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Andrew Northrup

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January 9, 2003

And then there are those of us who care about the environment, and think that technological society is on balance a pretty good thing, and understand what Stewart Brand was getting at when he made his distinction between “ecologists” and “environmentalists,” and who wonder whether “environmentalists” don’t spend a little too much time fomenting despair and crying wolf.

So we’d be a receptive audience for the book Bjorn Lomberg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist claimed to be.

So we’re all the more disappointed that it’s no such thing. As Australian economist and weblogger John Quiggin articulates:

I began with a very positive attitude towards Lomborg. He seemed to be taking a sensibly optimistic attitude towards environmental problems, pointing to our successes in fixing up pollution problems, the ozone layer and so on, rather than focusing on doomsday scenarios. Then I gradually realised that Lomborg only endorsed past actions to address environmental problems—whenever any issue came up that might involve doing something now, Lomborg always had a reason why we should do nothing. In particular,he came up with an obviously self-contradictory case for doing nothing about global warming, and gave a clearly biased summary of the economic literature on this topic, which I know very well.

After that, I looked at his story about being an environmentalist reluctantly convinced of the truth according to Julian Simon. As I observed a while ago, I first heard this kind of story in Sunday School, and I’ve heard it many times since. It’s almost invariably bogus, and Lomborg is no exception. You don’t need to look far to find errors in Simon’s work as bad as any of those of the Club of Rome, but Lomborg apparently missed them. Going on, I realised that Lomborg’s professed concern for the third world was nothing more than a debating trick—otherwise he wouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss emissions trading with poor countries as politically infeasible.

There’s nothing I hate more than being conned. Lomborg tried to con me, and, for a while, he succeeded. That’s why I’m far more hostile to him than to a forthright opponent of environmentalism like Simon.

[11:19 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on And then there are those of us:

zizka ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 12:01 AM:

I don't have a link or a citation, but as I remember, Julian Simon is responsible for the argument, since picked up by George Gilder, that since a line has an infinite number of points in it, we can never run out of resources. This is far worse than anything the Club of Rome could have done; it is close to the worst argument ever made about anything.

I'm going to have to go look for documentation.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 01:00 AM:

Whenever I hear "we'll never run out" arguments, I think about a bit from Olaf Stapledon's _Last and First Men_, in which a spendthrifty future civilization convinces itself it doesn't need to conserve because of a scientist's theory that the coal beds are renewing themselves.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 01:48 AM:

I tend to think that our current patterns of resource utilization have plenty of sucky short-term consequences, never mind the long term.

FMguru ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 02:14 AM:

I picked up his book and thumbed through the touted footnote sections. I noticed two things:

1) One of the footnotes, establishing the monolithic environwacko "Litany" he was demolishing, was a cite of a general science article written by Isaac Asimov. Now, I love (as miss) the Good Doctor as much as any SF fan, but would it have killed Lomborg to have found a *real* scientist to argue against, instead of a polymath writer of general non-fiction?

2) The footnotes themselves showed a level of padding that would put a desperate sophomore to shame. A typical sentence would say somethingn like "In 1961[224], FU levels in Asia were measured at 231 milibogons[225], while measuring 741 mb in North America[226]. Further readings in 1993 revealed measurements of 272 mb[227] and 745 mb[228], respectively."

Impressive, eh? But if you turn to the footnotes, you'll see they read:
224: Cheatem and Howe, 1997, p.323
225: Ibid
226: Ibid
227: Ibid
228: Ibid

A single chart on a page of some article is dismantled to provide 5 separate citations, when one would suffice. I remember trying to beef up threadbare college research papers the same way. But reviewers were too dazzled with the "Wow! 2300 footnotes!" argument to notice how redundant and unnecessary most of them were.

A lot of Lomborg's wrtiting reminded me of Creationism - that the Scientific Establishment was in the grips of this horribly unscientific liberal humanist bias that a non-scientist could see through with a little effort. His posing as an honest inquirer trying to reconcile scientific inconsitencies (while actually being an axe-grinding polemicist) reminds me of creationist arguments about their garbage being necessary to "balance" evolutionist viewpoints.

bryan ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 05:23 AM:

It seems to me that any argument based on "that since a line has an infinite number of points in it" is basically a variation of zeno's paradox which was effectively demolished in real world terms by Galilleo's experiments with gravity, and could also be invalidated by the specialty area of stochastic analysis.

