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