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Bjorn Again

We listen to Bjorn Lomborg and his fellow eco-sceptics because we secretly want to believe them

The Ecologist, March 2003

Farewell then, Bjorn Lomborg. The Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty's damning verdict on the Sceptical Environmentalist's competence and honesty will surely mean that we never hear from him again. It can only be a matter of time before he loses his job with the Danish government and sinks back into the obscurity from whence he came, with only his hair bleach and tight t-shirt collection for company.

Or can it? I would rather put my money on a swift recovery. For Lomborg is a sceptic, and sceptics survive. Being a green naysayer is a good career choice for the ambitious; their ranks grow all the time. And yet the really interesting question is not who they are, but why we listen to them. The really interesting figures in all this are not the sceptics, but their audience.

The naysayers themselves fall into several camps. There are corporate-funded scientists and politicians; easy to refute and rarely trusted. There are numerous loony-right think tanks, replete with corporate funding and well-connected board members: the likes of the Cato Institute, the Ayn Rand Institute, the Adam Smith Institute, the Heritage Foundation or the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which proudly boasts 'the largest free market environmental policy programme in Washington' (in Washington, this is actually quite a claim), and whose publications include 'The True (sic) State of the Planet' and 'Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths.' You get the picture.

This bunch wear their funding and their fanaticism on their sleeves and are thus fairly easy to ignore. Harder to escape are the self-employed sceptics. Their back-story is usually remarkably similar: I was once an idealistic greenie myself, but then I began to ask forbidden questions and - well, whaddya know - I realised it was all bunkum! Into this camp fall former Greenpeace director Patrick Moore (environmentalists 'are just plain anti-civilisation'), Mussolini-lookalike Richard D North ('Don't worry about the pollution. It's all been sorted'), who trousers cheques from oil companies to write newspaper articles about how ethical they are, and young, smart, loveable Bjorn.

These are the dangerous ones. The corporate media, the politicians, the business world - everyone who feels threatened by the rise of dissent; everyone with something to lose - clasps them to their collective chest. Their arrival must feel like a reprieve for Business As Usual - or at least a stay of execution.

And yet it's too easy to dismiss the naysayers quite so glibly. For it's not just nasty fat cats and evil politicians who want to believe their message: we all do. Deep down, we all want to believe that everything will be fine - because deep down, we know it won't. We can see our streets gridlocking, our fields disappearing under waves of Barratt Homes, fish stocks collapsing, farmers haemorrhaging from the land, politicians giving up, markets taking over. We know it's going wrong, but we have no idea what to do. We all want something to be done, but we don't want to have to do it ourselves. And we hate, with a secret passion, anyone who tells us what we quietly know already: that one day, soon, we are all going to have take responsibility for our actions.

This is the psychology of denial. We know the roads are clogging up but we keep driving, one-to-a-car, down the fuming motorways because our journey is essential - it's always someone else's fault. We know about climate change - we can see the floods from our windows - but we still snap up the cheap flights. We still buy the battery eggs, use the chlorine bleach, landfill our empty wine bottles. We know that we, in the rich world, consume most of the world's resources and emit most of its pollution. We know all this, but we don't want to think about the implications.

Enter the naysayers. They puncture balloons, kick against the pricks, bring their wits and their bogus statistics to bear on the humourless vegan freaks who persist in telling us that we can't buy this, we shouldn't do that, the planet's dying and it's all our fault. Would you let these po-faced eco-weirdos babysit your kids? Of course not - so why should you listen to them? Better to let the warm reassurances of Lomborg and Co wash over you: it will all be fine, trust me, I know what I'm talking about, I have the figures to prove it. And well, you never know - maybe they're right….

Dream on. You know they're wrong. We all do. But we listen to them anyway: we listen because we're only human. I don't like facing up to painful truths any more than you do, especially if it's my lifestyle at stake. How much would you pay to know - to know for certain - that everything will be all right? How much would you pay to prove those snivelling, self-righteous environmentalists wrong, once and for all? How much would you pay for absolution?

Ask yourself that. Then ask Bjorn Lomborg. He knows the answer; and this time, he has more chance of getting his figures right.