How Much have Global Problems Cost the World?: A Scorecard From 1900 To 2050 Paperback – 10 Oct 2013
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'For a volume covering such a large number of grim subjects, ranging from climate change and violent conflict to loss of bioversity and malnutrition, this is a surprisingly uplifting read. While mankind has succeeded in creating some depressingly disastrous social, natural and humanitarian disasters, we also have the power to alleviate and overcome these self-inflicted challenges. Bjorn Lomborg reminds us that for every part of mankind that can destroy, there is also one part that can create.' Tilman Brück, Director, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
'This 150-year view of humanity's biggest challenges, measured in economic terms, gives unique data on the globe's important issues to students, teachers and the general public. Ultimately, it affords everyone the opportunity to answer with facts the questions of humanity's scorecard: are we doing better or worse? Overall, there is more good news than bad, but we could still do better.' Per Pinstrup-Andersen, H. E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy and J. Thomas Clark Professor of Entrepreneurship, Cornell University
'This book is a bracing tonic. An excellent survey for students, teachers and the general public with a wealth of thought provoking material. If you want to know how the world is doing, and get hard, comparable numbers to back it up, this is where to go.' Alix Peterson Zwane, Executive Director, Evidence Action and the Deworm the World Initiative, and former Senior Program Officer, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
A selection of the world's leading economists discuss ten of the greatest challenges that have blighted human development since 1900, quantifying their costs in percent of GDP through to 2050. Rather than offering definitive answers, this innovative book encourages debate and will engage a wide readership.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
This book, edited by Lomborg, seeks to examine ten major issues that have, and will affect humankind: air pollution, conflicts, climate change, biodiversity, education, gender inequality, health malnutrition, trade barriers, and water and sanitation. The time period is a century and a half, 1900 to 2050.Read more ›
Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus got a bunch of academics to look at issues from a common denominator. Everything has to be evaluated as a percentage of GDP. Everything has to be monetized to make the models work. Lives, disease, biodiversity - everything gets a dollar value in these studies. Lack of historical data is not a problem either; the models "backcast" to 1900. The conclusion is that our worrisome problems are an ever shrinking cost to us, relative to GDP.
But of course, prices have never reflected the ecological cost of production or use, so we've been freeloading, with GDP expanding while costs have been controlled. The bill will go to our grandchildren. These models don't reflect that. Instead, the ballooning GDPs of the last century simply leave the cost centers in their wake, taking an ever smaller share.
There are ten studies, covering a wide swath of life on earth, "humanity's biggest challenges". Interestingly, Lomborg presents them not in order of impact, importance, conclusions or even dollar value, but in alphabetical order:
Some of the assumptions are worrying. Solid fuel (wood, coal) use is falling according to its study. But everything I've read says that coal is booming.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The book is a collection of academic papers on trying to quantify the cost to humanity on the following 10 issues:
Water and sanitation
My big question is: Are things getting better? If you watched the news, you'd wager no. However, in order to see if things are getting better, we need to first define and measure the problem - and this is what the book attempts to do.
I'm not an academic, but the papers were written well enough to understand, and they attempted to put a cost of each problem. It made me realize that I should have paid attention more in economics classes in college, but I could grasp the fundamentals without that much effort. Some parts did leave me scratching my head and taking notes to look up later. I always thought of gender inequality as more of a human rights issue than a financial issue, so to look at it that way was new and interesting.
Overall I liked this book mainly because it put me outside of my intellectual comfort zone. Does GDP percentages really translate into a good measure for quality of life? Does everything truly have a financial cost attached to it? I felt myself arguing with my emotions and brain, and felt frustrated that I wasn't able to articulate how I felt about something like air pollution. I don't think anyone for instance says it's a good thing, but where's the trade off between minimal pollution and quality of life?
An interesting book for sure, and in a way, I wish it was written more towards the average person so it could provoke more discussions as to if the world is getting better and are we on the right track?
This book, edited by Lomborg, seeks to examine ten major issues that have, and will affect humankind: air pollution, conflicts, climate change, biodiversity, education, gender inequality, health malnutrition, trade barriers, and water and sanitation. The time period is a century and a half, 1900 to 2050. Lomborg provides a 25 page introduction, the rest of the text are the academic papers of scholars in the field, with extracts at the beginning of the book, followed by the complete paper. The papers are filled with many a graph, numerous tables, and naturally some equations that will bamboozle "the unwashed." The complete book is less than four hundred pages, and given the agenda, surely is, at least, "ambitious."