Someone who prides themselves on their techy, geeky style like Gilder should know better. Don't know anything about this Simon guy.

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 09:15 AM:

Julian Simon did not make such an innumerate argument. The claim that he's famous for is that the resources available to a civilization are going to be determined jointly by the amount of raw materials we have available and the technological base we have to utilize them. As a result, he predicted the actual amount of resources we have for the forseeable future will grow over time rather than fall. And he's been correct in that assessment; for instance, we have more oil reserves now than we did in 1970, because the extraction tech has greatly improved.

He wrote that we should not worry about energy running out, because all of the plausible forecasts put it centuries in the future. That's so far beyond any reasonable forecasting horizon that there's no information content in them. Worrying about oil reserves in the year 2203 is like Herman Melville worrying that there wouldn't be enough sperm whales to produce enough ambergis for candles in 2003 -- too many other factors will change in the intervening time. If the forecasts say that we'll run out of oil in five years, it's time to worry. If the forecasts say fifty years, you can (and should!) ignore them.

You can read his work for yourself at his website, which appears to have the full text of everything he wrote.

As for George Gilder, he could very easily have stupidized Simon; he has misunderstood nearly everything about how telecomm networks work. Also, I can't comment directly on The Skeptical Environmentalist, since I haven't read it, but the Economist wasn't impressed with the criticism.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 01:13 PM:

It's intuitively obvious (or nearly so) that available resources are a function of raw resources plus utilization technology -- assuming you count transportation, distribution, and compensation systems as part of your utilization technology. And I can agree with the general statement that available resources (as defined here) are most likely going to increase in the future. That's fine as far as it goes. But:

1. It's not uniformly true in specific cases. There's only so much beachfront property in the world. There's only so much water in the Oglalla Aquifer. The most powerful and sophisticated petroleum extraction technology imaginable wouldn't make petroleum a non-finite resource. Fancy fish-finding technology might help you track down every codfish on the Grand Banks, but it wouldn't increase the total number of available codfish.

2. "More resources will be available" says nothing about the price at which they'll be available, or the consequences of the extraction technology. Strip-mining was an advance in coal-mining technology, and it certainly made more coal available, but you can't say it was a good idea.

3. Poor resource management can still produce dislocations. Technological development does not proceed at a reliable rate. The breakthrough that provides an increased supply of some resource can lag years or decades behind a general shortfall in the availability of it.

4. A constantly increasing need for advanced resource utilization technologies puts poor and underdeveloped countries at a permanent disadvantage, and wealthy and technologically sophisticated ones in the catbird seat. In the long run, that isn't good for either side.I'd be less uneasy about Simon's line of reasoning if it didn't keep recasting itself in my head as, "Good news! We'll be able to get away with being stupid for longer than we thought!"

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 06:29 PM:

While it's true that 2003 does not have the candle shortage postulated for Herman Melville's speculations, we do have concerns about the effect of hunting on the sperm whale population, and we don't know for a fact that we'll move beyond our need for cheap petroleum before we run out of the stuff.

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 07:29 PM:

Actually, we can be confident that we won't run out of petroleum for a very long time to come. The US has a couple of trillion barrels-of-oil-equivalent in shale oil deposits in the Southwest, which is about as much as the current total proven oil reserves. The reason that they aren't commercially exploited is that with present technology, it costs 25-30 $/barrel to get it out of the ground and into a useful form, so it's cheaper to buy oil from the Saudis.

Put in terms of time, current proven world oil reserves are good for another 80 years at the current rate of usage. Throw in shale oils on top of that and we can hit a couple of centuries of use. Add coal gassification on top of that and we're talking millenia. The supply of fossil fuels doesn't impose a real limit on their use.

We are far more likely to stop using them as fuel in order to control greenhouse emissions than because of scarcity.

zizka ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 07:35 PM:

Neel -- you're talking about a time threshold of 20-30 years since Simon wrote. Garret Hardin (an environmentalist who happens to be rather right wing) reported on a conference on the environment including both economists and environmentalists. The conference failed when the environmentalists, for whom 100 years is the near future, found out that for economists 5-20 years is long term.

The fact that Simon also made a different argument is not proof that he didn't make the senseless argument I cited. Unfortunately I cannot back up what I'm saying because I can't find the book in question.

Many of Simon's arguments depend on substitution (aluminum for copper is an pet example). Crucial resources for which substitutes have not even been proposed included topsoil, fresh clean water, and air.

