The Green family realised that their success was exacting a high price. Their country farmhouse was their home as well as their business premises. But while their enterprise was creating a healthy profit, the vibrations caused by the heavy machinery used on site was slowly destroying the fabric of the building. If they carried on as they were, in five years the damage would make the building unsafe and they would be forced out. Nor were their profits sufficient to fund new premises or undertake the necessary repairs and structural improvements required.
Mr. and Mrs. Green were determined to preserve their home for their children. And so they decided to slow production and thus the spread of the damage.
Ten years later, the Greens passed away and the children inherited the family estate. The farmhouse, however, was falling to pieces. Builders came in, shook their heads and said it would cost £1 million to put it right. The youngest of the Greens, who had been the accountant for the business for many years, grimaced and buried his head in his hands.
"If we had carried on at full production and not worried about the building, we would have had enough money to put this right five years ago. Now, after ten years of under-performance, we're broke."
His parents had tried to protect his inheritance. In fact, they had destroyed it.
Source: The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg, 2001.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 163.
As Baggini says in his discussion of this experiment, "This parable could be taken simply as a lesson about forward planning in business. But it is more interesting than that, for the tale can be seen as mirroring a serious dilemma of much wider concern: how do we respond to the environmental threats facing us today?"
Environmental threats are indeed a serious concern to face up to, but Bjorn Lomborg has not been the man to do so. In the extensive Wikipedia entry on his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, we learn that:
"Lomborg's main argument is that the vast majority of environmental problems—such as pollution, water shortages, deforestation, and species loss, as well as population growth, hunger, and AIDS—are area-specific and highly correlated with poverty. Therefore, challenges to human prosperity are essentially logistical matters, and can be solved largely through economic and social development."
I could argue vociferously against each of these points in turn, as well as that dreadful conclusion, but many others have already done so. In fact, a lot of criticisms against Lomborg's book have been chronicled in the wikipedia entry on it (as have the heaps of praise it received from business leaders and those connected to the oil and gas industry), but the most decisive critique is just about enough for the purposes of this blog post, so here it is:
"After the publication of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg was accused of scientific dishonesty. Several environmental scientists brought...complaints against Lomborg to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), a body under Denmark's Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation. ... The charges claimed that The Skeptical Environmentalist contained deliberately misleading data and flawed conclusions. On January 6, 2003, a mixed DCSD ruling was released, in which the Committees decided that The Skeptical Environmentalist was scientifically dishonest, but Lomborg was innocent of wrongdoing due to a lack of expertise in the relevant fields. ... The DCSD cited The Skeptical Environmentalist for:
- Fabrication of data;
- Selective discarding of unwanted results (selective citation);
- Deliberately misleading use of statistical methods;
- Distorted interpretation of conclusions;
- Deliberate misinterpretation of others' results.
Lomborg formally complained about these accusations in detailed, point-by-point, exhaustive rebuttals, but eventually, "on March 12, 2004, the Committee formally decided not to act further on the complaints, reasoning that renewed scrutiny would, in all likelihood, result in the same conclusion."
So.......I don't really think we need to dwell on the details any longer, but perhaps something interesting can be said in general about Lomborg's flawed approach. The very subtitle of his book--Measuring the Real State of the World—hints at a problem. And so does a description of the man himself when trying to justify his authorship of this book:
"His research is an appropriate application of his expertise in cost-benefit analysis, a standard analytical tool in policy assessment. His advocates further note that many of the scientists and environmentalists who criticized the book are not themselves environmental policy experts or experienced in cost-benefit research."
During my MBA studies and following career in management consulting, I did a lot of cost-benefit analyses. CBAs are a useful tool in the carefully defined economic world of business transactions. But as I explained in my Patheos article An Atheist's Place in the Big Tent of Sacred Naturalism, economics (and therefore CBAs) break down at the limits of the natural world. Here's how:
"While I believe the world is a finite place, any supply of “widgets” becomes vanishingly small whenever those things are deemed irreplaceable and individual. The cost of replacing irreplaceable things in this world essentially runs to infinity, and these infinite values cause a breakdown in the use of classical economics. So to me, it’s not that economics shouldn’t be used where the world is full of intrinsic value—the limitations of economics can be used to show just precisely how high intrinsic value actually is. In the case of businessmen calculating the return on their investment while trying to use up natural resources, we might therefore speak “their language” and still hope to persuade them to set some things aside, to hold some things as sacred."
What this means with respect to Lomborg's shoddy book, is that its very subtitle--Measuring the Real State of the World—indicates a flaw right from the get go. You can't measure the cost or benefit of having a workable ecosystem in the "real world." It's essentially infinite. Right now, this is the only environment we've got so to tamper with it excessively is sheer madness. In the thought experiment, the Green family's descendants inherited a bill they could have paid had their ancestors merely kept working. In the real world, however, if we keep working the way we have been, our descendants won't inherit a bill they can't pay--they'll inherit a world they can't live in. That's a big existential difference.