There is always a fine line between getting people to take their environmental responsibilities seriously, and simply resorting to scare-mongering. The environmental movement is often its own worst enemy by overstating the case and pushing doomsday scenarios.
And usually the sky-is-falling rhetoric is part of a larger agenda: often there is a built-in bias against the West and the free market by many of these more radical greens. Legitimate environmental concerns can be drowned out in anti-Western worldviews being peddled by some of our environmental crusaders.
While threats to the environment must be taken seriously, what is needed is a lot less emotion and a lot more serious assessment of the state of play regarding planet earth. That involves looking at the positives as well as the negatives.
One environmentalist who has been trying to bring some balance to the debate for over a decade now is Bjorn Lomborg. A recent piece of his reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald today offers a more realistic and level-headed approach to these sorts of issues.
Of course today the global warming hysteria is a classic case in point. Lomborg seeks to offer some perspective on this emotionally-charged debate. Consider one poster boy (or rather, animal) of the greenies in this case: the polar bear. We are told they are on the way to extinction because of global warming. But is this in fact so?
Says Lomborg, “We are told that global warming will wipe out this majestic creature. We are not told, however, that over the past 40 years – while temperatures have risen – the global polar bear population has increased from 5000 to 25,000. Campaigners and the media claim that we should cut our carbon dioxide emissions to save the polar bear. Well, then, let’s do the math. Let’s imagine that every country – including the United States and Australia – were to sign the Kyoto Protocol and cut its carbon dioxide emissions for the rest of this century. Looking at the best-studied polar bear population of 1000 bears, in the West Hudson Bay, how many polar bears would we save in a year? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? Actually, we would save less than one-tenth of a polar bear.”
Those who have a genuine concern for polar bears may want to try a different approach: “If we really do care about saving polar bears, we could do something much simpler and more effective: ban hunting them. Each year, 49 bears are shot in the West Hudson Bay alone. So why don’t we stop killing 49 bears a year before we commit trillions of dollars to do hundreds of times less good?”
Another issue that gets a lot of attention – and hype – is organic foods. But what is the truth about this issue? Blomberg offers some balance to this debate as well: “You know how you are told to give your children organic food because pesticides will give them cancer? Well, it’s technically true that there is a link between the chemicals and illness, but the risk is minuscule in any well-regulated country.”
He continues, “There is another threat that you haven’t been told much about. One of the best ways to avoid cancer is to eat lots of fruit and vegetables. Organic items are 10 per cent or 20 per cent more expensive than regular produce, so most of us naturally buy less when we ‘go organic’. If you reduce your child’s intake of fruits and vegetables by just 0.03 grams a day (that’s the equivalent of half a grain of rice) when you opt for more expensive organic produce, the total risk of cancer goes up, not down. Omit buying just one apple every 20 years because you have gone organic, and your child is worse off. My intention isn’t to scare people away from organic food. But we should hear both sides of any story.”
A reasoned and balanced approach, in other words, is superior to simply offering emotive stories, alarmist scenarios, and a lot of hype. As Blomborg notes, “Perhaps surprisingly, not everything of concern should be dealt with immediately. If we don’t have a good way to fix a problem, it might be better to focus on something else first. After all, when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, it’s hard to worry about what global temperatures will be 100 years from now.”
Indeed, simply getting our eyes off the negative and onto the positive can really help in this regard: “Things have improved immensely in both the developing and developed worlds. In the past 100 years, scientists have won many of the most important battles against infectious diseases, to the extent that poverty is now the main reason for a lack of treatment. Global average life expectancy in 1900 was 30 years; today, it is 68. Food has become more plentiful and affordable, especially in the developing world, where calorie availability has increased by 40 per cent over the past 40 years, while food prices have halved. Consequently, the proportion of hungry in the Third World has dropped from 50 per cent in 1950 to less than 17 per cent today, while worldwide incomes have increased more than threefold.”
Here is even more good news: “Perhaps most importantly, all of these positive trends are expected to continue. The United Nations estimates that average life expectancy will reach 75 years by the middle of the century, and that the proportion of those going hungry will drop below 4 per cent. By the close of the century, incomes will have increased sixfold in industrialised countries and 12-fold in developing countries, making the average person in the developing world richer in 2100 than the average American or European is today. The number of poor will drop from a billion to less than 5 million.”
Of course major problems remain: “All the while, we know of the terrible conditions that still face the majority of the world’s population, with more than 1 billion poor, 2 billion without electricity, and 3 billion without clean drinking water and sanitation.”
But by overlooking the real gains being made, we shortchange ourselves. Much good has in fact been occuring, and much of this is due to a prosperous and growing West. Economic growth has its advantages, in other words.
Lomborg concludes, “None of this means we should stop worrying about the future. But it does mean that we can quit panicking and start thinking calmly to ensure that we focus on the right issues. Global alarm bells might cause pangs of guilt for wealthy Westerners, but they don’t give us an adequate understanding of what is going on. We all need to hear both sides of the story.”
Exactly so. And it is the absence of a balanced debate that is so often preventing the whole story being heard. It is surprising, yet encouraging, that a mainstream newspaper has run with this article. It is hoped that more will follow suit.