Articles of Faith
I’ve always loved the outdoors. Even when I was barely big enough to fit into a junior-sized pair of pinstripes, I loved being outside. My time spent outside has taught me a lot of things: self-reliance, appreciation for beauty, and not least, respect for – and desire to conserve – the environment. In the course of my ramblings and wanderings in the great outdoors, I’ve come across a great many individuals who shared my love for nature. These individuals came from all walks of life and embodied pretty much every segment of the broad spectrum of American political opinion: rich, poor, conservative, liberal, what have you.
I’ve always been heartened by this. For one thing, I do believe that America’s natural beauty is one of its greatest assets. Since we don’t have aeons of history like, say, Greece or India, we must receive our devotion, identity, and inspiration from other sources. I think that one of those sources is our nation’s rugged natural beauty. I recall a moment from my younger days as a eurail traveler with backpack in St. Peter’s cathedral. While I’m not catholic, I can distinctly remember the feeling of awe, of the light, tinted by the massive stained glass windows, which lit up the entire megalithic building with something close an otherworldly glow. I can only imagine how it must affect the believer.
The only other time I’ve seen such light and felt similarly impressed was when, in the midst of a solo road-trip across the US, I entered the Great Basin area of Nevada at the end of a long day of driving. The illumination of basin and range, of peak and sagebrush, by the dying embers of the day was truly magnificent and spiritual, emotions no doubt compounded by my extreme sense of isolation, since I hadn’t seen another car or sign of humanity for some time.
But I’m not the only one who apparently approaches the nature with a religious outlook. The world’s mainstream environmental activists do the same thing. They have established an orthodoxy that pervades much of the discussion of things environmental. Their most devout activists preach an austerity that is of a kind with some of the more ascetic and austere branches of other religions. And, as some members of the environmental movement have discovered, they are not above shaming non-fellow travelers as heretics.
Perhaps it is because nature is so full of mystery and power that environmentalists have taken the trappings of religion into their public life. Perhaps some environmentalists have grown up in a city environment and have never come into contact with nature that they feel so passionate. Perhaps the environmental movement serves the same purpose for them as the civil rights movement did for their parents – a sense of unity, struggle and adventure. Perhaps they could find no better way to spend their trust fund money.
Unfortunately, as the good Doctor notes, there are a great many loud voices celebrating an orthodoxy that may or may not relate to the environment and may or may not present the best way forward. For these people, Kyoto equals salvation, the river Styx flows with oil, and some nefarious concept of big business is the serpent which tempts us all away from Elysium.
One can imagine the reaction when a challenge to the orthodoxy rises – it would not be out of place in 16th century Europe. A hue and cry from the acolytes of the true faith rises up and calls for the excommunication of the heretics. Bjorn Lomborg serves as a perfect example. Lomborg, a Danish statistician, is author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, a book in which environmental concerns combine with tremendously detailed analysis of volumes of research to produce the most startling conclusion: the environment is not in the grave peril that we have been led to believe. Among the more iconoclastic claims that Lomborg makes is that there are actually more acres of forested land now than there were forty years ago, that improving drinking water quality in the developing world will do more to alleviate human suffering than reducing greenhouse gases, and that even were Kyoto fully implemented today it would only stave off predicted levels of greenhouse gases six years later than a world sans Kyoto.
Naturally, a well-argued, well-researched book on the environment that counters virtually every claim made by the high priests of environmentalism was bound to ruffle a few feathers. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before an organization tried to excommunicate Lomborg: the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) accused Lomborg of being "systematically one-sided." Lomborg appealed the decision to the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, who remitted the case to the DCSD for being "completely void of argumentation." The DCSD, on second review, dropped all complaints against Lomborg.
The Dutch academic group Heidelberg Appeal the Netherlands (HAN) reviewed the case against Lomborg. They concluded that Lomborg’s detractors ceased to follow scientific principle and method in attacking him:
Having reached the conclusion that the concrete accusations against Lomborg largely don’t hold, it is legitimate to question the approaches of Lomborg’s opponents. Using some historical examples it is argued that almost all opponents use discussion tactics, which come very near to those of dogmatically driven pseudo-scientists. The inevitable overall impression of the debate is, not that Lomborg has deliberately been twisting arguments, but many of his opponents have. This is somewhat more than embarrassing. And most probably for DCSD not the expected outcome of his investigation when it stated: The interested public will thus be granted an opportunity to have full access to the facts of the case. [Emphasis added.]
HAN's page on the Lomborg affair.
Lomborg isn’t the only one to challenge the prevailing views regarding the environment. The late economist Julian Simon famously bet environmentalist doomsayer Paul Ehrlich in 1980 that any five commodities of Ehrlich’s choosing would be cheaper in ten years. Sure enough, all ten of the chosen commodities were lower in price in 1990, evidence of their decreased scarcity. One of Simon’s central tenets, that human beings should be considered resources themselves, and not merely a drain on resources, is the bedrock on which Lomborg bases his case.
This idea is simultaneously the single most important and neglected concept in the environmental debate today, decades after Simon introduced it. Lomborg, for instance, never assumes that environmental degradation is a mere cipher. His book is based on the premise that our environment is in need of improvement. The whole book is an earnest effort to divine exactly what can be improve. In so doing, he makes hamburger out of sacred cows, to paraphrase Abby Hofmann. It is entirely plausible that there are errors in Lomborg’s work. It is truly a herculean effort – over 2,000 footnotes – and something that large and presumptuous in scope is bound to have errors. Those of us that believe in both conservation of the environment and rational discourse must scratch our heads at the attempts of the nouveaux clergy to silence Lomborg and similar skeptics. (Lomborg has also been embroiled in a controversy with Scientific American magazine; readers can view the details on Lomborg’s website or that of Patrick Moore, co-founder and now former member of Greenpeace and ideological confrere of Lomborg.) Surely, if a new and radical idea comes out into the public sphere, the best way to deal with it is with a transparent and fair discussion of all angles, not ham-fisted attempts at ostracism, particularly from a community whose founding principle is one of supination to facts as opposed to politics.
The examples above give me faith when I am grilled on Kyoto by a sanctimonious European or Canadian. I've found that the best strategy is to ask them, as I once did to a particularly insistent Canadian interlocutor, herself an expert on Kyoto who had worked on the document, how sure they are that Kyoto will actually alleviate the conditions envisioned by its creators. I hope that any readers attempting this will receive the same satisfying stammering response of uncertainty that I did.
The whole affair confirms the sentiment expressed by Jonathan Swift, as channeled through John Kennedy Toole’s immortal novel Confederacy of Dunces:
When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
While this statement is rife with potential for misuse, I believe that it is entirely appropriate here.