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The NS Interview: Bjørn Lomborg

“I didn’t want to be the gay guy who talks about the environment”.

You started life as a statistician. What sparked your interest in the environment?
I found university a little dispiriting. I thought I would enter the great halls of Plato, but instead I entered the halls of an intellectual sausage factory. I wanted to do something not on the main course, and chose the environment.

What is your position on global warming?
Global warming is real - it is man-made and it is an important problem. But it is not the end of the world.

You have been branded a climate-change denier. Have you changed your mind?
No, I haven't changed my mind, but the global warming debate is so polarised that there is space for only two possible viewpoints: either it's the end of the world, or you think it is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated. Because I dared to be sceptical, a lot of people pushed me into the deniers' camp.

Are you still sceptical?
I have been sceptical all along, but about the ­solution. Our current solution - the Kyoto approach - doesn't work.

What's not working?
The UN summits are PR vehicles for politicians so they can all get together and look like they're doing something.

What's your view of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?
I would say 90 per cent of what the panel tells us is right, which is pretty good for a very complex subject. But the UN-led policy solutions are incredibly poor.

So what's your solution?
We need to invest dramatically in green energy, making solar panels so cheap that everybody wants them. Nobody wanted to buy a computer in 1950, but once they got cheap, everyone bought them.

How did it feel when critics accused you of being scientifically dishonest in your book The Sceptical Environmentalist?
I always felt, when people were attacking me, that they were attacking the idea. When the dishonesty decision got reviewed by the Danish ministry of science, they found that it was factually vacuous, so it was overturned.

Do you enjoy provoking controversy?
No. A lot of people think I do, but I would love the day when we don't need my voice in the debate any more.

What was your view of the Climategate scandal at the University of East Anglia?
There was poor intent and bad will involved on the part of the researchers, but I also think it was vastly overplayed.

Do you think it had a damaging effect? Fewer people now believe in climate change.
Climategate was only a touch point for that; it is not the main reason. We have been scared silly for a number of years and eventually you tire of being scared silly.

Do you blame the activists for that?
It's not just activists; there's Al Gore, for example. We shouldn't base policy decisions on fear.

Are you involved in politics?
No. I have great respect for politicians; they do a difficult and often thankless job. But I'm not politically active.

Do you believe David Cameron will deliver the "greenest government ever"?
I'm not surprised that's a quotation from him, but that doesn't seem to be where they're putting their money. In Britain, I see an incredible split between stating what you'd like to see and making the policies for that to happen.

Do you have religious faith of any kind?
I tentatively believe in a God. I was brought up in a fairly religious home. I think the world is compatible with reincarnation, karma, all that stuff. But fundamentally, you have to do good in this life towards your fellow man, so I guess I'm a humanist with the potential of [believing in] a God.

You've said that being openly gay is a civic responsibility. What do you mean?
When I grew up, I didn't see many likeable role models. You could either be a ballet dancer or someone extreme whom people would snigger at. I'd like to show the next generation that you can be regular, ordinary and successful.

How has your sexuality affected your career?
I didn't want to be the gay guy who talks about the environment. I wanted to be the guy who talks about the environment who happens to be gay. I think that has turned out pretty well.

Is there a plan?
In the larger scheme, no. There have been meso plans, but not meta plans.

Are we all doomed?
No. If you look across the centuries, we have created problems, but we've solved more. Our ingenuity seems to be an unlimited resource.

Defining Moments

1965 Born on 6 January
1994 Receives PhD from the University of Copenhagen
1998 Publishes his first articles on the environment, causing media furore
2001 Publishes his book The Sceptical Environmentalist
2003 Cleared of "scientific dishonesty"
2004 Launches Copenhagen Consensus
2010 Calls for $100bn to be invested each year to fight climate change

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood