Thursday, January 03, 2008

Getting Richer, Faster


Bjorn Lomborg worries that we're worrying too much:

Since time immemorial, people have worried about the earth’s future. We once believed that the sky would fall. More recently we worried that the planet might freeze, and then that technology would grind to a halt because of a computer bug that was supposed to be unleashed at the turn of the millennium.

Those fears melted away, but today the world has many real, pressing problems.
One problem that's not real or pressing is deforestation, because it's been solved by the Free Market. Or will be. Or could be, in theory.
[D]eforestation is a diminishing problem. The solution wasn’t found in condemnation from the West of developing country practices, or in protests by well-meaning environmentalists, but in economic growth. Developed countries generally increase their forested areas, because they can afford to do so. Developing countries can’t. To encourage less deforestation – and more reforestation – the best thing we can do is help undeveloped nations get richer, faster.
After reading this, I was placed in three vats of cold water to extinguish my wrath. The first vat burst its staves and its hoop. The next boiled with bubbles as big as fists. In the third vat, the water grew hot enough that some might endure it and others might not.

Honestly, I hardly know where to start. Lomborg ignores the fact that undeveloped nations often get “rich” (or failing that, pay a bit of the interest on their debts) by mowing down their forests. While it’s possible that these countries will reforest as they become wealthier, it’s not a foregone conclusion by any means. And even if they do, what they'll end up with is likely to be a far cry – both in terms of acreage and biodiversity – from what they had. To Lomborg, though, "forested areas" are as interchangeable as hotels in Monopoly.

As usual, he accompanies this sort of lunatic assertion with arguments that almost sound reasonable. Why are we so worried about pesticide pollution, he wonders, when “fumes from cooking indoors with firewood and dung will kill more than 1.5 million people this year”?

It’d arguably be possible to address both problems at once, given the relationship between global agribusiness and third-world poverty. But Lomborg refuses to make these connections; what tends to matter to him are the dangerous “choices” made by victims. If we can prevent these backwards people from asphyxiating themselves, they may actually live long enough to be sickened by pesticide run-off. You can't deny that this would be progress!

He applies the same logic to climate change. We shouldn’t waste money on climate research, he says, let alone on reducing emissions; a better use of that money would be to “discourage people from living in foolhardy locations.”

I’m not sure any other kind of location can be said to exist on a planet that calls Lomborg “the 14th most influential academic in the world.”

(Photo: Clearcut forest, Sumatra. Taken by Jens Wieting.)

1 comment:

Eli said...

It worries me that you're so worried about Bjorn Lomborg being worried that we're worrying too much.

And now I need to go have a lie-down.