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Back in a more innocent time--before 9-11 that is--about the most the Left had to derange them was a young Danish statistician whose book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, pointed out that contrary to innumerable doomsday scenarios, the Earth was doing rather well. For speaking such heresy, not only was Bjorn Lomborg subjected to sustained attacks in a number of publications, but he was hauled before the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, a case which was eventually dropped, though grudgingly. After a brief stint in government, Mr. Lomborg returned to academia and turned his focus to public policy. Beginning in 2004, his Copenhagen Consensus Center (in conjunction with The Economist) brought together a group of economists, including four Nobel laureates, and asked them to rank the ten worst problems facing the world that could be addressed most effectively by spending a discrete amount of money ($50 billion). This book is their report on what they determined our priorities ought to be when given these parameters.

When the first stories came out about this project one couldn't help but be struck by how useful an endeavor it was. At a time when America alone has a $12 trillion GDP, it ought to be possible to get a few of the nations of the Anglosphere to pony up the funds for such an undertaking and, if you could drain some of the partisan politics from environmentalism/global health, it ought to be possible to get leaders of both American parties to back it, or at least significant portions of it. Mr. Lomborg himself has written plenty of op-ed pieces in which he lays out the basic ideas that the Consensus arrived at in readable and understandable fashion:
The question the economists strived to answer was: "How could you spend $50billion extra to achieve the most good possible?" They studied research created for the project on the costs and benefits of different ways to combat HIV/AIDS, starvation, global conflict, climate change, corruption and other challenges. The result was a concrete, prioritised "to-do" list that outlined how policy-makers could achieve the most good possible.

The economists decided that spending $US27billion ($35billion) on an HIV/AIDS-prevention program would be the best possible investment for humanity. It would save more than 28 million lives within six years and have massive flow-on effects, including increased productivity.

Providing micronutrient-rich dietary supplements to the malnourished was their second-highest priority. More than half the world suffers from deficiencies of iron, iodine, zinc or vitamin A, so cheap solutions such as nutrient fortification have an exceptionally high ratio of benefits to costs.

Third on the list was trade liberalisation. Although this would require politically difficult decisions, it would be remarkably cheap and would benefit the entire world, not least the developing world. A staggering GDP increase of $US2.4trillion annually would accrue equally to developed and developing countries with free trade.

The economists would then focus on the huge benefits possible from controlling malaria with chemically treated mosquito nets. Next on their list was emphasising agricultural research and the improvement of sanitation and water quality for a billion of the world's poorest people.

Each of these ventures has benefits that far outweigh the costs.
Obviously you'd have trouble getting Republicans to pay for condom distribution and getting Democrats to support free trade, but President Bush has made America a world leader in the anti-AIDs effort in Africa and while free trade agreements have attracted much Democratic denunciation, they've eventually passed over their objections. So there would seem to be much we could do along these lines.

Ideally this book then would be a persuasive basic blueprint for action, but instead it suffers from being the product of a committee. While it does go beyond the four primary ideas outlined in Mr. Lomborg's essays and provides both statistical support for the proposals the Consensus settled on and criticisms from dissenters, rather than providing greater clarity this structure ends up obscuring the ideas and diffusing the power of the suggested courses of action. The findings of the Copenhagen Consensus certainly deserve a book-length treatment, or pamphlet-length anyway,but perhaps it would be better done by just Mr. Lomborg.


Grade: (C+)


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