Sunday, December 12, 2004
I am currently reading a very interesting book by Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish professor of statistics entitled The Skeptical Environmentalist. It is kind of a lazy Sunday afternoon so I have time to write a little about what I have learned so far reading it. I am about half way through so I don’t know about the second half. Lomborg is a professor of statistics who used to be a member of Greenpeace and considers himself a left-leaning environmentalist. But he became suspicious of some of the claims coming out of the media and environmental groups about impending environmental disasters so he decided to investigate it himself using the best data and statistical approaches available. The book has over 150 pages of footnotes as the author wanted to source everything so people could investigate for themselves his data and statistics.
His conclusions are very interesting. He basically just looks at a bunch of different environmental problems and decides based upon the data if they are true, and if so, how serious they are. For example, if I asked you why 18% of the world is still malnourished or starving, what would you say? Over the last 30 years many people have predicted an impending food crisis. With the world population doubling and the same natural resources to go around, it seems logical to believe people are starving because there is a lack of food to go around. The truth, however, is that hunger is a political and economic problem, not a natural resource problem. Over the last 40 years, technology has increased crop yields tremendously. The calorie intake per capita in the developing world has increased 38%. The percentage of the world classified as malnourished has dropped from 35% to 18%. There is, however, a long ways to go because of continued persistent poverty in parts of the world. Things are not OK. But they are improving. So in short, there is no impending food shortage crisis.
Another interesting area he talks about is energy. Is there a pending energy crisis? Are we running out of oil and other non-renewable resources? We have heard that we were going to run out of oil for the last 80 years. The key quote here was by a Saudi oil minister who famously said “the end of the Stone Age did not come about because of a shortage of stone; neither will the end of the oil age come about by a shortage of oil”. It is true that there is a finite amount of oil and if we continued to use is at the rate we are using it today we would run out of it, but technology will be the oil-killer, not oil scarcity. In other words, we are not going to run out of oil, we are going to find a better and cheaper alternative. He estimates that within 50 years solar and/or wind power will become profitable and begin to replace oil as an energy source. Interestingly enough, a solar power station the size of 2.6% of the Sahara desert using today’s technology would supply all of the earths power needs.
Finally, he talks about economic development and environmental damage. The common litany here is that with increased development, comes increased environmental damage. That is actually true, but only to a point. The graph below (which I made using the high powered graphics program MSPaint) shows the amount of air particle pollution (the most dangerous pollution for human health measured in micro grams per cubic meter) versus GDP per person. They just took the data for a bunch of cities in a bunch of different countries and then measured the pollution. So a city in the US would put a data point at about $30K GDP per person, but Lima, Peru would put a point at $2K GDP per person. As the graph clearly shows, it turns out that environmental damage does get worse as a country develops until it reaches around $3K-$5K per capita and then decreases. This is why the rivers in England and Europe are cleaner then they have been in hundreds of years. When a society gets richer, it starts to care about the environment more and is able to put in place environmental regulations and spend the money needed to clean the environment. I thought this was really interesting. So not only does economic development end hunger, increase life-span, increase education, decrease hours worked, decrease infant mortality, etc…but it also is good for the environment.
I haven’t read the second half of the book which talks about future environmental problems such as global warming so I don’t know what he will say about that. I know he says it is a real problem, but don’t know much more then that. I conclude three things from the first half of the book. First, things are getting better environmentally, but there is still much work to be done. Second, God’s creation is much richer and stronger then we give it credit for. Third, God has made us co-creators with Him and we are to use our brains to create technology which will allow us to better steward his creation.