. So I found it somewhat inconsistent of you to criticise Lester Brown’s judgements on the basis that they are not supported by a model. Furthermore, not all models are equally good approximations of reality – climate models are like Rolls-Royces compared to those we have for the economy. Different modellers build different models of the same reality and even when different people use the same model they often come to different conclusions because the start from different assumptions. A World Resources Institute study, for example, found that different modellers using different assumptions, estimated the impact of tackling climate change on the US economy as ranging from +3% of GDP to –7%. As a statistician with a passion for reality I would have expected you to be more conscious of the limitations of the mathematical modelling of anything.


About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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