In the days of my youth I did many a physics problem, and was told to "ignore friction" or "ignore wind velocity" or "hold X constant." As a first approximation, this is a most valid approach, enabling a better understanding of gravitational laws for example. However, if you don't always remember what assumptions you make, in the real world, by ignoring wind velocity of, say, 100 mph, you might not be carrying enough fuel to fly over the Andes, for example, and you, as well as your equations, will reach terminal velocity. And in this book, I was appalled by one of Lomborg's central assumptions, and even he categorized me as in the "many." Specifically, he said: "Second, many have suggested that happiness is potentially a better measure of human welfare than GDP, and thus questions the basic unit of comparison in this project...moreover, while no one would argue that GDP is a perfect measure, it is clear that higher GDP correlates with other attractive outcomes like economic freedom, freedom from corruption (!! Explanation points added), better health and social outcomes, lower poverty, life satisfaction, etc.) I really think some health skepticism, that Lomborg proclaims, should be applied to that statement.
It was John Maynard Keynes, in the depths of the depression, who provided some of this skepticism to the shibboleths of the day, noting famously that GDP would increase if we took in each other's laundry. And long before the gazillion "labor savings devices" that we now have, he noted that there might be only 15 hours of "real work" that needed to be performed each week, with the rest relegated to "make work." So, I would have loved to have seen some papers that examined how the ten issues might be improved if GDP contracted (!), by, for example, riding a bike more often instead of a supersized pickup truck (yes, just like they do in Denmark), close many a "fast-food" restaurant, and prepare and cook meals at home, just like in the 1950's, eliminate at least one aircraft carrier battle group... etc... yes, I know, "heretical ideas," but presented in a skeptical mode.
There were a lot of other assumptions in the actual papers that I found both difficult to accept, and wondered what validity the corresponding graphs and equations held under such assumptions. Consider, in Hutton's paper on Air Pollution: "Solid fuel use is difficult to estimate, because of lack of data (!! Explanation points added) I assume solid fuel use as 50% of developed country households in 1900, with a linear rate of decline until 2010, when a 5% rate is assumed. For developing countries, I assume a 95% use in 1900..." In Blomberg and Hess' paper on Armed Conflicts: "This is a straightforward calculation which assumes there are no long-run growth costs or economic volatility costs of war." Or, "The additional cost of human losses may seem large, but in fact is quite conservative, since we do not take account of civilian deaths..." Or the clincher: "It is for reasons such as these that we have chosen to concentrate on losses of welfare due to lost consumption, which are less sensitive to these challenges." Amazing, war is bad for consumption, which is, I guess, the reason why President Bush urged all Americans to do their part after the events of 9/11/01 by still shopping.
In the 1970's, Fogel and Engerman wrote a highly controversial book entitled Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery. It examined the slave system in the Southern states before the Civil War in economic terms, and concluded that slavery was highly efficient, producing such "proofs" as a "Total Factor Productivity Ratio" calculated to be 1.33. They noted "statistics" that proved that the slaves' life expectancy declined 10% after they had been freed. It should be required reading for any economist who wishes to use the tools of his profession to examine complex social issues. Regrettably, I must give Lomborg 3-stars for this effort.
The cost estimates run from 1900 to 2050 combining a long historical component with a pretty long forecast period. Those costs are often scaled as a % of GDP, which is really useful. There are a lot of related tables and graphs that are very informative, as you can readily observe pronounced long term trends.
The book is very well organized.
Lomborg’s introduction is very informative as it covers a lot of ground by itself on numerous long-term trends. Note that the majority of long term trends reviewed by Lomborg are positive including the exponential rise in economic growth since the 1950s that is not anticipated to slow down (page 4). The risk of death from air pollution is dropping quickly (page 9). Global welfare loss from illiteracy and gender inequality are plummeting (pg. 15) and so are losses due to poor nutrition (pg. 20). Mortality and morbidity related losses are also dropping quickly (pg. 22).
After the introduction, the next 45 pages consist of summaries of the findings on all of the 10 costs. Those are very useful and allow you to extract the main information out of this book without reading the entire 360 pages.
After the introduction and summaries, you have ten chapters each one earmarked to cover a specific cost out of the ten. That is where such cost issue is covered in much greater detail and presented as a scientific paper. Each such chapter is fully referenced with supporting scientific literature relevant to the subject studied.
All in all, this book provides a wealth of information on the subject. The data, information, and findings will most often diverge from the Media coverage that rarely provides a sense of scale on such costs (i.e. something will cost us $10 billion over the next century… is that a lot? Actually, as a % of world GDP over the same period it is close to nothing. But, the Media rarely scales such information).
