The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjorn Lomborg


Reviewed by Bob Elder

In 1997 Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish political scientist, statistics teacher, and self-described “old left-wing Greenpeace member” chanced upon a magazine article about the late Julian Simon in Wired Magazine.1 The article began: “The environment is going to hell, and human life is doomed to only get worse, right? Wrong. Conventional wisdom, meet Julian Simon, the Doomslayer. This is the litany: Our resources are running out. The air is bad, the water worse. The planet’s species are dying off…” Simon believed that the doomsayers were wrong, and that official statistics backed up his claim. Provoked, Lomborg set his statistics students to collecting information to refute Simon’s arguments. They found that “not everything [Simon] said was correct, but a surprisingly large amount of his points stood up to scrutiny and conflicted with what we believed ourselves to know.” Lomborg wrote newspaper articles about their findings, then a book. The Skeptical Environmentalist is a revised and translated version of his original Danish work.

Documentation — Excellent

Lomborg mostly uses official UN and government data to investigate the real state of the world as compared to the environmentalists “litany.” The book begins with an introduction to the “litany” and reasons for its popularity. It then compares the current state of human health and material well-being to historical conditions, considers whether human prosperity can continue, investigates pollution, and discusses “tomorrow’s problems.” The typical approach is to display the historical record for a particular measure, along with Lomborg’s brief interpretation of the record and an environmentalist’s misinterpretation or misrepresentation. The book is well-documented with over 2900 notes and over 1800 references.

This book is useful on several grounds. It serves as an up-to-date guide to sources of relevant data, and gives Internet addresses to many of the sources so that one can check Lomborg’s facts and follow future developments. Secondly, it calls attention to the unwholesome tactics and abysmal prophetical records of many of the best-known environmentalists. Among those frequently cited are Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich and Al Gore. Finally, The Skeptical Environmentalist is useful because it was written by someone who initially accepted the “litany.” You cannot dismiss Lomborg’s conclusions as being ideologically based because they are, in many areas, directly contrary to his former presuppositions.

Shocking Conclusions

Many of Lomborg’s conclusions will be shocking to those who accept “the litany.” Some examples:

  • Population: “Over the next 30 years the global rural population will stay almost unchanged, and in fact 97 percent of Europe will become less densely populated by 2025.” (p. 49)

  • Food: “On practically every count, humankind is now better nourished.” (p. 67)

  • Prosperity: “Incomes in both industrialized and developing nations have tripled over the past 50 years and poverty incidence has decreased.” (p. 87)

  • Energy: “…although we use more and more fossil energy we have found even more. Our reserves — even measured in years of consumption — of oil, coal and gas have increased.” (p. 135)

  • Water: “… we can have sufficient water, if we can pay for it. Once again, this underscores that poverty and not the environment is the primary limitation …” (p. 153)

  • Pollution; “…growth and environment are not opposites — they complement each other.” (p. 177) “… problems with pollution do not give us reason to believe that economic growth is in the process of destroying the Earth-rather the contrary.” (p. 211)

Final Conclusion

His final conclusion; children born today — in both the industrialized world and developing countries — will live longer and be healthier, they will get more food, a better education, a higher standard of living, more leisure time and far more possibilities — without the global environment being destroyed. And that is a beautiful world.” (p. 352)

Readers may doubt the qualifications of a statistician (and after only four years’ study!) to evaluate the state of the world. Lomborg himself acknowledges (p. xx). “I am not myself an expert as regards environmental problems.” But he says that he let experts review the chapters of the book, and argues that “statistics is in many areas the only way we can make a scientifically sound description of the world.”