While we have succeeded in getting by for the last 20-30 years by substitution and exploration, to argue strongly that we can do so indefinitely into the future is insane. The ambergris argument is way too cute and too shallow.

It is true that we ourselves will not suffer the results of our creepiness, but rather future generations; differential responses to this fact mark a critical ethical threshold.

The Economist has been booming Lonborg's book from the beginning. They have an exe to grind and, to me, are not credible (I saw their original review, which was cheap and shallow).

I have directed my signature URL to a page on my site with much more on these and related questions. Look especially for "The Gadfly".

zizka ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 07:36 PM:

The link is www.vanitysite.net/dismal.htm .

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 09:33 PM:

Simon's work, I think, provided valuable criticsm at one time of the kind of crude neo-Malthusian models that Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, and such tossed about so casually -- more than 20 years ago. Lomborg seems to be trying to build a celebrity reputation around refuting positions that few today hold, but that still make good copy for O'Reilly, Limbaugh, and The Economist.

A risky comparison occurs to me, between Simon and Lomborg on one hand, and Senators Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott on the other. It is risky, as there always is danger in referring to the motives of persons one does not know personally; and also that a hasty reader could incorrectly infer my accusing Messers. Simon and Lomborg of racism, halitosis or a taste for religious kitsch. (Not that I am accusing the Senators of all that either.) As a born and bred Southerner, I always considered that Thurmond had come by his views on race honestly, so to speak, having been brought up in a very different time and place. While never a blazing progressive, Thurmond did acknowledge changing times and changed his own public utterances and practices. Lott, on the other hand, grew up after WWII and was a young lawyer during the 60's Civil Rights era. Lott's choice was more calcuated and opportunistic, and he played the southen white racial rage carefully for much of his career.

Simon used fairly elementary economics to show the foolishness of some ideas -- and there is nothing wrong with that as a good, honest effort, even though he may not have known the limits of his arguments. Lomborg, though, appears to be looking for the main chance, playing off of conservative fears of the economic and social threats that future environmental problems pose. I can respect one without necessarily agreeing with it -- but not the other.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2003, 10:15 AM:

Neel, Zizka, the ambergris argument is completely off the mark, because ambergris wasn't used for making candles. I think you both must mean spermaceti, a waxy substance found in the heads of sperm whales. It reportedly makes a superior grade of candle.

Ambergris is an odd complex substance found in the whale's digestive system. It's used in perfumery. A bit might be used to scent a deluxe candle, but you don't make candles out of it. Here's a site that discusses both substances.

Neel, can you get hold of that passage from Melville? I'm curious. At the time he was writing, tallow and beeswax candles had been around for a millennium and a half. Spermaceti candles came on the market when whaling became an industry, but tallow and beeswax continued to predominate.

Are you sure he wasn't talking about whale oil for lamps? That was a commoner light source, and whale oil was the predominant lamp oil. However, that was a matter of preference, not necessity. Whale oil was cheap, odorless, and had a bright clean flame, but lots of other oils could be burned in lamps.

Also, don't forget that at that point, gas lighting had been in use for decades. It was mostly being used for streets and theatres, but it was a working commercial technology.

You can see why I'd be interested in knowing what Melville actually said.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2003, 11:31 AM:

Neel, based on the figures you provide regarding the petroleum supply, my conclusion is that we have rather less than 80 years at current rates of consumption before strip mining of the US Southwest for oil shale and pollution of the region by the by-products of the process (gaseous and liquid effluents as well as signficant amounts solid residue contaminated with unextracted hydrocarbons) begins. If you say "oil shale" fast enough, it'll just go past, but the current truth of the matter is quite ugly.

So okay, at least one company is working on in situ extraction technology, and maybe that will be on-line and available in time. Or maybe not. We would improve our chances of making it to the next technological advance by conserving now.

But I truly doubt that the owners of the extraction companies are going to use a less damaging but more expensive process when good ol' strip mining has always worked before. It's really not going to work if conservation still isn't a priority, because there will be a great deal of pressure to keep the cost of petroleum fuel as low as possible. Which isn't likely to be very low, so there is likely to be a lot of economic dislocation.

