The Last Broadside of Productivist Mythology

The Last Broadside of Productivist Mythology

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By Joaquín Valdivielso

With the publication of The Skeptical Ecologist as the spearhead, a new wave of anti-ecologist criticism emerges to remind us that we live in the most sustainable and practically the best of all possible worlds. The neoliberal and neoconservative ideological universes would not be understood without their neoproductivist counterpart.

When, coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, Francis Fukuyama sang the end of history, he came to finish a constant work of decades by which neoliberal and neo-conservative ideals became hegemonic. The appeal to the Hegelian idea of ​​the "end of history" intends to refer not only to the end of concrete stories, but to the end of History in the sense in which it was elaborated by the various illustrations and the modern project in general: a linear process, though uneven, of progressive moral and material improvement, a rise in values ​​and institutions by which superstition is left behind, myths are dissolved. This same narrative, well known, has devoted not a few chapters to deactivating those visions that precisely put the alleged story in progress in front of the mirror of their own myths. One of them is the one that says that the material progress achieved is not only desirable but a feasible aspiration for all and for all time to come.

In some way, the notion of ecological crisis is part of our common sense, to the point that it is difficult to find relevant social discourses that do not recognize that the interaction between humans and their natural environment is problematic, that one should not act as in the past and that humanity as a whole faces enormous risks derived from conventional processes of production and consumption. From here on, the differences are abysmal between the different positions and social groups when it comes to describing the environmental state of the world and proposing answers - what practices should be changed and how? - but it is not usual for someone to dare to deny publicly that "the ecosystems are in danger", to maintain that "from any point of view things are improving and everything indicates that they will continue to do so in the future." Because this is precisely the role that Bjørn Lomborg's book The Skeptic Ecologist is assuming, recently translated into Spanish (Espasa, 2003), and because of the monumental international debate that it has generated, it can be a useful enclave from which to make some reflections on the current state of the world and environmentalism.

The controversial Lomborg

Thanks to the publication in 1998 of The Real State of the World, the Danish statistics professor rose not only to fame but also in the eye of the hurricane of a huge controversy in his country, extended to the whole world after the English translation and as The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001). The shower of very powerful voices of support, especially from the right, makes it difficult to speak of a daring text, despite which it is difficult not to label its main thesis as "politically incorrect": there is no such thing as the ecological crisis, the "litany catastrophic "of environmentalism is based on myths without scientific basis; "From any point of view, the world is improving", and therefore we should dedicate our resources to other priorities. For Lomborg, "our food production will continue to allow us to feed more and more people and for less money. It is not true that we are going to lose our forests; we are not depleting energy, raw materials or water" (p. 450 ), as it is not true that "acid rain has killed our forests", that "our species are disappearing at the speed that many claim", or that the world is increasingly polluted. "The problem of the ozone layer is more or less solved", "the catastrophe seems to be more in spending our resources foolishly in reducing carbon emissions at a very high cost".

For any ecological challenge we can imagine, Lomborg provides a forceful rebuttal - the book, already long, is supported by 3,000 citations and almost two hundred graphs and tables. "Now we have more free time, more safety and fewer accidents, more comforts, higher wages, less hunger, more food and a longer and healthier life. This is the fantastic story of humanity, and to claim that this civilization 'works evil 'is, at the very least, immoral "(p. 449). This is "the real state of the world." Therefore, "we must not let environmental organizations, pressure groups or the media dictate priorities" no matter how loud they make; that in alarmist admonitions there is nothing more than "environmental mythology" invented "to attract subsidies": "the worse they make the state of the environment appear, the easier it will be for them to convince us that we should spend more money on it rather than on hospitals , nurseries, etc. " (pp. 82 and 452).

