Thursday, May 17, 2007

Trivial Pursuits from The Skeptical Environmentalist

I have been ploughing (very belatedly, I know) through Bjorn Lomborg's "The Skeptical Environmentalist" - 500-odd pages of closely-argued, oh-so-earnest commentary on the state of the world, and why all environmentalists have always got it wrong, and how all is peachy with the world.
It's an interesting read, and a necessary book - environmentalists over the years have become so used to being in the position of trying to bring perspective and a voice of reason to arrogant scientists, complacent governments and an apathetic general public. But, in these days of mainstream environmentalism, someone is needed to question their own dogma.
The book is the work of a little-known Danish statistician on a mission to trash the consciousness-raising efforts of the World Wildlife Fund, the WorldWatch Institute (he clearly has a very personal grudge against Lester Brown), Greenpeace, Norman Myers and others, and in the process to self-publicise himself as a controversial and fascinating world figure.
He lambastes these organizations for shoddy logic, self-serving interpretations and selective or misrepresented data. Some of this is admittedly probably justified but, unfortunately, it seems to me that he employs some of the same techniques himself in his fixation with proving that not just SOME environmental concerns are bunk, but all of them.
It's fascinating (and instructive) to see how statistics can be manipulated in the hands of a master (for example, his conversion of a 150% increase in cancer deaths since 1950 into a 30% decrease).
But don't worry, I don't intend a detailed critique of this tome here - there have been many such, and by much better qualified individuals and organizations than myself.
What the book does contain, though, is scads of demographic data and easily digestible graphs and tables, much of which I found fascinating (I'm a bit of a sucker for facts and figures and statistics), and I just wanted to share a few of these Trivial Pursuits-type snippets and gobbets with you (without the contentious commentary and interpretations):
  • The number of people who have ever lived on the earth is estimated to be between 50 and 100 billion, and 6 billion (or 6-12%) of those are still alive today.
  • In 1950, New York was the only city with more than 10 million inhabitants; today there are about 20 such megacities, the vast majority of them in the less developed parts of the world.
  • Until around the 15th Century, average life expectancy was in the region of 20-30 years; current life expectancy varies from 39 in Sierra Leone to 81 in Japan, with an average of 77 in the developed world and 65 in developing countries.
  • A plague in the late 6th Century cost over 100 million lives, 4 times the toll of the Black Death of the late 14th Century (and in a less populated world). The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed around 20-25 million worldwide.
  • Annual working hours for an employed person in Western Europe and the USA fell from almost 3,000 in 1870 to less than 1,600 in 1990.
  • In the US, television ownership went from less than 10% to 87% during the 10 years of the 1960's. A similarly steep curve applied for microwaves and VCRs in the 1980's (up to 80% and 70% respectively).
  • Also based on US data, women in 1965 spent 24% of their time on housework and men 7%; by 1995, this had changed to 16% and 9% respectively. Employment work over this period went up from 11% to 17% for women, and down from 28% to 23% for men.
  • US energy consumption rose from 10 exajuoules in 1900 to over 100 exajoules in 2000. World energy production over this period increased from around 18 exajoules to almost 400 exajoules, of which about 38% was oil, 22% coal, 21% gas, 7% hydro and renewables, 6% nuclear and the remaining 6% traditional fuels such as wood and charcoal.
  • The energy reaching us from the sun is equivalent to about 7,000 times our present global energy consumption.
  • In the US, cars kill about 57 million birds each year and 97 million birds die colliding with plate glass; wind turbines kill about 70,000 birds each year.
  • Cement for building constitutes about 34% of our total expenditure on raw materials, followed by aluminum (for cans, cars and airplanes - 12% of expenditure), iron (mainly for the production of steel - 11%), copper (for electrical products and currency - 8%), gold (for jewellery and electrical products - 8%) and nitrogen (for fertilizer - 6%).
  • The total amount of gold which has ever been quarried since antiquity would make a cube with sides of just 17 metres; upto 85% of it is still in use.
  • Of the 13.6 billion cubic kilometres of water in the world, oceans make up 97.2%, polar ice 2.15% and freshwater 0.65% (of which 0.62% is groundwater).
  • Each year, the equivalent of 30cm of water falls as precipitation (after evaporation) across the entire land mass of the world.
  • Kuwait has available only 30 litres of water per capita per day, followed by UAE (174 l), Libya (275 l) and Saudi Arabia (325 l) - less than 2,74o litres per capita per day is considered chronic water scarcity. By comparison, the UK has 3,337 l, USA 24,420 l, Australia 50,913 l, Russia 84,235 l and Iceland a whopping 1,660,502 litres.
  • 69% of water is used for agriculture, 23% for industry and just 8% for households. The water subsidy to farmers in the US is estimated to be over 90%.
  • A ton of grain requires about 1,000 tons of water for irrigation. 1kg of edible beef requires 16kg of grain feed.
Ah, the world we live in! I could go on, but I risk boring you.

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