04 January 2006

Doomsday is Irrelevant: Examining The Skeptical Environmentalist and Collapse

I recently finished the book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed by Jared Diamond and I read The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the real state of the world by Bjorn Lomborg for the first time about a year ago. Both of these books are extensive scholarly investigations into the truth of our current environmental issues. Diamond looks from the perspective of drawing historical parallels with society’s that have failed in the past. While Lomborg looks from the perspective of a statistician questioning the suite of doomsday factoids that are repeated endlessly and that he refers to as “The Litany.” The way that these authors are portrayed by reviewers and critics would have you believe that they are at polar opposites of the spectrum of views on the environment. Lomborg’s book is touted as an anti-doomsday foil to the environmentalist cause, whereas Diamond’s book is touted as a far-reaching and authoritative doomsday prediction. What strikes me is that in reading these books I can certainly see that they are both directly addressing the doomsday scenarios that we are bombarded with, but the central message of both of these authors is that doomsday thinking is irrelevant to the real solutions that will make a difference in the world today.

Undermining Doomsday: Examining Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist

In my investigation of Lomborg’s book, after being taken aback by it, I wanted to get an assessment of it’s validity. So, I went to the internet and found a vast array of discussion that almost all occurred shortly after it’s release and consisted almost exclusively of either “environmental advocates” attacking the book as a tool of anti-environmentalism or others expounding it’s virtues as a slap in the face to fear mongering liberals.

There was one key exception to this trend, an article in the New York Law School Law Review (Vol 46 pg 581) called “What Happened to The Skeptical Environmentalist?” by David S. Schoenbrod and Christi Wilson. It was published in March 2003 a couple years after the book’s publication and provided me with a precise scholarly review and analysis of the criticisms of the book and subsequent debates published by Scientific American, Nature, and Science; the scientific journals that would reasonably be expected to have the most interest in, and expertise available for, establishing the validity of Lomborg’s book. Being legal scholars interested in whether such a work should be considered as an authoritative source they applied their analysis from the perspective that a court would be expected to use in considering the validity of evidence presented by an expert witness in a trial. They found four areas of criticism; personal attacks, supposed errors of fact, supposed strawman arguments, and framing the facts inappropriately. The personal attacks were quite numerous and irrelevant to the substance of his work. The supposed errors of fact were not numerous and the majority of those were untrue, while the remaining few that were true did not make any difference to his main arguments. He did use strawman arguments, but that is because Lomborg specifically stated that he was trying to address perceptions or assertions that are common in public discourse, therefore he was doing exactly what he set out to do (which is a rather stupid thing to criticize him for.) Finally, the framing of facts was the most numerous criticism and as the authors point out it is “about whether the glass is half empty or half full.” Given that there were no errors of fact found then the framing of those facts is a matter of political opinion and the criticism is predictably consistent with individual interests. In the end Lomborg is considered by the authors of this article to be a very credible expert witness on the statistical analysis of data. In this instance the data he analyzed was global environmental data. What he found is that the problems are not as dire as they are portrayed to be in the Litany that environmentalists have typically used to paint their doomsday scenarios. Here’s what I believe to be the critically important point of Lomborg’s book, in his own words:

“On the whole I believe it is important to emphasize that being overly optimistic is not without costs, but that being too pessimistic also carries a hefty price tag.[italics in the original] If we do not believe in the future we will become more apathetic, indifferent and scared – hiding within ourselves. And even if we choose to fight for the planet it will very probably be as part of a project that is born not of reasonable analysis but of increasing fear.

“Of course we cannot simply choose to believe in the future. But the documentation and the arguments in this book can have a considerable effect because they can free us of our unproductive worries. They can give us new faith in the fact that we are involved in creating a better world by taking part in society’s production of assets, tangible as well as intangible.

“We must take care of the problems, prioritize reasonably, but not worry unduly.”

Can We Be Doomed, Nonetheless? Examining Jared Diamond’s book Collapse

While it is too soon after it’s release to expect a scholarly review of the debate that is still active it is useful to consider the one most obvious criticism of Diamond’s method from the anti-environmentalist front and also to look at the optimism for which he is receiving criticism from the environmentalists front.

Are the collapsed ancient societies analyzed in the book sufficiently parallel to our current society to make a legitimate comparison? The key to drawing a legitimate parallel is to establish that at least one critically important characteristic of the original situation is also true of the subsequent situation. Those who point to our advanced technologies and superior wealth have completely missed the point that Diamond makes about the crucial characteristics that make our current civilization vulnerable to the kinds of collapse that occurred in the past.

The characteristic that Diamond asserts as critical to understanding the collapse of the civilizations he looked at is the isolation from additional resources that would effectively relieve the pressures that cause collapse. Easter Island is the paradigmatic example he uses because it was the most radically isolated. It is also a great example because the remaining evidence that inspires people to wonder about that society, the infamous statues, are a perfect icon for the patterns of behavior that Diamond believes lead to their destruction as a civilized society.

