The Skeptical Environmentalist view on Biodiversity Loss

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Sifting through the shelves of the university library I came across the book that I have been meaning to read for a few years. Bjorn Lomborg’s ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’, first published in Danish in 1998 as Verdens Sande Tilstand and in English in 2001 by Cambridge University Press, sets out a counter argument to practically every aspect of environmental debate. Lomborg is a political scientist, not a natural scientist meaning that he is naturally going to be coming in at the subject from a different disciplinary angle. He deserves credit for the immense amount of statistical analysis that went into producing the work. He also didn’t have the liberty of having access to the statistics that we can now see in hindsight, using the evidence of the past 10 years or so, especially regarding climate change. Nonetheless, I find the book to be rather too skeptical, at times seemingly providing an argument for argument’s sake and at times downright anthropocentric. There were a number of sections that I could have flared up and written about but I have chosen to focus upon his thinking towards loss of biodiversity and the implications this will have on the planet.

He begins this section (chapter 23 in part 5) by acknowledging that we lose something in the region of 40,000 species every year, 109 a day. This is likely to be conservative. Indeed, the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has estimated the figure to be anything between 27,000 and 100,000 a year. There simply isn’t enough data for us to know for sure. This I acknowledge, and it is a major argument of Lomborg. However, it is not this point that raises my concern or disbelief. My surprise came in his next subsection entitled: ‘is biodiversity important’?

He remains wholly anthropocentric, noting that biodiversity is needed ‘because we are fond of wild animals and plants’ – rather a condescending way of looking at the natural world – because we can derive medicinal benefit from plants and animal species and because genetic diversity is crucial to the survival of our crop systems. No in depth analysis at all (which is surprising given the statistical basis that the book is derived from) and no engagement with the importance of a diverse network of life for basic survival. He paints a picture of biologists being fluffy protectionists for species ‘that do not matter’. Such an anthropocentric view cannot be respected today when in every discipline, including my own, we are taught to avoid anthropocentrism like the plague.

Lomborg openly questions – ‘Why sign the biodiversity convention? Why save the rainforest? Why require millions of Americans to move to city islands with severely restricted access to neighbouring countryside? The answer has always been: in order to save 40,000 species from becomign extinct every year.’ He says this as if it doesn’t matter. Has he ever thought that it might actually matter? It is possible to be too skeptical.

I agree that it is possible to be fatalistic when assessing environmental issues and I also accept that I have placed my own encampment amongst the environmentalist lobby, possibly clouding my judgement. I have therefore taken a lot from reading Lomborg’s work. It is always good to question. I have been told to keep this at the forefront of my mind constantly during my training to become an historian. However, his attitude throughout the book frustrates me in that he provides very little room for acceptance that human action on the world stage has not been a good thing all the time. Humans have done remarkable things (for humans as well as the rest of the natural world). However, the human footprint has also been disastrous for many reasons and this is not acknowledged to the extent required by Lomborg. Nature and life are two of the most complex entities that we know of. Discussion regarding environmental affairs needs to be more nuanced and it needs to be more open. Both camps, environmentalist and skeptic need to realise this and work together to ensure a positive future for our own species but also the species we share this planet with.

Discussion about: Lomborg, B., The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001)

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One thought on “The Skeptical Environmentalist view on Biodiversity Loss

  1. Methinks I shall have to read this – I do like a good argument and you have grabbed my interest with his anthropocentric views… It is always good to hear other opinions, even if we don’t agree with them. How else would we reach our own conclusions? People are entitled to their own opinion; it is up to an individual to decide what they think of that opinion.

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