Time for 'Reality Check' Journalism

Article for Reporting Science & Technology November 23rd, 2004

bio curriculum vitae writing portfolio links home

Just over ten years ago, Yale University professor Paul Kennedy set the benchmark for global reform with his “Preparing for the 21st Century” – a litany of disasters waiting to befall the earth. A decade later the question is asked, are we closer to Armageddon, or are things getting better?

It is a good thing the year is 2004 as opposed to 1999 in order to argue my perspective on this subject which lies, as many people’s likely does, somewhere between the doomsayers and the Bjorn Lomborgs. But let us begin with the pluses and minuses of the popular arguments currently in our mental environment shaping our perspective of the external one surrounding us.

On the polar ends of the debate over Earth’s future, the human race’s upon it and our responsibility towards the environment are Bjorn Lomborg and Paul Kennedy. Paul Kennedy heads up the most pessimistic end. Kennedy believes Thomas Malthus had the right idea, but the wrong timeframe.

Malthus theorized in the later half of the 18th century the British population would expand beyond the country’s resources in a very short number of years. Kennedy states this theory was wrong only because of migration, industrialization and an increase in agricultural production which at the time of Malthus’ prediction were ‘unforeseeable’. However, Kennedy believes now is the time when economies are set to collapse for a plethora of reasons.

To begin, there is always someone to argue intelligently or otherwise that the present, whenever that present might be, is very near Armageddon (however they define the end). This is not a knee-jerk way to dismiss these arguments, but throughout human history a group has been on the edge of their seats to scream, “I told you so!”, and had any number of fact to awkwardly back up their hypotheses of doom. If one wants an example, look at the development of Catastrophism theory to explain early geology’s realization that the earth must be older than 6,000 years, which is the age of the earth as could be deciphered from the Bible.

The damning flaw of Kennedy’s theory is its myopic, ethnocentric perspective. I cannot disagree with some of Kennedy’s general principals such as political instability causes war. Who could disagree with that? Resource instability creates conflict between species other than our own, but the problem is, as the author George Steiner expressed, we long for a former glory.

This former glory never existed and the events that circumvented the doom of Malthus’ prediction for the British spelt major hardships, if not annihilation, for native populations across the planet. For Paul Kennedy to discuss, “the collapse of continents rather than single states,” and, “oceans of dead rather than mere rivers,” to occur before there is any significant reaction to prevent our horrible end, seems to overlook the decimation of American populations after the arrival of Europeans or their effects on regions of Africa or Australasia. The settlement of North America by a European Diaspora brought a better life to the invaders, but if this cannot be viewed as a collapse of a continent in recent history, then I am at a loss for words.

“Unlike animals and birds, human beings destroy forests, burn fossil fuels, drain wetlands, pollute rivers and oceans, and ransack the earth for ores, oil, and other raw materials.” I cannot understand our obsession to think we are not animals and like all others have a reflexive, symbiotic relationship with our environment, especially when this argument is forwarded by environmentalists. For the first few billions of years of life on earth did anaerobic bacteria not predominately exist? Did this not slowly change our atmosphere from one heavily laced with ammonia to be more like the one we breath today? Is this not an organism burning up raw materials?

The flipside of the environmentalist coin bears the face of Bjorn Lomborg with “The Skeptical Environmentalist”. In a nutshell, he argues that things are going to work out, there are plenty of natural resources to go around and “looking for something to worry about has become an industry producing a litany of disaster.”

I have to agree with the principle of Lomborg’s argument. I also have to concede that in the face of the hopeless negativism of Kennedy’s ultimate doom theory, this opposite extreme must be forwarded before a middle ground can be established.

The major problem with Lomborg is he deals more with the sensational perspectives of doomsayers the press love to publish and does not sell his argument of abandoning many preventive tactics to avoid global warming, pollution or any of the topics one can grab from the cornucopia of environmentalists’ crusades. Lomborg has also been attacked by his peers for his lack of peer review, focus on media rather than statistics and for his overabundant optimism.

Lomborg’s flaw is described well by George Steiner’s point that we place too much trust in the unfolding excellence of our progress. However, this argument is necessary to counter the utter pessimism widely accepted which is Paul Kennedy’s argument of impending doom.

Richard D. North fills in the gaps left by Lomborg with “Life on a Modern Planet”. North is much more conservative with his approach which undoubtedly adds to the acceptance of his argument. Nature’s review of Lomborg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist” states that, “Like bad term papers, Lomborg’s argument relies heavily on secondary sources.”

“I think the greens’ contribution is often spiritually deficient and usually practically redundant. The greens, like many feminists and socialists, belong unnecessarily cheerless whilst not helping find solutions to real problems,” states North in his prologue. This picks up with the best part of Lomborg’s argument about the litany of disaster. This also illustrates a practical wake up call that running around screaming the end is nigh does not help anything.

The end is not at hand as Paul Kennedy’s “Preparing for the 21st Century” riles many to believe. There is a responsibility to use resources sensibly but also to look forward in our use instead of rationing everything as if we were floating on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific with no oar instead of on a living, breathing planet which recycles itself.