I don't find the scenario you've outlined for petroleum very comforting. Sort of like finding out that a disease won't kill me, just ruin my health and improverish me.

zizka ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2003, 01:42 PM:

I have found the quote from Simon. Note that this is not just a bad argument or a very bad argument. It is pure lunacy. It is sufficient to put Simon's work into the flat-earth / perpetual-motion machine category. No one who can say something this stupid can be trusted with anything.

"The length of a one-inch line is finite in the sense that it is bounded at both ends. But the line within the endpoints contains an infinite number of points; these points cannot be counted, because they have no defined size. Therefore, the number of points in a one-inch segment [of a line] is not finite. Similarly, the quantity of copper that will ever by available to us is not finite, because there is no method (even in principle) of making an appropriate count of it... (My italic, EP) (Simon, The Ultimate Resource, 1981, 47)

Link: http://gadfly.igc.org/papers/cornuc.htm

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2003, 03:22 PM:

Seems like a profound lack of clarity regarding the relationship between the abstract world of mathematics and the concrete world of inches and atoms. I've always thought that the term "Real Number" was poorly chosen, but figuring that the number of copper atoms in the universe is in principle uncountable is a whole order of wrong beyond a belief in spatial continuity of the physical universe. Going as far as assuming as big a problem as assaying the whole universe is being generous to the argument: there's no substantial foundation for an assumption that "we" will ever have copper "available to us" from anywhere but the infinitessimal volume of the universe local to our planet. And certainly it is possible in principle to assay the Earth for its total copper content.

Barney Gumble ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2003, 05:00 PM:

So resources come in infinitely small incriments? That's comforting. I'll have 1/2 a molecule of water please.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2003, 08:51 PM:

"1) One of the footnotes, establishing the monolithic environwacko "Litany" he was demolishing, was a cite of a general science article written by Isaac Asimov. Now, I love (as miss) the Good Doctor as much as any SF fan, but would it have killed Lomborg to have found a *real* scientist to argue against, instead of a polymath writer of general non-fiction?"

That would be the Dr. Asimov, who received his doctorate in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1948, whose doctoral thesis was "Kinetics of the Reaction Inactivation of Tyrosinase During Its Catalysis of the Aerobic Oxidation of Catechol," and who taught biochemistry as a tenured professor at Boston University School of Medicine from 1949 to 1958, who was made full professor in 1979, who was not a "real scientist," right?

I do not think these words "real scientist" mean what "FMguru" thinks they mean.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2003, 11:57 AM:
Therefore, the number of points in a one-inch segment [of a line] is not finite. Similarly, the quantity of copper that will ever by available to us is not finite, because there is no method (even in principle) of making an appropriate count of it...

Now, that's just crap. We know that the amount of copper in the universe is finite -- and even if it wasn't, it's still a lousy analogy, because copper atoms are discrete -- they're analogous to the integers, not the real numbers. (Which is probably why Simon screwed up in the first place -- a range of reals, yes, is infinite even though it's bounded, but a range of integers is not. That can't have been his main argument, right?)

As for the rest of it, there's a simplified model of technological change that economists sometimes use that more or less says: all technologies exist, but at the moment some of them are too expensive to be practical. That seems to be the sort of game Simon's playing. It's great if what you're looking for is a way to fill a hole in your theory, but it obscures more than it illuminates when you get down to details.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2003, 12:44 PM:

David, there's also a potential problem in that real space is quantized, not continuous like the mathematical abstraction of "line" as the geometric representation of the set of all Real numbers. You can always find a new Real number between any pair of Real numbers, but you can't slice a real-world inch thinner than the Planck length.

I suppose that it might be the case that advances in physics will change that and we'll find out that distances smaller than the Planck length just veer off into some kind of hyperspace. I'd hate to try to defend a plan for resource management founded on an assumption that we'll find more copper in hyperspace, even if we found a way to get there.

Meanwhile, if the universe is infinite then it's possible that the number of copper atoms is infinite. If we had perfect access to any atoms of the infinite amount of copper in the universe, we'd never run out of copper, because however countably many of the atoms we'd collected, there would always be a larger countable number in the universe. However, we haven't figured out how to locate and transport copper from arbitrarily distant parts of the universe in a usefully short amount of time.

We could potentially have every atom of copper that had ever been at our disposal tied up doing something useful, and eventually only essential things, for the operation of our society. That would appear to be a limit to growth.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2003, 01:27 AM:

My reaction to the original subject of this discussion is near-total bewilderment.

