The rich man and the butterfly. Are we trapped on a runaway train? Bjorn Lomborg, self-styled sceptical environmentalist, on why ecologists are wrong to despair about the future of the planet

Rising Tides: a history of the environmental revolution and visions for an ecological age

Rory Spo

Ecological movements are, on the whole, the inspiration of the wealthy and educated in the western world. The beauty of a butterfly, it seems, can best be appreciated on a full stomach. This means that the new ecological revolution - so eagerly awaited by the likes of Rory Spowers - can never be a genuine people's revolution, but merely the result of an elitist project, in which this book plays its own small part.

As a work of history, Rising Tides is a decent read. Spowers explores the roots of ecology from the ancient Greeks to the Book of Genesis and on to the impact of the industrial revolution. The formation and development of important environmental movements in the US and Britain are described in detail, enlivened by intrigue and anecdotes. The title refers not to the threat posed by rising sea levels in an age of global warming, but to the new ecological movements that Spowers believes will one day help end our addiction to unsustainable economic growth. But does this book have the qualities to convince a sceptical environmental statistician? The answer is no. There are too many erroneous claims and inconsistent arguments, too much dreamy, utopian thinking.

Rising Tides has a clear political agenda. But its ideas on how to save the planet are unconvincing. For a start, the author struggles - beyond one cursory paragraph - to offer much quantitative evidence to support his belief that, unless we change the way we live, we face an imminent environmental catastrophe. He refers happily to a dubious secondary source projecting a 300 per cent increase in carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations by 2030. Yet according to the official United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will increase by 64 per cent from their pre-industrial level over the next 30 years on a "worst case" basis. He claims, too, that climate changes have caused $90bn of damage worldwide. Although it is true that during the worst year ever recorded (1998), global economic losses from weather-related natural disasters just exceeded $90bn, there is nothing to indicate that the damage was caused by climatic changes. Instead, there is widespread consensus that the main reason for the losses were socio-economic changes in demography as more and more people move to live in the productive and beautiful - but high-risk - coastal areas of the world. To claim, then, that climate-related economic losses will exceed the total value of all human production within two generations is absurd. The economic losses in 2000 were merely one-third of the all-time high of 1998; the IPCC, in its Climate Change 2001 impact report, concluded that "the financial service sector as a whole is expected to be able to cope with the impacts of climate change".

Rory Spowers argues that "one-third of human lives are threatened by a rise in sea level of just 25cm" (with no reference given). But this goes against all official estimates. The IPCC has estimated that on a worst-case basis - assuming that nothing is done to improve sea protection for decades to come -a 40cm rise in sea level will put 237 million people at risk in 2080. Judging by the UN medium projection for the expected population in 2075, that will be equivalent to roughly 2.5 per cent of the world's future population - a long way from Spowers's undocumented figure.

The reality is that, during the past 50 years, humankind has experienced an unprecedented improvement in almost every welfare indicator: we live longer and healthier lives, we are richer and more literate, we can benefit from more liberties and freedoms, and world poverty and hunger are slowly declining. Yet Spowers insists that not only are we stealing the future from our children, we are poisoning them. Well, if poison has really been responsible for providing these improvements, most parents would probably put the antidote back in the cupboard.

No one doubts that the next generation will face severe problems. But there is nothing to indicate that our present time in history is in any way special, nor does it call for extraordinary measures. Spowers fails to produce any convincing arguments in support of his claim that in our time - in which he happens to live and write - man is faced with the biggest challenge yet. We are not trapped on a runaway train.

Spowers asserts that we cannot pursue infinite growth while relying on finite resources. This is nonsense. Even pure solar energy stems from a finite source. Indeed, because the world's resources are finite, the demand for, and the availability of, the earth's resources adjust over time, according to developments in technology. That is why the world has never run out of a vital resource. In fact, the availability of many vital resources actually increases with technological progress and economic efficiency. The demand for wind energy, for example, has only recently extended beyond sailboat skippers to become a reliable source of energy for whole societies. Many things of significant value in modern societies are created without much environmental degradation. A piece of paper - a small part of nature - has no intrinsic value. Any value is completely dependent on what has been written on it. As such, economic growth relies much more on how the material is processed and utilised than on the material itself. Spowers is right in arguing that something can never emerge out of nothing, but wrong when he says that the something can only stem from an extraction of nature.

In the final analysis, Spowers is against capitalism and against progress. Market forces, he believes, increase environmental destruction. They lead to poverty and social inequality. He never pauses to consider why poverty, social inequality and environmental degradation are most severe in those countries excluded from economic globalisation. His impression of the developing world as populated by people living simple, happy lives should not be allowed to stand uncontested. The intense migration towards the developed world tells another story. Although dramatic progress has been made in the developing world, the United Nations estimates that 826 million people are still undernourished; 1.2 billion live on less than $1 a day; and more than 40 million are living with HIV/Aids. Happy, simple lives?

Spowers may warn against the dangers of techno addiction, but he seems to be infected by the very disease about which he warns us. He is excited by technological advances such as zero-emission hydrogen-powered cars, solar panel heating, and wind power; by the mind-enhancing power of drugs such as LSD; and by how photography, especially spectacular pictures of the earth taken from space, has contributed to our spiritual ecological awakening.

There are, too, the inevitable conspiracy theories. Scientists, he believes, are under the control of powerful corporations, encouraged to publish material that contradicts the green agenda. It is true that our understanding of the world's problems could be biased. But that bias generally pulls in the opposite direction. The media and the public are naturally sceptical of research that has been sponsored by industrial conglomerates, which means that their arguments must be much more coherent and robust not to be dismissed as mere propaganda. In any event, all research is implicitly influenced by those who finance it. In modern research, this is largely the state. To attract public funds, researchers have an interest in pointing to problems within their own field of research - and if one looks closely enough, a problem inevitably emerges. Concluding that there are no problems would be like committing fundraising hara-kiri. This, combined with the media's hunger for urgent news - preferably bad news - leads to an overexposure of environmental problems while at the same time downplaying real progress.

At times, Spowers reaches a state of heightened paranoia, arguing that the BSE crisis was caused by a leaked virus from a British biological weapons factory and that the British government's handling of the crisis was part of a wider scheme to destroy the livestock industry. At other times, he loses all sense of proportion, as when claiming that the environmental impact of producing and packaging a fast-food burger increases the "real" cost of the product a thousandfold. In another passage, he asserts that technological advances have been responsible for millions of lost lives in the past century. This is a perverse claim: in truth, advances in technology and economic growth are the reason for improvements in health and life expectancy.

On a more philosophical level, Spowers's meditation on the relationship between man and nature is not convincing. It is important to remember that, for our ancestors, the "harmony" of nature was synonymous with the struggle to survive and to reproduce. This is why, throughout history, man has striven to free himself from the so-called harmony of nature. If meddling with nature were considered unethical, that would have widespread consequences for everything we have achieved. It is wrong to suggest that man has ever lived in harmony with nature; even if he had, it would be impossible to return to that state. Any future state of harmony will have to be defined in purely human terms; it will be shaped by our own aesthetic.

Indeed, if self-styled deep ecologists such as Rory Spowers ever had more power, the beauty of butterflies would no doubt be appreciated. But who would care for the less glamorous race of human beings?

Bjorn Lomborg is the author of the Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press). This review was co-written by Olivier Rubin, environmental analyst at the Environmental Assessment Institute in Copenhagen

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The workers are restless