Book Review – The Skeptical Environmentalist
However, we have to realize that investing in an ever better environment is only one of the many ways we can invest in a better world, and that we must prioritize the environment against better education, more health care, and better infrastructure as well as improving conditions in the Third World.
The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjorn Lomborg
This book is practically a college textbook. It looks like a textbook, it certainly weighs as much as one. It doesn’t, however, read like one. Which is good…I hate reading textbooks.
To get to the meat of the issue already…I really liked this book. Lomborg has written a very well-researched (almost 3,000 footnotes, with about half of them sources), easily read, thought-provoking book. He takes everything we’ve ever been told (things that most of us, including myself, never questioned) and looks at it critically. Very critically. And since Lomborg is a statistician, there are tons of graphs, clear explanations of exactly how the data were collected and interpreted, etc, etc. He leaves no stone unturned and certainly impressed me. Whether or not impressing me impresses you is something else entirely, however.
He makes a lot of arguments that I had previously not considered. Indoor air pollution? He points out that as we insulate our homes more and more in order to cut heating and cooling costs, we make this problem worse. He also argues that the increased cost of hurricane damage is not because hurricanes are getting worse, but rather because there are more of us living in hurricane-prone areas and we have more “stuff” to be damaged. Global warming? Possibly beneficial to developed countries, but detrimental to developing countries. And, by the way, it’s not as big a deal as it’s made out to be. Hell, the whole section on global warming was absolutely great and should be required reading for anyone wanting to discuss climate change.
A great example is his discussion on limiting carbon emissions. He finds that the more cost-effective route is not to limit emissions, but rather to fund R&D for alternative power. The argument is that by limiting emissions, we will be implementing costly programs that will have little impact while depriving ourselves unnecessarily. Increased funding for alternative power, however, will give us much greater gains while costing much less.
One of the most interesting sections, for me personally, is the one on pesticides and conventional agriculture. Lomborg argues that by limiting or eliminating pesticides and herbicides (which, he finds later, are very unlikely to cause health problems) we would in fact be decreasing the amount of forest cover…because we would require more land to grow food as the percent yield goes down.
All those are simplifications, of course, and I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in environmental issues to read this book, if for no other reason than to consider his arguments. I found them, as I said, to be very compelling.
Here’s a nice quote from the book, which sums up a few of his findings very nicely:
“We will not lose our forests; we will not run out of energy, raw materials or water. We have reduced atmospheric pollution in the cities of the developed world and have good reason to believe that this will also be achieved in the developing world. Our oceans have not been defiled, our rivers have become cleaner and support more life, and although the nutrient influx has increased in many coastal waters like the Gulf of Mexico, this does not constitute a major problem – in fact, benefits generally outweigh costs. Nor is waste a particularly big problem…
“Acid rain did not kill off our forests, our species are not dying out as many have claimed, with half of them disappearing over the next 50 years – the figure is likely to be about 0.7 percent. The problem of the ozone layer has been more or less solved. The current outlook on global warming does not indicate a catastrophe – rather, there is good reason to believe that our energy consumption will change toward renewable energy sources way before the end of the century.”
Keep in mind, though, he doesn’t advocate the view that we have “solved” our environmental problems. In fact, he states several times that while it’s better, it’s still not good enough. All in all, a very sound way to look at it.
Of course, if this person is to be believed, we should give up on the environment altogether, as it’s “…crippled our economy, our lives, our budgets and worse our children’s lives.”