Has atmospheric C02 started to drop, are forests are magically reappearing, has habitat destruction has stopped? Is there at least a rational scientific minority that takes the position these things are not problems? It is not too difficult to find out that the answers to all of these are no. So I don't understand why people like Lomberg get more than a moment's attention. If there was some serious emerging scientific consensus on these matters, then, sure. But the views of one scientist, alone, however knowlegeable that person is, don't count for much.

On the other hand, at the present time, is there some way we can feed the earth's present population without a technological society? Again, I think the answer is pretty plainly no, and not a hard one to find. So I regard anti-technological-society views as a kind of denial. If we are willing to undertake major population reduction efforts then, maybe. But to simply abandon technological society without such an effort is to kill more people than all mass murderers in history combined, and I can only wonder why anyone makes a serious argument for it, though I know of people who do.

So my overall reaction to all of this is "Hunh?"

(Let here put in Yet Another Word for Stevens The Change in the Weather: People, Weather, and the Science of Climate. It's a book likely to be of interest to many people who like science fiction and, so far as I can tell, is an accurate book, though slightly dated at this point. I will also refer all to the summaries of the IPCC climate change reports at www.ipcc.ch, which represent our best scientific understanding of the subject at this time. Does anyone know of similar books for habitat destruction and the like?)

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2003, 10:26 AM:

Can do, Barney. Did you want the hydrogen or the oxygen?

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2003, 11:02 AM:

Randolph, you don't understand graft. It doesn't have to make economic sense within the overall system. In fact, its overall cost can be out of all proportion to the value of the graft received. But for the person receiving the graft, it's pure profit.

The big reason scientifically dodgy anti-environmental arguments get promulgated is that specific people can get rich right now via business strategies that displace the costs of resource depletion, environmental damage, and dysfunctional development patterns onto others.

The overall costs are hideously high. But a relatively small number of people divide up the profit, and so the benefit to them is substantial.

It doesn't have to make sense. It just has to make enough money that you can afford to pay people to say it makes sense.

Chip Hitchcock ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2003, 11:30 AM:

Teresa -- ]anti-environtmentalism[ as graft is a wonderful analogy, but omits leaves out one interesting difference: unlike traditional graft, a-e can be made to look as if a lot of people are getting a share, which turns it into let's-you-and-them-fight. cf
- current arguments over raising the automotive Corporate Average Fuel Economy (although I've never figured out whether Dingell doesn't know he's representing the automobile manufacturing workforce as well as the owners, or whether the unions don't realize that that increasing CAFE doesn't reduce sales or the amount of work per car manufactured);
- the Midwest's unwillingness to accept pollution controls on power plants, which would add something (unclear it's significant) to electrical bills but make a large difference to the Northeast.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2003, 08:22 PM:

Teresa, I'm very aware of that problem--I just didn't want to dig into it.

I was thinking more of the question of why these books seem, even momentarily, credible to reasonable people. On the other side, I'm wondering how it is that "I want the system to fail" (at the likely cost of literal billions of lives) can be said by people who otherwise profess and practice pacificism and non-violence. The things I cited are not very hard to learn. They seem to me essential to any rational analysis of the problems of population and environment.

I know, rationally, that people believe what they want to believe and that their reasons only sometimes relate to external reality. I know, rationally, how hard it is to engage reality rather than wandering around in illusion. But I harbor the hope that enough of us will see things clear enough in time to protect and heal our world and save a place for humans in it.

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2003, 12:34 PM:

Hi all,

I'm just posting to let you know that I'm not ignoring your comments -- it's just that my meat life intervened and I've been too busy to properly respond. (Who knew that unemployment could be so time-consuming? :)

A couple of acknowledgements: Teresa, you're correct about the ambergis. Also, to my knowledge Herman Melville never said anything about candles and whaling. I just picked him to use in a simile because I wanted a mid-nineteenth century figure who was associated with whaling. Apologies for any confusion.

Damien Warman ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2003, 01:24 AM:

I'm currently worried about what we'll do when the helium runs out.

Tom ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2003, 08:24 AM:

everything is gonna run out if you buy the heat-death of the universe argument, so I guess the difference between Lomborg and the Greens is a matter of timing - do we use up finite resources soon or try to eke them out over the eons, even though they will run out anyway?