No one would say that Lomborg himself declares himself a vegetarian and a former partner of Greenpeace, among other things because Greenpeace is harshly criticized as the author of the litany, along with the famous reports of the World Watch Institute, the WWF, and such key references for environmentalism as Paul Ehrlich or David Pimentel. In the same way, he considers himself on the left, despite the fact that the most conservative and pro-establishment circles have been and are the ones that promote his ideas. In addition to deserving authentic apologies in the Economist, The Washington Post or New York Times, in 2001 he was named "Global Leader of Tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum, a year later the Danish conservative government made him director of the Institute for Environmental Assessment, to be shortly after considered one of the "50 stars of Europe" by Business Week. It is also true that there has been and is an opposite reaction, inside and outside the scientific community, for which not only the world of environmentalism in general but publications such as Nature, Science or Scientific American have been and are more than critical with his theses. (1)

To a large extent, the Lomborg discourse is thus more of a "counter-litany" than a scientific work. In short, it joins a long tradition of techno-utopians who, leaving aside the discussion about anthropocentrism, start by questioning the scientific nature of environmental "tremendousism" to end up defending a conventional and productivist idea of ​​progress. (2)

The scientific method and 'The real state of the world'

At the end of 2002, the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty, after examination by a working group made up of five experts, four of them professors from various disciplines, ruled the publication as "clearly contrary to the criteria of good scientific practice" - for the biased use of data and sources - although it could not demonstrate that it was "deliberately or grossly negligent". Beyond Lomborg's objective but not subjective guilt, the Committee had to face the problem of determining to what extent it could or could not be described as science - on which they did not agree.

This is relevant to the extent that the Lomborg discourse claims the status of value-free science, sheltered in "the much clearer way of seeing the world" offered by statistics. Despite recognizing that "the identification of a problem depends on the theory with which we interpret what we observe in the world" (p. 80), it falls into the positivist dogma that everyone betrays the (impossible) epistemological neutrality except oneself, and this is where the productivist discourse can probably be judged with less risk.

In any case, the internal inconsistencies are too many to ignore. From the formal point of view, the abundance of fallacies of all kinds is striking. A common characteristic of them is a constant productivist: contempt for risk. Thus, as their toxicity has not been proven, "transgenic potatoes are not toxic" (pp. 465-468) -falacia ad ignorantiam. In general, reluctance to regulate the environment denotes a syllogism of the following type: (1) Precaution is expensive, (2) we will never be certain that there are no risks, therefore (3) heeding the alarm bells is expensive and useless. The biased use of data, the methodological, empirical and epistemological choices that lead to the surprising conclusion that everything is going better than ever, are subordinated to a relativity of risk. However, when it is spun finer, the conclusions can be different.

For example, it can only be argued that the forest area of ​​the planet has even increased if primary forests and plantations are equated - 8.7% of tropical forests have been lost in the 1990s alone. To argue that "marine productivity has doubled since 1970 "Although the fisheries are being depleted, it is about offsetting catches with farm production - the example of salmon is Lomborg's favorite, not to mention biological or chemical contaminants or grain inputs. Weighing the loss of biodiversity is done at the cost of reiterating that it does not take place at the rate of 40,000 species per year, as predicted by Norman Myers in 1979, - but at a rate of at least 1,000 to 1,500 times the natural pattern. "Most resources [especially fossils such as oil or gas] are now more abundant" although their consumption increases every year, only if we confuse the reserves available at profitable prices with the total physical stocks. And so ad infinitum one by one Lomborg's main theses can be unmasked without great difficulty.

The ideological fertilizer of neoproductivism

The biases of Lomborg's work, involuntary or not, are perfectly consistent with a whole set of ideological bridges with the neoliberal and neo-conservative ideology. In the first place, the belief in the substitutability between factors that are qualitatively different but that are assimilated to the notion of capital: labor (human or social capital) for technology and goods (manufactured capital), this for resources (natural capital), and all of them for financial capital. This is the door to the use and abuse of cost-benefit analysis in the evaluation of the different alternatives in cases of uncertainty: once all possible channels of action have been reduced to costs and benefits measured in currency, the most favorable final balance indicates the option to choose. This is how Lomborg disparages climate policy - in his calculations the cost of the Kyoto Protocol for 2010 is greater than that of eliminating the world's water shortage and saving 2 million lives.

