Bjorn Lomborg is Environmentalist Baiter Supreme, the one guy with some letters after his name who is wheeled out in the media to represent the scientific face of climate denial. Despite having been accused of scientific dishonesty by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, he is still out there, touting his free market ideas. This Sunday’s Observer newspaper included an article by Lomborg called Climate change can wait. World health Can’t. In it he argues that “spending the world’s limited resources combating climate change would achieve good, but would cost more than it would achieve. That money could be better spent elsewhere”. Looked at from an energy descent perspective (among others), Lomborg’s arguments are a nonsense.
At the core of his article is the idea that combatting climate change and third world development are mutually exclusive, that there is a conscious choice to be made between one or the other. This is only the case if you want it to be. If your idea of third world development is economic growth, factories, the growth of centralised distribution, supermarkets rather than local markets, agribusiness rather than agriculture and the globalised economy rather than the localised one, then yes, it is a trade off, as all those things are inevitably intensely carbon producing.
If, instead, we start from the point that peak oil is a reality and that, as the Hirsch Report argues, we need to begin a ‘crash programme’ on the scale of a wartime mobilisation in order to have much chance of a smooth transition over the next 20 years, then really that Western development model is bankrupt. It is based on the idea that business as usual can continue in the West, again a highly dubious concept.
This split was encapsulated for me recently at a talk by a fellow Plymouth University student about carbon offsetting. He works for a body called Moor Trees, based on Dartmoor, who do good work raising money from companies as part of carbon offsetting schemes, and then using that money to plant native trees on Dartmoor.
Good stuff. Struck me however, that in terms of reducing carbon, it would be far better to plant trees that are productive, thereby saving carbon twice, firstly in terms of locking up carbon (the science on this is still inconclusive) and secondly in terms of displacing food that would otherwise be imported. They should be funding walnut groves, sweet chestnuts in urban parks, orchards, espallier apples in back gardens, local urban agriculture projects, coppice woods for fuel, not just woods for the sake of woods. In permaculture we call it ‘multiple function’, the idea that you get one thing to do as many things as possible.
One of the problem with Lomborg’s piece is that it, like the economists it praises, breaks everything down into different parts, so that climate change prevention is seen a separate from access to water and economic development. What we should be doing is working with developing nations to help them become more self reliant and less dependent on the globalised economy, which is itself the main source of carbon emissions, rebuilding their agricultural diversity and resilience and lessening their reliance on international trade in such a way as to lock up carbon. Planting useful trees, using local materials for construction, installing renewable energy systems, growing food nearer to home, all these things reduce carbon emissions, and indeed lock up carbon. In David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, he cites P.A. Yeomans, writing that;
the loss of humus from agricultural soils is as large a contibutor to greenhouse gas emissions as motor cars, and that achievable increases in humus across the world’s farming soils could reasorb the whole of the damaging imbalance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
In other words, helping other countries to switch from intensive to organic and localised agriculture has multiple benefits. We can garden the planet back to health. It may not deal with the scourge of AIDS, a subject I don’t know enough about to comment usefully, but since when is it a matter of either/or? The arguments above for self reliance apply, of course, equally to the West as to the ‘developing’ nations. If I had $50bn to spend, I would spend it on a combination of weaning developed nations off global trade, rebuilding local economies, local food production and self reliance, and also doing the same in the developing world. This cannot happen overnight, but as Hirsch has argued, it has to start now, and with considerable urgency. $50bn would give a global powerdown a huge kick start….
The other odious thing about Lomborg’s piece is the idea that there is only one measure of wealth and value, and that is money. My sense is that part of the period of transition we are entering into is about finding new ways to value things, new ways of placing value. A local and more self reliant economy has less in the way of measurable economic transactions, and more in terms of bartering, the exchange of things that have little financial value, labour exchange and so on. GDP is a dreadful tool for measuring wealth.
Ultimately the question for me is not how we can use the current economic system to sustain a growing economy that throws $50bn (peanuts really, the US has spent over $120bn just maintaining the flow of oil from Iraq) at ‘development issues’, but how we are going to navigate the transition to a lower energy future. Lomborg believes that a better world lies in unbridled capitalism, in free markets, in further pushing Western development models onto developing nations. This approach misses the point. Peak oil will pull the rug from underneath the globalised capitalist model, a model which over the last 50 years has dismantled what local self reliance we had in the West, while doing the same to developing nations, with devastating consequences. We have moved from having diverse, resilient agricultures around the world, a huge diversity of seeds and knowledge, to throwing those systems into the bin, and now, when we really need them they are not there.
We can, with the application of common sense, ingenuity and permaculture principles, design systems, everywhere in the world, that produce food, lock up carbon, support communities, build local economies and leave a legacy for our children. Lomborg’s assertion that it costs too much to do anything so we ought not to bother is shallow, arrogant and desparately out of touch with those of us actually trying to develop workable solutions that do many things at once. Peak oil challenges us to do more with less, to embrace the reality of our situation with creativity and imagination, and to shift our focus to the local. Business as usual is not an option. Globalisation and free trade economics will not be an option. It is the core thinking behind Lomborg’s piece that is flawed, a more holistic and integrated approach is urgently needed, and it is not one you will find in his article.