Skip to comments.Land War An ecological optimist vs. his critics
Posted on 04/24/2003 7:28:30 AM PDT by Valin
In the recent AEI publication, 2003 Index of Environmental Indicators, authors Steven Hayward and Ryan Stowers discus the state of the worlds. Among other things, the two discuss the ways in which the media mis-reports environmental statistics. They find that, on the whole, the United States is becoming less polluted. They believe that the environment is getting better, not worse. In the March 2002 issue of The American Enterprise Eli Lehrer looks at an environmental optimist who comes to similar conclusions:
Bjørn Lomborg is a mild-mannered Danish statistics professor who believes in environmental protection laws, votes on the political left, avoids eating meat, and thinks that governments should redistribute wealth. In college, he belonged to Greenpeace. And the left-wing environmental movement hates him with a passion.
This hatred stems from Lomborgs new book, an occasionally turgid, 515-page Cambridge University Press tome called The Skeptical Environmentalist. Its rare that a book so modest in many of its central contentions and so rife with the trappings of careful scholarship creates such an intellectual firestorm. When TAE called Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute and a leading environmental pessimist, his secretary answered the phone. He doesnt think its worth talking about, she shouted while slamming down the telephone receiver.
Other environmental groups reacted much the same way: Grist, an online magazine which publishes under the banner Gloom and Doom with a Sense of Humor, devoted an entire special issue to attacking Lomborg and received a record amount of e-mail in response. Some of the denunciations have been notably rash and unbalanced: One opponent threw a pie in Lomborgs face during a book signing. Scientific American and Nature have piled on with scathing assaults. Nearly every major environmental group and a decent number of scientists have joined the battle.
For all this fuss, The Skeptical Environmentalist advances a relatively modest thesis from a mostly neutral political viewpoint. As Lomborg summarizes for TAE, The environmental movement believes that just about all ecological indicators are getting worse all the time. Thats not the case. Its not the case at all. The world is not about to fall off of a precipice. The book covers a tremendous amount of ground, and puts hundreds of environmental myths to rest. Its important for the breadth and depth of its argument alone. Lomborgs work, its true, has some flaws. But his arguments promise to pave the way for a productive reshaping of the entire debate over the environment. And thats why the book evokes fear and hatred from the environmental Left.
The Skeptical Environmentalist takes on what Lomborg calls The Litany: the environmental movements belief in a gloomy future as a result of humanitys destruction of the Earths air, water, plants, and animal life. Lomborg argues that, on the contrary, We are not running out of energy or natural resources. He notes that fewer and fewer people are starving, and calculates that there will be more food per person even with a larger world population in the decades ahead. He reports that global poverty has been reduced more in the last 50 years than in the preceding 500 years. His chapter on global warming concludes there is no reason to view it as a devastating problem for our future. Nor, he finds, will we lose half of all living species to extinction, as environmentalists like to claim.
Lomborg argues, in short, that human welfare has improved by almost every measurable index. In densely argued, data-packed pages, Lomborg contends that all environmental problems are soluble and, at least in the First World, some have already been solved. Prosperity and technology, not draconian regulations, Lomborg argues, lead to rising living standards and an improved environment. Even in the Third World things are getting better in many waysfewer people go to bed hungry, incomes are higher, and some environmental conditions are improving. Still, the picture is not altogether sunny: Environmental degradation continues in poor countries; global warming could well cost several trillion dollars over the next century; water has become dangerously dirty in some places; and great numbers of species will vanish.
Lomborg warns that the media and the public have swallowed huge amounts of nonsense about the environment because of an inability to see environmental advocates as self-interested and worthy of the same suspicion that is typically reserved for profit-making corporations. We see environmental groups as being nice. And a lot of the people involved in them are. Spending a few months in a raft to save the whales isnt always pleasant, and the people doing it are serving a higher purpose, he says. But, at the same time, we have to remember that the environmental groups have their own agendas, their own interests and financial stakes, and just as we treat corporations with skepticism, we should treat environmental groups the same way.
Lomborgs argument isnt entirely new. The late Julian Simon, an economist at the University of Maryland, advanced much the same case in his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource. Gregg Easterbrook, a writer for The New Republic and a fellow of the Brookings Institution, argued essentially the same points in 1994s A Moment on the Earth.
Lomborg, an associate professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, initially set out to disprove Simon. I thought, This cant possibly be true. But, when he assigned a team of students to check out Simons work Lomborg found surprising results. Simon, Lomborg says, wasnt right about absolutely everything but he was right about many things. As he burrowed deeper into the data, Lomborg came to agree with the optimistic Simon more and more; ultimately he used a quote from Simon to open The Skeptical Environmentalist.