The illusion that the stock of natural resources can increase with more capital and that "the only scarce good is money" (p. 45) leads simply to absurdity. For example, the monetary value of food, including energy inputs, takes at most 5% of world GDP. Probably humanity could live with a 5% lower GDP - in military spending for example - but not if it is that of food - tanks are not eaten. Similarly, the figures can hide perverse distributional effects and arbitrary valuations: Lomborg's example for climate change discounts the value of an American's life to more than $ 5 million, but that of a Sub-Saharan slightly above 40 thousand, 100 times less. In addition, it abstracts from what is not monetarized; Although biodiversity is key in environmental services - water and nutrient cycles, rain control, atmospheric stability, pollination of crops, etc. - it hardly counts as food and medicine pantries. In addition, in the end, environmental regulation -very studied for different cases of pollutants- has once been shown to be much cheaper than its opponents claimed.

In general, cost-benefit analysis and the underlying notion of substitutability reflect the mechanistic and utilitarian universe -which contemporary science is leaving behind- by ​​assigning with large doses of arbitrariness a monetary value to lives, discounting the interests of future generations, excluding the distributive consequences of the risks, as well as ignoring variables that cannot be quantified (value of lost species, deteriorated environmental services, risks that can mean catastrophic losses). On the contrary, the perspective of environmental sciences and particularly of ecology places us in intricate networks of life that cannot be explained according to the model of the clock or the mechano-nature as a linear, passive, predictable and correctable space-, whose hasty transformation can imply irreversible changes - interdependence can lead to the disappearance of one element destabilizing the whole. To a large extent, those who are accustomed to uncertainty, to the dilemmas of knowledge and regulation in contemporary science, are reluctant to take themselves as knowing the real state of the world. Thus, the evaluation of science as a result of the paradigm shift that occurred in the 70s, tends to be thought from multiple criteria and values. Taking into account the political, ethical and scientific dimensions of the analysis of environmental regulation, there are methods more adapted to uncertainty, already open to incommensurability and legitimacy (such as Multicriteria Analysis, different forms of citizen participation and even the formation of groups consensus such as the IPCC itself, in charge of studying climate change).

Second, it assumes the notion of the environmental Kuznet Curve: environmental quality decreases for each increase in income, but only up to a level of wealth where it just improves as income increases (graphically it describes an inverted U); "better income corresponds to better levels of environmental protection" (p. 74). However, the truth is that there is no solid evidence that environmental development is a direct result of economic development, at least for the most relevant trends. There are several reasons why what has been true for rich countries does not necessarily have to be true for the whole (fallacy of composition).

To be true, economic activity and its environmental effects should coincide geographically, and this is not the case. The global ecological space is distributed in a very uneven way: the "ecological footprint" of a consumer from a rich or overdeveloped country is much greater than that of one in a poor country, among other things due to the ability to import sustainability at a low price. in products and materials acquired in the ocean of global business relationships. The average American consumes 330 times more energy than the average Ethiopian because they buy non-renewable (fossil) resources and because they do not pay for environmental services impaired by their use (such as climate change). Furthermore, for societies with higher consumption, a reduction in the impact per extra unit (where the marginalist approach also assumed by Lomborg draws attention) is offset by the aggregate increase; that is, if income grows faster than resource efficiency, the impact is increasing. In this way, the transaction costs of the least developed countries could simply be unattainable: they could never reach the consumption of the rich unless they have other areas in which to appropriate the surplus of environmental services and resources.

Lastly, the axiom of the correlation between prices and scarcity is accepted. It is no coincidence that Lomborg's ideological conversion occurred when reading the economist Julian Simon, famous among other things for having won a bet in 1980 against prestigious scientists linked to environmentalism who claimed that the main raw materials would rise in price in the short term - they thought them, as a symptom of resource depletion. For both, this shows that they are not scarce - never that the axiom is wrong or that the prices of raw materials or food do not respond to the requirements of perfect competition, as if there were no subsidies for energy production or agrochemicals .

The confidence in the Kuznet curve or the belief in substitutability are normative options, consistent with the marginalist, mechanistic and utilitarian assumptions of the neoliberal theoretical universe, and perfectly compatible with the invitation to preserve the social relations that lead us to prosperity now. extend the institutions - especially global commerce without democratic controls - that feed it. It is difficult to find tension between these estimates and recommendations and the G.W. administration's agenda. Bush. But it is even more difficult to consider this a display of skepticism.