I am not sure if there is a scientifically objective answer to that one. My guess is that much of the hostility to Lomborg stems from the fact that he has, in true Danish style, pointed out that the emperor of Greenery has no clothes on. Bravo for him. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of everything he has written, but having read his book and looked at his sources, he comes out of the debate pretty well, as far as I can tell.

It seems nothing upsets the doom-mongers more than being told to cheer up!

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2003, 10:47 AM:

Tom, Tom, Tom. Condescension might be satisfying in the short term, but actually reading and responding to arguments does a lot more to advance one's cause.

Nobody here is seriously making an argument based on the exhaustion of exploitable energy gradients in a senescent universe. The question is not eking out resources that will eventually be exhausted anyway, it's about achieving a sustainable human civilization for the next century or two.

Timothy Burke ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2003, 03:27 PM:

Why does it have to be an either/or thing here, that Lomborg is all con artist and hence completely disposable, and let's go back to business as usual? I agree with Claude Muncey that Simon provided a powerful corrective to the crudity of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. What I do not agree with is that somehow that's all very passe. It may be passe among environmental scientists, academics and sophisticated thinkers. It's not passe among activists and the general public, where Ehrlich-like neo-Malthusianism is still in general circulation. Talking with my very bright students at Swarthmore, I have been struck at how almost none of them are aware of the enormous ferment among demographers now regarding the significant inaccuracy of mid-1970s projections of long-term global population trends. Most of them still casually reproduce tropes straight out of "Soylent Green".

I read Lomborg with a grain--in fact, a boulder--of salt. His use of evidence is often sloppy and frequently mistakes bad or unreliable research for state-of-the-art science. That being said, if Simon provided a corrective, so too does Lomborg on a number of points. Ehrlich and the Club of Rome were too quick to reach for authoritarian strategies to deal with projections that were based on fundamentally bad or gossamer-thin science. There are more than a few environmentalists--and some scientists--quick to make some similar mistakes today.

For example, one thing I think Lomborg does quite well is ask why global policy-makers and environmentalists do not think more about the relative cost-effectiveness of various strategies to deal with environmental degredation. Why not compare the cost of Kyoto to the cost of building environmentally sound infrastructure? Sure, it's apples and oranges in many respects, but it is at least a reasonable discussion to bat around. Why not consider a substantial direct compensatory "buy-out" of Brazil and other nations with substantial rain forest rather than futz around with attempts to create ecological reserves on the model of the national park systems of Western Europe? Why not look at how some environmental problems like the deforestation of the US Northeast actually have improved or resolved themselves over time, and ask how that happened?

Maybe Lomborg wasn't the right person to stimulate these necessary conversations. Maybe that's why John Quiggan feels conned. But if not Lomborg, who? We have to open up the discussion and get creative. Right now, it seems to be you have to either fight for Kyoto to the death or be accused of being a dittohead.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2003, 03:35 PM:

Timothy Burke makes several points worth considering. Certainly I well remember when Paul Ehrlich was assuring us that hundreds of millions of people would be dying of famine as giant algae blooms choked the world's oceans by 1979.

And I'm very interested in, and sympathetic to, attempts to dicuss different environmental approaches in terms of comparitive cost. I even agree that the environmental "movement" has become addicted to a kind of incessantly downbeat alarmism. I'm all for being creative. I also feel we have to recognize that very powerful forces are working hard to bend "creative" discussions in the direction of their material interests.

Josh ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2003, 06:35 PM:

Tim: How exactly is the discussion opened up by fighting stupidity with stupidity? From my perspective, Lomborg's actively made it more difficult to debate these issues, since now anyone who chooses to ask some of the questions he asked will have to contend with his legacy.

On a completely unrelated note, I just have to say that I'm amused to see yet another ASGX'er show up in Patrick's comments section.

Timothy Burke ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2003, 10:50 PM:

Tell me where the smart people were who were asking the skeptical or unorthodox questions about the conventional grand narratives of environmentalism pre-Lomborg, and gaining public attention while doing so. I can think of one or two, but not many. Plus not everything in "The Skeptical Environmentalist" is pure dross, any more than everything that Paul Ehrlich said is nonsense. (Well, pretty close in Ehrlich's case.) I kind of wish we could all give up on the scorched earth approach to public debate where people are either saints or scum. It takes a lot of care to craft a book that is almost entirely worthless.

The secret tendrils of asg-x wind their way through the culture...I'm trying to be good and redirect some of my postings in other VCs and such outward to the blogs that I actively read. Plus I'm blogging myself now, so...