In order to properly evaluate the validity of his central argument we have to ask, “Is our current society isolated from resources that could relieve the pressures that could cause a collapse?”

Is our society isolated? That begs the question of what you mean by “our society.” If you mean the USA or even the “first world,” then the answer is no. And that is probably what most of the critics who raise this argument have in mind. But that answer is also a very na├»ve view of what constitutes our current society. I favor the views of Daniel Quinn and Sharif Abdullah that posit only two or three societies on our whole planet. (Quinn is author of My Ishmael. Abdullah wrote Creating A World That Works For All.) In this way of thinking we, as humans, started out with only one kind of society, what Abdullah calls the Keepers. These are the Keepers of the Sacred Hoop. These are people who see themselves as an interconnected part of the whole of existence. They believe that their fate is in the hands of the gods and therefore they have to live within that reality. (In talking about the beliefs of a culture, I do not simply mean the beliefs they talk about, I mean the conceptual structures that shape their everyday behaviors. Thus, what I am referring to as beliefs are mostly unconscious to the individuals who make up the culture.) The Keepers are those societies that live in traditional aboriginal ways, meaning that there are virtually none left. Some time later there arose another kind of society, what Abdullah calls the Breakers. These are the Breakers of the Sacred Hoop. These are people who see that their fate is in their own hands and that the gods gave them the world and responsibility for it therefore they have to live within that reality. The Breakers as a society transcend all the popular distinctions of “first” and “third” worlds. Quinn’s idea about societies is limited to only two, but Abdullah takes it a step further by claiming that a new society is emerging, what he calls the Menders. These are the Menders of the Sacred Hoop. These are people who see that both of the previously existing societies have had very valuable insights into the nature of reality and the Menders are drawing constructively from both traditions and attempting to leave behind that which is destructive. These are people who see that they are in a process of co-creating the world with the gods and their fate is always in a delicate balance between responsibility for taking right action and the whims of forces greater than they can individually comprehend. Therefore, they have to live within that reality.

The emerging society of Menders is arising out of the Breaker society therefore they can for this moment be considered as a singular society for my purpose here, and that society is global in scope. The global nature of this society means that in order have access to resources that could relieve the pressures that are building towards collapse we would have to have access to another planet with carbon based life forms. For now and for the foreseeable future we are effectively isolated by that criteria, therefore Diamonds point holds true.

Critics on the other side of the spectrum who largely accept the comparison tend to miss the key element of his optimism, which is once again a parallel characteristic that he drew from selected examples of societies that successfully avoided collapse under similar circumstances.

The characteristic that Diamond asserts as critical to the avoidance of collapse is the passionate engagement with the realities of the situation that individuals have exhibited when faced with a crisis that affects the whole society. In some cases that passionate engagement was championed by elite leaders and in others it was championed by the masses, in all cases the passion for engaging was able to overcome the cultural and institutional inertia of traditional values in a way that had the society abandon one or a few practices that were destructive to their long term survival as a society. In order to argue the validity of his optimism it is necessary to see that our society is not hopelessly mired in intractable problems that are impossible to understand let alone solve. Unfortunately, Diamond does a really good job of conveying the complexity of the challenges without a commensurate explanation of why his optimism is well founded. My personal criticism of his book is that he has brilliantly analyzed and communicated the complex logic of the problem and then only briefly outlined the nature of the solution. I hope that his next book focuses on the complex nature of the solutions that he hints at in this work.

Here is the central lesson I draw from Diamond, in his own words: “One basis for hope is that, realistically, we are not beset by insoluble problems. While we do face big risks, the most serious ones are not ones beyond our control, like a possible collision with an asteroid of a size that hits the Earth every hundred million years or so. Instead, they are ones that we are generating ourselves. Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands. We don’t need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we ‘just’ need the political will to apply solutions already available. Of course, that’s a big ‘just.’ But many societies did find the necessary political will in the past. Our modern societies have already found the will to solve some of our problems, and to achieve partial solutions to others.

“What are the choices that we must make if we are now to succeed, and not to fail? … Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping their outcomes towards success or failure: long-term planning, and willingness to reconsider core values. On reflection, we can also recognize the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.”

What’s Relevant, If Doomsday Isn’t? The common thread in both books.