Having recently completed reading the book I have spent more than a few days tossing ideas around my head such that I can provide a reasonable review for potential readers ultimately resulting in jury out conclusion.
I like the idea of the book, I like the papers in the book, I don't like the summaries being in the front of the book, I like the target audience of the book, journalists, politicos and policy wonks, and I don't like the fact that it really is not for the general reader.
It suggests that while there are good things to come from human progress as well as the bad, the world is a better place because of it.
I understand why the editor has chosen to try to find common ground in assessing the impact of various human activities and uses economic concepts as the common denominator. This troubles me for a number of reasons, not least of which is the reliability of the data. Essentially what is more reliable is data from the 1960's onwards, what is less reliable, is the data from anytime before then not just in terms of collection errors but also in terms of the professionalism of the data collection. Similarly, the world of 1900 was a very different place from what it is now so the weight of the various components which help to make up the data sets changes across time and the constituents change or are added or deleted dependent on various conditions.
Don't get me wrong here, I declare myself to be a climate change skeptic as I do not consider the case proven given the scale of the issue and the changes that have been recorded over thousands of years which do not constitute real proof. Any economist who believes that they know how the economy works or can predict the future with any real accuracy would be worth listening to but can anyone name one?
Similarly it is difficult, nay impossible, to disentangle the dirty politics from this. Let us get real. Developed economies have benefitted from economic growth, and, coming from a heavy industry, shipbuilding town which had a coal mine, I can testify to the great environmental improvements from which the area has benefitted. Alas, many do not want our competitors in other parts of the world to benefit in the same way as that would jeopardise our competitive advantages. For those who argue that government has a role in improving the global environment without resorting to the draconian measures which some advance, consider the issue of high gasoline using road vehicles or even aircraft. The US and other such governments could reduce the environmental impact relatively quickly and easily by passing a simple law which would prohibit production and require manufacturers to produce more efficient vehicles. Have they? No.
There are market solutions and they require political and economic will, but them we run up into the other problem. It is all about individuals and their purchasing power. Governments have myopia but that is not as bad as that of the public. Our global society means that each and every one of us has our wants and needs and it is that blindness to everything else. Here in the west, the content on televisions has become the content on phones while the old valve sets have made way for flat screens and phones. Our environment is better because of that but travel to China where cigarettes and their consumption have caused their environment to deteriorate in the short run.
It seems to me that the underlying message from Lomborg is to give the world time to come up to the west's level and all will be well. The trouble with that is the future is unknown, it is uncertain, you never know when you will discover a Black Swan event. You never know whether something will happen which will trigger a great change, think Ukraine, for instance. More importantly, each one of us has to think of everyone else. Not in the hippy sense of loving one another although that would be a positive externality, but in the sense of we all affect everyone else as Paul Ormerod argues so cogently.
This book inspires some apathy towards global problems but nevertheless is a treasure trove of figures and ideas which could keep people occupied for a long time, well after they move the summaries to the end. Much food for thought but given that most people have their own favourite food dishes it really does matter how much of it they consume.
It’s a good question, and it’s useful to know the answers as we debate policy choices. In addition, the contributors clearly talked enough so that they’re all thinking about this in similar ways. For example, they all examine percentage change in GDP by region so that a minor $100 loss to Americans doesn’t weigh more than a $50 loss to Chadians, for whom it would be a large share of annual income. (One might prefer other measures, but that’s a different conversation.)
Alas, reading pages of econometrics, tables, and charts doesn’t make for particularly interesting prose. Lomborg had his authors address this by writing two chapters each - the full research paper version, suitable for a refereed academic journal, and a 4-5 page summary with a few key graphics. He collects all the summaries in the start of the book.
The summaries inevitably read like a PowerPoint with too much text - lots of bottom lines but little explanation. The explanations and arguments are in the long articles later in the book, but dry dry dry.
Prose style aside, I couldn’t help but wonder about the big picture. If you’re an economist, why are there *differences* in the cost of major problems? For example, if gender inequality costs us more than air pollution, why have governments invested in the wrong problem? Shouldn’t we be in an equilibrium where the marginal benefit of a new million-dollar investment in problem X is equal to the marginal benefit of the same investment in problem Y?
If I’m right about the answer to that rhetorical question, then these problems aren’t about economic cost-benefit at all. They depend on society, culture, history, and politics, other disciplines that are ignored here.
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