One Weakness

One of Lomborg’s longest and weakest sections (over 60 pages) is on “global warming.” It is weak because the scary “results” in this area are based on computer models (worst case at that), and Lomborg chooses to discuss these models in great detail, going beyond statistics into scientific particulars that he is not qualified to address. A comparison with Julian Simon‘s treatment of this issue is instructive. Simon begins: “I am not an atmospheric scientist, and I cannot address the technical issues.”2 He is content to put the issue in perspective based on his early experience: “Indeed, many of the same persons who were then warning about global cooling are the same climatologists who are now warning of global warming…” Moreover, “It is interesting to reflect on the judgments that would be made in (say) 1996 of past decisions if the world had followed the advice of the climatologists only two decades earlier who then urged the world to take immediate steps to head off the supposed cooling threat.”3 Simon concludes his four-page discussion with citations from dissenting experts, Lomborg fails to note the seriousness of dissent in the scientific community, as evidenced by the 1998 petition signed by 15,000 scientists.4

Population

Those interested in population issues will find little direct treatment of the subject in this work. There are only five pages (45–49) explicitly dedicated to population, and only three other pages cited in the index.

There are interesting tidbits here and there, however. Lomborg usefully notes in discussing fears over synthetic estrogens in the environment that compared to the average daily birth control pill, their concentrations are more than 6 billion times weaker (p. 237–238). On the unhelpful side, he states that HIV/AIDS prevention requires mostly “more information and a change in sexual behavior towards protected sex.” He says: “…massive AIDS prevention programs such as Uganda’s show the way …” (p. 52) However, Cambridge University researchers funded in part by USAID have found that “chastity programs have been more effective than condoms in Uganda.”5

Abortion does not appear in the index. It is included in a list of significant political decisions that are “hard or impossible to reverse” (p. 349). Most noteworthy is the absence of abortion in the discussion of results of a study of “years of life lost” caused by “ten important risk factors.” (p. 335) Based on a statistical analysis done for WHO (not based on counting actual deaths from the ten “factors,” which would be impossible), the most important factors in the developing world are said to be malnutrition and poor water & sanitation; in OECD (industrialized) countries the top two factors are said to be tobacco and physical inactivity. It would be interesting to compare these model-based results with the actually countable years of life lost due to abortion (a “factor” that maximizes the years of life lost by an individual).

Ultimate Resource

Simon’s “ultimate resource” is human beings. A most serious gap in Lomborg‘s work is his failure to discuss the probable impact of declining birthrates (resources for the future) on rosy economic scenarios. This issue has been recognized for years by demographers, such as Ben Wattenberg.6 That depopulation is a practical concern is demonstrated by Peter Drucker’s article in the 75th anniversary issue of Harvard Business Review.7 He said: “The dominant factor for business in the next two decades — absent war, pestilence, or collision with a comet — is not going to be economics or technology. It will be demographics.” “It will be the increasing underpopulation of the developed countries…”

In summary, The Skeptical Environmentalist is a generally useful book, but not in the area of population. Better references in this area are Simon’s Ultimate Resource II and The State of Humanity,8 and Jacqueline Kasun’s War against Population.9

Finally, it is regrettable that Lomborg did not give more prominent recognition to Julian Simon and Ed Regis, the subject and author respectively, of the magazine article that first interested him in this work. Neither Simon nor Regis appears in the index. One has to check an endnote (10, p. 353) to discover that Lomborg’s unifying principle, “the litany,” was Regis’ idea. In reporting of Simon that “not everything he said was correct,” without identifying the errors, Lomborg leaves the reader wondering about the nature and extent of Simon’s unreliability. Poor thanks for years of courageous work.

Bob Elder received his PhD in Statistics from Virginia Tech in 1977. He was formerly employed by USDA on food safety and quality issues, and by USEPA contractors on water and air pollution issues. He resides in Annandale, VA.

Endnotes

1 Regis. Ed, “The Doomslayer,” Wired Magazine, February 1997, see www.wired.com/wired/achive/5.02/ffsimon.html.

2 Simon, Julian, The Ultimate Resource II, 1996, Princeton University Press, 266.

3 Ibid.

4 See www.sitewave.net/pprojects/s33p427.htm.

5 Curtin, David. “The USAID Inches…,” National Catholic Register, 23–29 December 2001, 2.

6 Wattenberg, Ben, The Birth Dearth, 1987, Pharos Books.

7 Drucker, Peter “The Future . .,” Harvard Business Review, September-October 1997, 20, 22, 24.

8 Simon, Julian L. (ed), The Stare of Humanity, 1995, Oxford; Blackwell.

9 Kasun, Jacqueline. The War against Population, second edition 1999, Ignatius Press.

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