The success factor identified by Diamond is also the same thing Lomborg proposes as the reason for optimism in regards to the state of the world. The fact is that when people are able to focus their passion and enthusiasm on the realities of their situation, as opposed to focusing on distorted images about their situation, then they are likely to succeed. It does not matter who promotes the distortions, if people do not see through them to directly apprehend the reality that truly faces them, they are not likely to succeed. The Easter Islanders believed that constructing monolithic sculptures was more important than preserving the resources that made that luxury, and nearly everything else about their standard of living, possible. And they almost entirely died off because they were unable to question their values in the face of evidence that something was wrong. The Norse Greenlanders believed that remaining true to their cultural heritage was more important than adapting to the environment they transplanted themselves into. They died off completely because they did not effectively confront the values that told them the right way to live. On the other hand, the Tikopia Islanders believed that sustaining their environment was more important than keeping the pigs that were destroying it. And they thrived for centuries because they saw through the veil of deception that the pigs that were destroying their island should be valued for the status they convey to their leaders (as was true in almost all other Polynesian societies of their time.)

Regardless of how you analyze the data, everyone agrees that some resources are renewable in practical ways and others are not. The resources that are not renewable on a practical timeline are therefore finite and once we use them they are gone forever. For the resources that are renewable we can only use them as fast as they renew, otherwise they will disappear forever. In order for us to avoid the fate of the Easter Islanders, we have to live within the realities of resource renewal. If we are consuming non-renewables, then we should be consuming them efficiently and with a goal of finding renewables that can eventually replace them for meeting the same needs. Until we can replace all nonrenewable resources with renewable ones, then we are logically on a global path towards an Easter Island outcome. The disaster will take longer or shorter to arrive but it is inevitable. Thus doomsday is an agreed upon fact, but it is still, in the stated opinions of both of these authors, irrelevant to the solution.

The solution is the focused application of passion and enthusiasm. The generation, cultivation, harvest and renewal of passion and enthusiasm are the true sustainability problems that we face. The question is not whether people have the energy of passion and enthusiasm, the question is whether we are utilizing it within the reality of the cycle that it requires to be renewed. Overly optimistic and overly pessimistic views of the state of the world and our future prospects will lead to destruction if they result in driving people to avoid our problems and driving those who are facing them to distraction. The truth is often somewhere in between the two and what is most needed in our society is a citizenry willing to confront the distortions on all sides and build our strategic plan on the core facts that we all agree upon.

I find it immanently instructive that both Diamond, the doomsday advocate, and Lomborg, the doomsday foil, both arrive at the same ultimate conclusion: the difference to be made in this world is the application of human ingenuity to the realization of Truth and the pursuit of Goodness. I believe the best tools we have for accomplishing both of those tasks are the ones in our heads and hearts. There is not a single tool, technology or technique that lies out side ourselves that needs to be created in order to effectively address true challenges we face. The only real question is whether we have the courage to seek the truth and the perseverance to achieve goodness.

1 comment:

Joe Otten said...

FWIW Here is my assessment:

*Lomborg is also selective in his use of statistics and makes similar errors to his detractors. I don't think there is a simple overall picture of things getting better or worse.

*Lomborg seems to be trying to give impressions that are stronger than his actual claims. He doesn't state a contrarian position on global warming, or that environmental measures are generally a waste of time, but he tries to give that impression. This marks the work as polemic rather than the sober assessment it purports to be.

*On global warming, Lomborg picks nits in much of the IPCC work, the sort of nits that can be picked in any complex science of this type. But he does it all from one direction. A sober nitpick would point to potential overestimates as well as underestimates. The IPCC 'economic' models that Lomborg prefers seem to exaggerate costs by assuming that the lights must be turned off, rather than substituting low carbon sources of energy. This is barely consistent even with his own earlier predictions about the potential for renewables.

*However, seen correctly as a polemic, the work need not be dismissed simply because its evidence is poor. Polemics generally don't have supporting evidence at all!

In conclusion:

While environmental problems are bad, prosperity is good. Where there is a conflict between the two, there is a delicate political judgement as to how you weigh them up. Although he sets out to be a radical voice in the wilderness, in fact governments' policies almost always agree with Lomborg, putting prosperity first. In many cases they are right to do this.

I am convinced by the point that life expectancy has risen due to food surpluses, sanitation, clean water, etc - the products of development, and risen much more than they may have fallen due to pollution, pesticides etc. And therefore while we might like the third world to leapfrog over the dirty phase of development, the benefits of getting that development sooner probably justifies much of the dirt.

Lomborg states at one point that the problem is not with basic environmental scientific research, but with reporting and perceptions. This is a fair point, however selective with research he is after that. All science reporting in the media is poor and environmental science is no exception. And this is a problem when political judgements regarding the environment have to be made.

If we see environmental standards as something to be driven forward all the time, and we must summon the political will, pay the cost, tighten the regulation, and this is progress: then it is difficult with that perspective to weigh costs and benefits. (It is also difficult if you take a dogmatic contrarian view.) I think it would be worth taking each policy on its merits, and not lumping a large number of policy questions together under the heading 'environment' and treating them differently.