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Accentuate the positive...

…as the song goes. Ideally, of course, we should try to be as objective as possible and understand the negatives as well. In reality, all too often we accentuate them instead. Despite life becoming better in so many ways, there seems to be an innate tendency to think that things are going downhill. Every civilization seems to look back to its golden days and worry about the downhill slide since then.

Today, this is particularly true for environmental issues. Just as we categorise people as left- or right-leaning in their politics, or classify by class or income band, so we can place people on a spectrum from extreme optimism to extreme pessimism. I think there are very few environmental activists who could be classified as optimists. The shared worldview is often of a planet despoiled by progress, which can be fixed by the ‘progressive’ policies of those who know best. Some on the more extreme fringe also think that democracy is incapable of delivering the necessary changes.

Fortunately, there are some environmentalists who reassess their views and change their minds. James Lovelock, for example, decided that his catastrophic vision of a few bands of humans surviving in some favourable spots in a world devastated by global warming was too extreme. At the same time, he recognised the potential of nuclear energy to power a modern society while cutting carbon dioxide emissions. For this, he was politely ignored or assumed to be going senile.

Someone else who broke out of the pessimistic mind set and questioned the received wisdom is Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Published in 2001, this developed from Lomborg’s attempts to assemble the evidence to support the conventional environmentalist view of human influence on the planet. To his initial surprise, the balance of evidence instead showed that many things – including air and water quality – had improved enormously and that others (climate change in particular) were less of a threat than they had been portrayed.

For this, he was vilified and ostracised by the environmentalist community of which he had considered himself a part. He had committed the sin of questioning the litany of catastrophe. It would, of course, be quite legitimate to argue that he had come to the wrong conclusions, if evidence supported valid counter-arguments. But there was no room for polite discourse; attacks were personal and questioned his integrity. Many people who have followed a similar route (for example, Patrick Moore, founding member of Greenpeace) have similarly been seen as beyond the pale by Greens.

So it is that we read stories such as thousands of spills at US fracking sites, highlighting the apparent negative impacts of exploitation of shale oil and gas. This is based on a newly-published study: Unconventional Oil and Gas Spills: Risks, Mitigation Priorities, and State Reporting Requirements. In essence, this finds that there are far more spills than was previously thought, and inevitably this is portrayed as another negative impact of a controversial technology.

To quote the opening sentences of the BBC report: “Up to 16% of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells spill liquids every year, according to new research from US scientists. They found that there had been 6,600 releases from these fracked wells over a ten-year period in four states. The biggest problems were reported in oil-rich North Dakota where 67% of the spills were recorded. The largest spill recorded involved 100,000 litres of fluid with most related to storing and moving liquids.”

What this doesn’t say is what was spilt and what impact it had. The implication is that the unspecified liquids were hazardous, whereas a high proportion – particularly of larger spills – would very probably been of water mixed with low levels of sand and common chemicals. It is only towards the end of the piece that we read this “’The reality is that North Dakota requires that companies report any spills that are a barrel or more, even if they never impact the environment - and the vast majority of spills have not,’ said Katie Brown from Energy in Depth, a body funded by petroleum producing companies. ‘According to the North Dakota Department of Health, 70% of all spills in 2013 were contained on the well pad and never reached land or water.’"

This is not to say that drilling operators have a right to be careless; spills should always be minimised and any risk well managed. But the impact of a spill of oil is very different from a spill of fracking liquid, and the very big, destructive leaks of oil have all been from conventional wells or ships. In other words, there is almost certainly nothing more environmentally damaging about fracking than about conventional extraction. And, in both cases, society gets enormous benefits from use of oil, to set against any environmental costs.

To take a different example, there has been a lot of publicity recently about the poor air quality in many urban areas, with diesel cars labelled as the primary culprit. Air quality is, of course, important, but the current furore fails to recognise either that urban air quality is very much better than a generation or two ago (think about the phasing out of leaded petrol and the introduction of smokeless zones, for example) or that domestic heating and a range of other sources also put potentially hazardous particles into the air.

The balanced view is rarely taken, but let me quote from this letter from a Mr Simon Cousins, published in the Times on 21 February: …exposure to fine particulate matter accounts for almost three times as many premature deaths as exposure to nitrogen dioxide. Policymakers have rightly focused on reducing levels of fine particulate matter. Data from the Marylebone Road air-quality monitor in London (regarded as being one of the worst locations for air quality in the country) shows that between 1998 (when data was first available) and 2003, this location did not once meet the PM10 annual mean limit value of 40u/m3. Since then it has breached the limit value just once (in 2011). This is a major achievement… we should recognise that overall, in the past 20 years the health impacts of pollution across the UK have reduced.”

Against the constant stream of negative stories, it is tempting to try to restore the balance by accentuating the positive. This is good, but at the same time we should try to avoid losing objectivity: things are rarely black and white. On the other hand, neither are they usually as black as they’re painted.