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Sceptical about doomsday?

Is capitalism on an unsustainable course in terms of natural resources? Is an environmental catastrophe looming? We review a book which suggests not

The politics of the environment raises many questions, not least of which is what the facts are about the state of the planet and how they should be interpreted. Is capitalism on an unsustainable course in terms of its use of natural resources? If so, will this inevitably continue?

Prominent in the current global debate on these issues is Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute. He offers a stark warning, published in his new book Eco-Economy:

"our economy is slowly destroying its support systems, consuming its endowment of natural capital. Demands of the expanding economy, as now structured, are surpassing the sustainable yield of ecosystems."

Bjorn Lomborg, a former Greenpeace campaigner, in a controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, takes on what he sees as the scare mongering by environmentalists like Brown. So how is it that two researchers can arrive at such different conclusions?

The first reason is to do with the use of factual research. There are many examples where Lomborg attempts to find holes in the factual assertions made by organisations such as Worldwatch. For example, he rejects the widely cited claim that 40,000 species per year become extinct. Similarly, he is dismissive of talk of the risk posed by pesticides, an issue which has gained a notable amount of coverage in the British media.

The second reason is to do with the way conclusions are drawn from the facts. For example, in the issue of water resources, Brown's discussion focusses upon particular areas where there are shortages, notably the Middle East and North Africa. Lomborg acknowledges these localised shortages but chooses to emphasise the potential global abundance of water, given improved cooperation and efficiency.

Selective references?
Since The Skeptical Environmentalist was published other environmentalists have hit back, accusing Lomborg of exactly the kind of selective references to scientific research of which he accuses them. The World Resources Institute (WRI) point out that his use of statistics such as for the global fish catch which masks the importance of the distinguishing between different species of fish, many of wihich have seen drastic falls in stocks(see The Union of Concerned Scientists say that he misleadingly refers to the rate of tropical deforestation as 0.46 percent per year, where as this statistic is the percentage of the total area of all types of forest. Lomborg is dismissive of the implications of tropical deforestation for the preservation of biodiversity and does not consider the ecological difference between recently grown forests for timber production and long established rainforests.

Even without reading the counter-charges of environmental organisations, The Skeptical Environmentalist is noticeably selective in the use of research. In discussing endangered species, Lomborg queries the statistics on the number of species that have become extinct in the recent past, providing what he claims is evidence of past exaggerations. His dismissal of other environmentalists' concerns about possible future extinctions is inferred from this – implying that exaggeration about the past is evidence that we need not be concerned about the future.

The optimistic picture offered by Lomborg is bolstered by his discussion of pollution, where the advanced industrial nations of the North, have seen an improvement in the past fifty years. Lomborg stresses how these improvements have been achieved while economic activity has expanded. A more critical interpretation would, of course, question whether the air pollution they experience is yet acceptable and whether much of it is a consequence of the profit-first necessity of capitalism – a question that is not addressed.

Whilst Brown and Lomborg offer different pictures of the current state of the world there is some agreement between them about likely future developments. Both recognise the importance of the growth of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power – their expanding share of the world energy supply is central to the future vision offered by both authors. Both say that redirection of subsidies is needed to achieve the full potential. The likely extent and pace of such redirection is still far from clear, given the vested interests of oil companies who currently benefit greatly from government subsidies, in particular from the US government (see Solar power, in particular, offers much potential but the building of photovoltaic cells to capture the sun's energy is still an expensive process and solar power currently accounts for just 0.009 percent of the world energy supply. Wind power is closer to becoming economically competitive but still only has a 0.04 percent share. Governments' expenditure on renewable energy has been dwarfed (and still is) by research into fossil fuels and nuclear power over the past thirty years, even though the potential of wind and solar technology has been known throughout this time. For this reason, defenders of capitalism will hardly be able to claim the future expansion of renewables as a success for their system.

