Policy Review Banner

Enviro-Skepticism

Saturday, December 1, 2001

Bjørn Lomborg.
The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World.
Cambridge University Press. 352 Pages. $27.95

In February 1997 Bjørn Lomborg, a young Danish statistics professor and self-described “old left-wing Greenpeace member,” read an article by Ed Regis in Wired magazine about Julian Simon (the article, entitled “The Doomslayer,” is archived online at www.wired.com). Simon, a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland who died in 1998, argued in a series of books and articles that the standard gloomy assessments of the state of the world had no basis in fact.

One of Simon’s principal contentions was that the world was not “running out” of resources, but rather that nearly every physical resource was becoming cheaper and more plentiful over time. This led to a famous wager with the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1980. Simon bet Ehrlich that five metals, selected by Ehrlich, would cost less, adjusted for inflation, in 10 years than they did at the time of the wager. Simon won decisively; the price of every metal dropped, in most cases substantially (Ehrlich unfortunately learned nothing from this experience, and has continued to prophesy disaster in various forms, for which he has been rewarded with many honors).

Simon subsequently took on and debunked nearly every item of the familiar environmentalist litany of doom. “The Litany” has of course not become any less popular as a result. A current recitation can be found in the October 18, 2001 New York Review of Books, courtesy of Frederick C. Crews:

Think of the shadows now falling across our planet: overpopulation, pollution, dwindling and maldistributed resources, climatic disruption, new and resurgent plagues, ethnic and religious hatred, the ravaging of forests and jungles, and the consequent loss of thousands of species per year — the greatest mass extinction, it has been said, since the age of the dinosaurs.

Simon, primarily relying on standard governmental statistical series, showed that the Litany is inconsistent with the facts. The data he presented showed that the shadows are not falling, but lifting.

Lomborg was provoked by the Wired article into creating a study group to thoroughly examine Simon’s data, expecting to show that it was “simple, American right-wing propaganda.” But to his surprise, Simon’s points largely stood up to scrutiny. The Skeptical Environmentalist is the result. In it, Lomborg analyzes the elements of the Litany, including those recited by Crews:1

Overpopulation? Malthus has been proven wrong. The quantity of food and other resources per person is growing steadily. The rate of global population growth is declining. The most affluent societies are not even reproducing at replacement level, and birth rates are falling everywhere.

Pollution? Today there is far less pollution of the air, water, and land than our parents and grandparents experienced. The transformation of cities such as Pittsburgh and London over the past 50 years has been astonishing. And in the developing countries there is every reason to believe that we will see the same pattern. Economic growth will bring less pollution, not more.

Dwindling and maldistributed resources? The long-term trend, which shows no signs of abating, has been for virtually all natural resources to become cheaper, and, because of more efficient transportation, disparities in cost and availability have been greatly reduced. As Simon convincingly argued, the record of human ingenuity and our ability to substitute materials suggest that we will never “run out” of critical raw materials.

Climatic disruption? There is no evidence that extreme weather events have increased in number or intensity.

New and resurgent plagues? Life expectancy continues to increase around the world, and the prevalence of infectious disease, which is a fraction of what it was a hundred years ago, is not increasing.

The ravaging of forests and jungles? About a third of the world is forested, and the size of this area has changed very little since World War II. Tropical deforestation is occurring at a rate of less than one-half of 1 percent a year, and not as a consequence of economic development, but as the result of its absence.

The loss of thousands of species per year? About 1,600,000 species have been identified. Estimates of the actual number of species range from 2,000,000 to 80,000,000. No one knows the rate of extinction or the rate at which new species are arising. The best current estimate based on actual observations, and using an extremely high estimate of the likely increase in the extinction rate, is that about seven-tenths of 1 percent of species may go extinct over the next 50 years.

Thus the Litany consists of non-problems (overpopulation, dwindling resources, climatic disruption), problems that are under control and declining (pollution, new and resurgent plagues), and problems that have been hugely exaggerated and can only be solved by building modern, free-market economies in poor countries (deforestation, loss of species). All in all, Lomborg concludes, “mankind’s lot has vastly improved in every significant measurable field and . . . it is likely to continue to do so.”

 

None of this is news to readers of Julian Simon, and indeed the facts on which this book is based have long been readily available to anyone interested in environmental trends and conditions. Nevertheless, Lomborg has produced a very useful book. Meticulous, balanced, and thoroughly documented, it is an excellent summation of what is currently known about the “real state of the world.” In addition to the issues addressed above, it is particularly illuminating on the subjects of pesticides, global warming, and genetically modified foods. Undoubtedly The Skeptical Environmentalist will receive some unfriendly and dismissive reviews, but most of Lomborg’s points are irrefutable, the rest reasonable interpretations of the available evidence.