Catastrophic litany and environmentalism

The most obvious of the fallacies in Lomborg - the environmentalists are wrong; therefore, the environment is improving (non sequitur) - it forces us to reflect on the reality of environmentalism. The productivist counter-litany is sustained by a description of environmentalism with three outstanding features: (1) Malthusian catastrophism with First World connotations, (2) functioning as an interest group, (3) counter-pruductive effect in the determination of social priorities and good management of scarce resources.

Central to the ecological ideology is undoubtedly the idea of ​​limit: in a finite space such as the planet, human appropriation of the environment necessarily has to face limits imposed by nature. It is true that based on this idea, and especially during the 1970s, numerous voices of alarm overestimated the effect of the population against others in environmental deterioration, predicted the traumatic collapse of industrial civilization due to the depletion of resources -in particularly oil - and in general they abused the image of the survival of the endangered human species. This often fueled radical speeches for population control in developing countries and other conservative positions - the insistence of WorldWatch Institute reports on the dangers to global food stability of China's incorporation into the Western diet has not always contributed to the separation of environmentalism from these clichés. Now, this type of paternalistic, Malthusian and catastrophic vision is little or not at all representative of Cologism today, it was not even 30 years ago beyond certain conservationist and academic circles, especially in the United States.

In the first place, because it was a vision used profusely also on the right of the political and social spectrum at a time when capitalism needed
face a structural change in order to get out of the crisis in which it found itself. In 1973, V. Giscard d'Estaing played with the ambiguity of language to point out: "one type of growth comes to an end. It is necessary that we all invent another". Second, because today no one would dare to point out that in the short and medium term it is the finite nature of fossil fuels that damages the global climate, but precisely its opposite: excess. On the other hand, because the notion of biophysical limit is far from being refuted: as much as the trends have been such in recent years, it does not follow that they will be so forever. We do not have to wait for the depletion of oil to recognize human activity as a generator of environmental risks, although now we focus less on the scarcity of non-renewable resources and more on that of renewables - including the degradation of environmental services. In addition, because when evaluating the contribution that environmentalism may have made to environmental regulation, we must take into account the final balance between false alarms and good ones and ask ourselves in which world we would live to assume - as Lomborg does, blind to the relationship causal between social mobilization and legal and technological improvements - which are the entrepreneurial initiative itself and self-propelled technological change the reasons for prosperity - very little skeptical on their part. Seen like this, environmental scaremongering can even be a fault rather than an excess, it is hard to believe that the world is better despite the environmental movements and not thanks to them, and these must be the reasons why they are classified as groups. value-driven rather than interest-driven lobbies. At least for European citizens and for cases as significant as that of transgenics, environmental NGOs deserve much more trust before the public than scientists and politicians who are likely to have any interest in defending the priorities of big business - which, Despite Lomborg, they have more means to "make more noise."

Blaming ecologists for the lack of social programs by presenting fallacious dichotomies may at this point contribute little to further dividing the social left, but certainly the invitation to cling to liberal democracy and the market economy under the umbrella of globalization as the right engine for human progress plays the right game. While the environmental version of The End of History requires almost an act of faith, in the current political "environment" beliefs find especially fertile soil.

* Joaquín Valdivielso - Ecology and Environment Area of ​​Esquerra Unida de ses Illes Balears - Izquierda Unida de las Islas Baleares - Published in El Viejo Topo, number 192, pages 55 to 59, April 2004

1 The network facilitates the access to the debate: and Greenspirit ( allow to approach the favorable positions; for critical readings see and in particular contributions from World Resources Institute (, Grist Magazine
( and Danish Ecological Council (, as well as the judgment of the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty ( /bl_decision.htm). Articles in Science (Pacala, SW, et al., "False Alarm over Environmental False Alarm", vol. 301, 2003; Grubb, M., "Relying on Manna form Heaven", vol. 294, 2001) and the exceptional "Some Realism About nvironmental
Skepticism "by D. Kysar (Ecology Law Quarterly, vol. 30, 2003), of which I use a large part of the data presented, for reasons of space without explicit references.
2 A key text in this regard is that of R. North, Life on a modern planet. A manifesto for progress, published by the same publisher as Lomborg's (Manchester U.P., 1994). This thesis has been defended in our environment by Manuel Arias ("Rhetoric and truth of the ecological crisis", Magazine of Books, nº 65, 2002).

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