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2003, 11:07 PM:

I assume that one of you plans to explain what ASGX is.

Timothy Burke ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2003, 11:23 PM:

We could, but then we'd have to kill you.

Just an old Usenet mafia. (Alt.society.generation-x)

Josh ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2003, 12:52 AM:

"Tell me where the smart people were who were asking the skeptical or unorthodox questions about the conventional grand narratives of environmentalism pre-Lomborg, and gaining public attention while doing so. I can think of one or two, but not many."

Do you really think the debate's been shifted that much? I'm not so sure; it looks to me like the people who I would expect to be skeptical about environmentalism found Lomborg's book of use, and those who I wouldn't expect to be skeptical dismissed it.

"I kind of wish we could all give up on the scorched earth approach to public debate where people are either saints or scum."

Well, sure, so do I, but I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon. And once people start to think that you're lying to them, they're going to put you in the "scum" camp, and they're not going to listen to you anymore.

In a certain way, this whole situation reminds me a bit of the hoopla surrounding Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's _Hitler's Willing Executioners_.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2003, 02:44 AM:

"I even agree that the environmental 'movement' has become addicted to a kind of incessantly downbeat alarmism."

Who are you thinking of, Patrick? I know quite a few people who mostly are focused on doing their best to improve matters; it seems to have become part of my life as well. I don't think the Sierra Club is that, or the Rocky Mountain Institute, or even the environmental energy technologies division at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. In Germany the Green Party has become a major political success and European energy policies are improving.

But it's also true that the planet is in serious environmental trouble, the USA is making major problems steadily worse, and that some political solution is needed to enable third world nations to develop sustainably. I think that politically active environmentalists groups have a responsibility to keep reminding us that the problems are still there.

Tom ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2003, 07:08 AM:

Dear Bob Webber, no condescension intended. You say we need to figure out what we do to ensure sustainable development for the next century or two. Ok. But Lomborg's point about how we weigh the potential losses to global growth as set against the potential/alleged benefits of controlling that growth to meet environmental targets is still valid.

Lomborg makes the point that if we spent the equivalent resources on providing the world's poor with clean drinking water and decent sanitation, we could achieve as much good as if we imposed draconian limits on Co2 emissions. Now we can debate that point, but good for Lomborg for raising it.

Actually, thinking about how we achieve sustainable human civilisations for the next millenia or so rather than the next 100 years is a worthwhile thing to think about, I would have thought.

If I do have a criticism of Lomborg, it is that he undervalues the importance of property rights in understanding how to conserve resources. Having read his book and looked at his sources, his overall thesis seems pretty devastating.

More generally, it would be a gross misrepresentation of Lomborg to say he is sanguine about everything. He isn't, as his comments about species loss and pollution make clear. He's certainly no Dr Pangloss.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2003, 07:14 AM:

With all due respect, Randolph, you and I have had this argument before, and it's been fruitless.

Kristjan ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2003, 03:16 PM:

Lomborg's book is so filled with errors and doubtious references that I'll never understand why it became so popular in the first place. Already when it was published in Denmark, a lot of Danish scientists pointed out that the book contained factual errors.
People also tend to forget that Lomborg has worked as a statistician, and has a degree (not a doctorate as many think) in political science. He doesn't know anything about all the subjects he writes about, but somehow his oppinion on the subjects counts as muchas those of people who have worked with the subjects for many years.

Lomborg's quality as a researcher has always been doubtful - why he was able to work for Aarhus University was always somewhat of a mystery, as he hadn't published enough to get tenure. Some might think that it might be because one of his friends were head of the department, but that is unprovable. What I know for sure though, is that I've spoken to one of Lomborg's former professors, and he told me (several months ago) that even when Lomborg was a student, his use of sources were one-sided.
Of course, you'll have to belive me on this, as I can hardly it.

Nabob, nattering negatively ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2003, 04:29 PM:

Caw! Caw! Caw!

Kristjan ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2003, 04:46 PM:

"as I can hardly it" = "as I can hardly prove it".


John Quiggin ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2003, 06:27 AM:


Lomborg's arguments about the Third World are the clearest indication of his bad faith. Most economists think the best way to implement Kyoto is through an international system of emissions trading. The total economic cost would be much smaller than the numbers Lomborg uses. But he rules this out as a possibility because 'it would involve transferring billions of dollars to poor countries" and would therefore be politically infeasible.