Although professional environmentalists will undoubtedly see this book as an attack, Lomborg is by no means hostile to environmental values or insensitive to environmental problems. He is not peddling a Panglossian view of the world, or denying that there are problems that merit action. What concerns him is that they are not being dealt with realistically and rationally. Because of the public misperceptions of risk reflected in the Litany, resources are being misallocated. Consequently society is less safe, and the environment is less healthy and clean, than each would be if we based our prioritizations “not on fear but on facts.”

Although there may be considerable grounds for optimism about the condition of the planet, it is difficult not to be pessimistic about the likely impact of this book. The Litany has proven to be largely impervious to mere facts. Lomborg mentions a few of the reasons.

The major environmental organizations have both economic and political reasons to exaggerate the extent of our environmental problems and avoid dispassionate analysis of the costs and benefits of the solutions they propose. Their fundraising depends on maintaining the perception among their membership that the environment is under siege. To admit that an environmental issue is complex and not well understood, and that a proposed solution could on balance have a negative impact, does not make for a very effective call to arms. Major environmental legislation gets passed only if a sense of crisis is created.

And there is a price to be paid by those who openly dissent from the conventional environmental wisdom. Politicians who oppose the environmentalist agenda are characterized as industry shills who are corrupt or indifferent to environmental despoliation. Those scientists and other professionals who are in the best position to point out the inaccurate and exaggerated nature of environmentalists’ claims are reluctant to do so. In some cases this is due to fear of appearing to be on the “wrong side” of an environmental issue and possible damage to personal or professional relationships. They may also feel that exaggerated and misleading arguments should be overlooked and forgiven because those making the arguments have their hearts in the right place and the cause is a righteous one.

Of course, at a general level the cause is righteous; environmental protection is a good thing; no one wants to be against it. There is a consensus in favor of environmental protection. The debate is really only at the margin. But as Lomborg points out, the policies advanced by environmental organizations often would leave society worse off because they are based on false premises.

In general, representatives of the media are believers in the Litany. With few exceptions they are inclined to reduce complex technical issues to a morality play pitting the good-guy, if perhaps a trifle zealous, environmentalists against self-interested, black-hat polluters. They are not interested in doing the work necessary to subject environmentalist claims to scrutiny.

Ultimately people believe in the Litany in the face of contrary evidence because they want to believe it. And the people who most want to believe it are the affluent and secure. Someone living in the eastern United States has to be very affluent to spend much time worrying about the effect on a caribou herd of drilling for oil in a tiny corner of a vast and desolate arctic plain. The connection between environmentalism and affluence has long been recognized. As William Tucker wrote in Progress and Privilege (Anchor Press, 1982), “Environmentalism has been the mass adoption of aristocratic values by America’s burgeoning upper-middle class. It is the ‘conservatism of the liberals.’ ”

It is no accident that Theodore Roosevelt, the first politician to make preservation of the wilderness a major part of his agenda, was a child of wealth who grew up in Manhattan. His descendant Theodore Roosevelt IV, still wealthy and still based in Manhattan, is an active environmentalist today. The environmental movement, even as it has recruited a large upper-middle-class membership, continues to be staffed and funded to a not insignificant extent by people with names like Rockefeller, Pew, Getty, and Kennedy. The family fortune may have its origin in dark satanic mills, but the current generation can devote itself to saving the earth. In its romantic, nostalgic, only-man-is-vile view of the natural world, its disdain for vulgar materialism, and its grandiose objectives, environmentalism has its greatest appeal to those who are already on the upper rungs of the economic and social ladder. Scratch a captain of industry or finance, and you will often find a life member of the Sierra Club, or at least a generous supporter of the Nature Conservancy. His children, being more sheltered, will be susceptible to the full-strength versions of environmentalism peddled by EarthFirst! and Greenpeace. The appeal of the Litany is fundamentally visceral, not rational, and so it is highly resistant to the sort of detached, cold-eyed analysis engaged in by Lomborg and Simon.

 

Modern free-market economies generate wealth. The wealthier a society is, the cleaner and healthier will be its environment. Wealth also begets environmentalism. And environmentalists are predisposed to perceive that things are getting worse, and to support policies that retard the very economic growth that is necessary if environmental conditions are to continue to get better. This is the paradox of environmentalism. And so in the absence of worldwide economic regression, it seems likely that the rhetoric of environmentalism will grow ever darker and more apocalyptic, and its agenda more extreme, even as objective measures continue to show environmental improvement.

Although he is unlikely to convert many of the faithful, it is to be hoped that Lomborg will make The Skeptical Environmentalist a continuing project. As environmental data accumulate, and new false alarms are inevitably sounded, there will be a need for revised editions. If he perseveres, Lomborg may prove to be a worthy successor to the original doomslayer, Julian Simon.

1 The ethnic and religious hatred cited by Crews is not a subject addressed by Simon or Lomborg, but even a casual student of history knows that today these sentiments are much milder in the developed world, and no greater in the developing world, than they typically were in the past.