The Skeptical Environmentalist offers a less pessimistic account of the likely extent and implications of global warming, of which fossil fuel based energy is the main cause. Lomborg suggests that a 2 - 2.5C increase in temperature by the end of the century is most likely, whilst admitting that this is uncertain due to the limitations in our knowledge and the difficulties of predictive modelling. Again this has been contested by WRI who suggest that Lomborg ignores some well established research into global warming such as that by the US National Academy of Sciences. Lomborg points out that some of the consequences of higher temperatures, such as the various dangers to human health and increased flooding due to higher sea levels, will be preventable in those areas which have the resources to cope with them.

This brings us onto a final feature of the optimistic outlook of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg shifts subtly between trying to show that an environmental problem is not as bad as has been claimed by organisations such as Worldwatch and trying to show that a problem is not caused by the limitations of ecological resources themselves but the structure of society and how it allocates resources. This second form of argument means that the cause of the problem lies in the economic system rather than ecology alone. In some key areas, such as water supplies and agriculture, Lomborg's argument is of this second type and the question of whether capitalism can achieve a better allocation of resources remains to be answered.

Beyond capitalism
For Brown, on the other hand, a profound cultural shift is necessary for achieving an 'eco-economy' - one where ecology takes precedence over economics. Socialists (in this journal and elsewhere) have rejected the suggestion that any goal can subsume the profit motive under capitalism. Still, socialists do take on board the concerns of the environmental movement and the material possibilities that they suggest for addressing them. Eco-Economy draws these suggestions together and offers the kind vision of sustainable production many aspects of which could be taken on board in a socialist society.

Suggestions such as improving public transport, expanding renewable energy supplies and recycling will not be news to anyone who is concerned about the state of the planet. The Skeptical Environmentalist also includes these possibilities and Lomborg actually places more of an emphasis upon the potential global abundance of key natural resources such as food, energy and water as part of his attempt to dispel what he describes as the "doom mongering" of organisations such as Worldwatch.

Brown calls for improved information and media coverage in order to encourage a redirection towards sustainable technologies. Yet Brown does not refer to the vested interests of capitalism that often stand in the way of achieving sustainability (and cause socialists to question the view that a cultural shift is enough to ensure sustainability while capitalism continues to exist).

Rather than seeing a cultural change as being necessary, Lomborg suggests that "business as usual" under capitalism already has (and will continue to) bring about improvements in environmental management. He simplistically points to the improvement in the average standard of living that capitalism has brought about as evidence that more resources will be available in future for managing the environment.

In spite of their different conclusions about the state of the planet, both Brown and Lomborg call for a redirection of resources within capitalism via subsidies and taxes. Indeed, their differing prescriptions for the future partly rest on their perceptions about how easy such a reduction would be to achieve. There may have been some problems which have been alleviated by these means, such as sulphur dioxide emissions and acid rain in the advanced industrial nations. In renewables, as we have seen, there will be some improvement, although this has been delayed, not facilitated, by capitalism. Other areas, where there is short term profit to be made at the expense of long term sustainability (fisheries, forests, agriculture), will continue to see problems. A solution (in the case of Brown) and a cause for optimism (in the case of Lomborg) is far from reassuring when it hinges upon a call for environmental subsidies at a time when global capitalism is seeking to reduce them in many areas, as can be seen from an analysis of proceedings of the World Trade Organisation and its institutional predecessors.

Even Lomborg acknowledges problems such as world hunger, over-exploitation of forests and oceans and future problems to be expected from global warming (although the argument about the scale of the problems will continue). Indeed there are issues which are not discussed by Lomborg such as nuclear waste and over-intensive farming. There are potential future environmental risks posed by fast developing, new technologies. These could arise from new means by which the genetic structures of the natural world might be altered (not to mention possible manipulation at the molecular level.) This further emphasises the need for democratic, social control of how the resources of our planet are managed. Brown is right to find cause for concern. It is telling that a such a lengthy attempt to counter warnings about the future direction of captialism cannot convince us to think otherwise.