Then he has the hide to turn around and say that instead of paying (his inflated estimate of) the cost of Kyoto, we should give the money to poor countries.

This above all is why I think he's a fraud.

Timothy Burke ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2003, 02:54 PM:

Calling him a fraud neatly gets you off having to compare Kyoto's cost-effectiveness (cheap or expensive) with other expenditures, though. The basic challenge is an interesting one to bat around, and virtually none of Kyoto's defenders bother to compare it extensively to all the other possible things that could be done with its costs (small or large). Now it may be that when we get down to real-world limitations on expenditures, it's ridiculous to compare a blue-sky project like building waste treatment plants in the 30 largest cities in the developing world (which would require not just money but enormous political capital plus effective bureaucracies to manage waste treatment) with something like emissions controls. But the discussion is not per se ridiculous or fraudulent. If there was someone other than Lomborg trying to convene it, who was it?

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2003, 06:52 PM:

It might just be that those of us who want compliance with Kyoto (or even Kyoto-Lite) consider CO2 emissions to be a problem and priority in themselves. It's also our (the most developed nations) responsibility to own up to having ignored CO2 pollution as an externality we were conveniently able to ignore until it started drowning people in Bangladesh and to clean up our act. Maybe we should give them a raft-building industry with the money we "save" by not complying with Kyoto. Except that we won't "save" all of it, a fair fraction will end up in the pockets of the folks who own the petrochemical and other interests protected by Kyoto non-compliance. We'd save their money, not ours.

I for one see this as the opening of a new area for economic exploitation as well as a setback for established economic enterprises. I see no reason why the economy can't expand through new enterprises aimed at supplying the demand for energy while producing less undesirable by-product. The real problem with reducing CO2 emissions is the effect on the existing economic order, and since that order was established by ignoring those externalities, I don't have so much of a problem with that. I believe that new ways to moderate demand (efficiency improvements in consumer goods) and to improve supply (e.g. power sources not dependent on fossil fuels) will generate new businesses, and that in itself will be economic growth.

To try to sum it up pithily, I don't think that accommodating the changes in the market due to Kyoto is too big a task for the Invisible Hand.

There's a lot wrong with replacing a treaty program (to which those affected have given consent) with a program to reach in to other sovereign nations and give them plumbing. Starting with the issue one often hears from the Right that we oughtn't give hand-outs to poorer nations, continuing through the issue of imposing a technological infrastructure on a people without the economic and social infrastructure to suport it, continuing through the fact that you can't build a complex system and then stop supporting it just when people give it its first real test by using, and ending somewhere in the Land of Unintended Consequences.

I don't see limiting CO2 generation as particularly excluding increasing the amount of drinking water available in lesser developed nations. Just as compliance with Kyoto can open a new area of economic development, so too can developing technology to lessen any other human misery on the planet, once people in a given market area for the technology are able to pay more than it cost to manufacture. Environmentalism isn't inherently socialist or anything.

It's true that the visible environmental movement is associated with the political Left, but this is largely because people in businesses which have been able to ignore the effects of some of their products are never rarely happy with the costs and risks associated with changing processes and procedures to pollute less. Since individual wealth is not a goal for the Left and the idea of common ownership of the natural world is part of their ideology, environmentalism finds a natural an noisy home there.

What a lot of people are missing, I think, is that a person who is pro-business and pro-environment will be out there quietly doing that business, not shouting in the streets. They will publish articles in professional journals and trade magazines about how they reduced waste or improved output or lessed disposal charges. There are already business out there focussed on cleaning up existing problems (because there is a market for environmental remediation thanks to guys like Ehrlich and the legislation is scare tactics helped bring about) and the development of new technologies and areas of economic exploitation due to concerns about environmental degradation is already under way. Business-oriented, environmentally-minded people are too busy making money to spend time on Lomborg's petty attacks on their livelihood.

But getting back to the original question, I don't see how we can substitute anything which doesn't address greenhouse gas emissions for Kyoto, since it wouldn't be an equivalent substitution. It's like going in to see the doctor with diabetes and being told it would be cheaper to treat you for a hernia.

John Quiggin ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2003, 07:04 AM:


If you allow emissions trading, the costs of Kyoto are very modest (well under 1 per cent of GDP), and the effects on poor countries are beneficial. So Lomborg's argument fails on either of the (mutually inconsistent) assumptions he adopts.