Taking the Romance out of Environmentalism

Cover of "The Skeptical Environmentalist:...

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My latest Green Chain column for the Record-Bee.

Just after 7 p.m. on Sept 5, 2001, Mark Lynas, a writer and a member of the Green Party in Britain stepped into the Borders Bookshop in Oxford and “pied” former Greenpeace member Bjorn Lomborg with a sponge cake topped with whipped cream.

Lomborg was at the bookstore to talk about his just completed book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. The general thrust of the book was that environmental problems are highly correlated with poverty, thus making people wealthier and healthier would mean fewer environmental problems. This finding did not sit well in the green community.

“Pies for lies,” said Lynas as Lomborg wiped whipped cream out of his eyes.

Last month, Mark Lynas, the righteous green, did something extraordinary. He apologized for being wrong about genetically modified (GM) crops.

He did not apologize half-heartedly as you or I did when our mothers made us say we were sorry to our sisters for putting their Barbie dolls in the toilet. No, he meant what he said and he said it quite publicly in a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference:

“I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

“As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”

So, he and his cohort—and there is no use sugar-coating this—spread lies. “This was also explicitly an anti-science movement,” he said. “We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag…”

He admitted assuming using GM “would increase the use of chemicals.” What he found instead was that “pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.”

He believed “[T]hat GM benefited only the big companies.” He discovered “billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers” because of what they did not need to use.

He had heard GM seed contained “Terminator Technology” to keep farmers from saving seed for the next crop. He discovered that hybrid crops “did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.”

He had assumed that poor farmers did not want GM. What he found were farmers breaking local laws to get GM seed “because farmers were so eager to use them.”

He had “assumed that GM was dangerous.” When he looked into it, “It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding…”

The path Mark Lynas took to embrace GM (and nuclear power) is similar to the one Bjorn Lomborg took.

Lomborg, an associate professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, turned against the shibboleths of the green movement as the result of a project he began with his students to disprove Julian Simon. Simon, an economist, argued that the environment was on the whole getting better. Knowing that simply could not be true, Lomborg and his students gathered data. The more sources and statistics Lomborg and his students combed through, the more they found themselves agreeing with Simon’s heresy, and less with green dogma. The book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, was the result; it had 2,900 references to allow others to check the work.

These heretics, and others such as Patrick Moore and Stewart Brand, looked at their beliefs, weighed those against the facts and changed their minds. Such thinking marked the philosophical movement of the 18th century, which we now call the Enlightenment. It emphasized using reason to scrutinize previously accepted doctrines and traditions.

Others, the Romanticists, responded to the Enlightenment’s reason by emphasizing emotion over rational science and rejecting its search to understand the workings of nature. Romanticism placed the individual’s perceptions at the center of the universe and Nature was, according to one textbook, “a revelation of Truth, the ‘living garment of God’…” Little wonder that primitivism, worship of nature, and mysticism were hallmarks of Romanticism.

Who knows, with these defections we may be seeing a new Enlightenment.




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What the Frack? U.S. CO2 Output the Lowest in 20 years.

Natural Gas Usage

Natural Gas Usage (Photo credit: drbrain)

“The best is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire

Good news travels slowly, if at all. Given headlines of the century you might think that good news does not exist. A newspaper will not stay in business without readers—and they need drama to get readers—so even good news often gets described as bad news.

At the risk of biting the hand that nourishes me, here is a pretend headline from real data to show you how it works: “Rate of cancer deaths no longer falling rapidly for women.” Note that the rate is still falling and certainly not rising; it just is not falling as fast for women as it is for men. (By the way, deaths from cancer are much lower for women.) The point is that news outlets do not make money on cheery stories.

Since good news gets downplayed you may have missed a story about a drop in carbon-dioxide outputs in the United States. Why is a lowered CO2 output good news? Because CO2 is a greenhouse gas that most climatologists agree contributes to the warming of the earth, lowering CO2 then is thought to lower the risk of catastrophically heating our planet.

Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg wrote about the drop in CO2 output, “Carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States have dropped to their lowest level in 20 years….The reduction is even more impressive when one considers that 57 million additional energy consumers were added to the US population over the past two decades. Indeed, US carbon emissions have dropped some 20% per capita…”

To achieve a 20 percent drop in CO2 emissions, we must be using more energy produced by renewable resources, such as wind, solar, and hydro, and burning less fossil fuel right?

No, but given public discussion, it is easy to see why one might think that. After all, we hear that renewable energy is essential to preventing catastropic climate change.

“[T]he numbers clearly say otherwise,” wrote Lomborg. Renewables need backups because the wind does not always blow nor does the sun always shine. Consider “Denmark,” wrote energy expert Robert Bryce, “the poster child for wind energy boosters, more than doubled its production of wind energy between 1999 and 2007….[Yet] carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in 2007 were at about the same level as they were back in 1990, before the country began its frenzied construction of turbines.” And, Denmark’s population has not really increased, whereas the US population has grown 24 percent.

Not everyone cheers our achievement. Why not? Partly because we are still among the highest per capita emitters in the world and partly because of how we did it. We did it the old-fashioned way—we burned it.

The US is substituting cheaper natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity and some environmentalists have problems with that: 1) the way natural gas is extracted from the ground and 2) natural gas is still a fossil fuel.

First, the way natural gas is taken from the earth uses a process called hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”). Fracking has been around for sixty years; but has become more sophisticated in the last ten years. Water and chemicals are forced at high pressure to break up rock formations that hold natural gas in the earth. In a few cases, hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groud water supplies.

Second, burning natural gas to power electric generators is not free of CO2 emissions, just fewer. Burning natural gas releases about half the carbon dioxide that coal does. Using natural gas instead of coal has lessened other pollution as well. By using natural gas we are NOT sending tons of radioactive substances along with mercury into the air that burning coal would.

Robert Bryce sums up the choice to burn fossil fuel this way: “(Our political leaders) want to replace high power density sources that are dispatchable, reliable, and relatively low cost with low power density sources that are not dispatchable, highly variable, and high cost. This makes no sense. I’d call it insane but it’d be an insult to crazy people.”

Remember, “The best is the enemy of good.” Natural gas may not be the best solution to our power needs. But, for the moment, it is certainly better than others and not crazy.


Bryce, R. (2010, April 25). Five myths about green energy. Retrieved April 25, 2010, from WashingtonPost.com: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/23/AR2010042302220.html

Hvistendahl, M. (2007, December 13). Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste. Retrieved Ocotber 19, 2012, from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste

Lomborg, B. (2012, September 13). A Fracking Good Story. Retrieved September 13, 2012, from project-syndicate.org: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/a-fracking-good-story-by-bj-rn-lomborg

National Cancer Institute. (2012, March 28). National Cancer Institute. Retrieved October 19, 2012, from Report to the nation finds continuing declines in cancer death rates since the early 1990s: http://www.cancer.gov/newscenter/newsfromnci/2012/ReportNationRelease2012

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