Lomborg is different from Simon, though, in that he doesnt have a clearly defined ideology. Sometimes Simon says things are true that he simply wishes were true, says Lomborg. That doesnt make them true. While The Skeptical Environmentalist takes positions on controversial issues ranging from the Kyoto agreement on global warming (against) to global trade agreements (for), its hard to tell what Lomborg thinks about broader political issues. In fact, hes been reluctant to talk about politics whatsoever.
I havent wanted to answer that question at all, he says when asked about his political views. But people want to know what kind of guy someone is . Well, I am someone on the Left. I vote in the center of Danish politics, which is the left of American politics. Lomborg believes in markets for producing goods and services, but wants governments to intervene to redistribute wealth and, yes, reduce pollution. The clean air laws in the United States and much of the rest of the West were a good investment, he says. We shouldnt repeal them.
I was a person who went to Greenpeace meetings once in a while, he says. Asked about his personal life, Lomborg rails off a pedestrian list of interests: I like going to cafes, visiting friends, going to clubs. The normal things. Despite his movie star looksthink Robert Redford 20 years agoLomborg can be awfully dull when he begins rattling off statistics about fish catches and timber harvests.
The very dullness of Lomborgs case, and his reliance on data rather than a commitment to an ideology, may have produced his books good reviews in the American press. The liberal New York Times and the Washington Post both heaped praise on Lomborg and The Skeptical Environmentalist, something they would never have done with the more libertarian Julian Simon. While journals like Scientific American and Nature have blasted Lomborg (unfairly at times), and the environmental movement has gone ballistic over his work, the good reviews of The Skeptical Environmentalist have been more influential than the bad ones.
The sheer breadth of Lomborgs case also has something to do with its warm reception. Want to know about allergies and asthma? Turn to page 185 for a chapter on the topic. World zinc reserves? Page 145. Just about every issue of concern relating to the planets environment gets covered in great, often excruciating, detail. On many topics, Lomborg blows environmentalist doomsaying out of the water. His wealth of detail, however, is what really sets the book apart from its intellectual predecessors. He uses public and governmental sources (the best available in most cases, but, as his critics have pointed out, not sources entirely beyond reproach), and he footnotes his work exhaustively.
In his examination of global warming, for instance, Lomborg not only goes over all the potential benefits of the Kyoto Treaty (less severe weather, less pollution) and its potential costs (trillions of dollars in lost GDP and sharply lower living standards), but also provides a flood of relevant statistics on everything from temperature fluctuations to economic effects. The conclusion: Global warming is real and may have significant disadvantages if left unchecked, but technical advances in non-polluting energy sources represent a far better way of mitigating the problem than the massive regulations and steep reductions in energy use the Kyoto accords demand. The agreement wont pay off, he contends.
That same sort of steely thinking continues in other chapters. A look at endangered species and deforestation concludes that human habitation has sent hundreds of animal species to their doom and will eliminate many hundreds more over the next century. But the costs of losing these species are not so great compared to the environmental benefits of economic development in the Third World. Estimates of the importance of individual species are highly tenuous, Lomborg finds, while the ecological and other benefits of development are real, immediate, and immense. Its not that we want a situation where we lose all of these species. A lot of organisms will be wiped outabout 1.4 percent of all species over the next century, Lomborg laments. But its not as if were going to live in a world without animals. A more immediate environmental concern of Lomborgs is that water supplies in much of the Third World have become dangerously polluted. Cleaning water and providing better treatment against water-borne illnesses would save far more lives at far lower costs than implementing the Kyoto protocols, he shows.
Lomborgs work proves just as complete when hes taking on the contention that the world is running out of resources. Here, he musters a truly impressive trove of data. Nearly every important resource has become cheaper over the past 30 years, while known reserves have actually swelled despite increasing rates of use.
Lomborg does sometimes demonstrate a tendency to take on straw men. While true alarmists like Lester Brown do continue to contend that nearly all natural resources will run out in the near future, mainline environmental groups like the Sierra Club have mostly let those old arguments fall by the wayside. The alarmists are much less influential in the scientific mainstream than they are in the media. Even the more radical environmental groups such as the World Watch Institute probably wouldnt go out of their way to refute Lomborgs facts about the worlds store of resources.
Lomborg also occasionally seems to show an active dislike for the environmental movements achievements. A chapter on air pollution acknowledges that pollution control laws have helped to make the atmosphere cleaner. It spends far more time, though, taking apart alarmist arguments than describing the benefits of certain environmental efforts.
The reactions of scientists have been mixed. Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric scientist at MIT, offers a resounding endorsement. He sticks to the conventional wisdom of science and asks all the right questions, says Lindzen. Its a solid piece of work.
Michael Grubb, a professor at Imperial College in London who reviewed The Skeptical Environmentalist for Science came to a mixed assessment. The book pulls together a lot of interesting data. It contributes to the debate, he says. But Grubb thinks Lomborg pushes a dont worry message much too strongly. He revels too much in caricatures, and falls into some of the same traps of selectivity for which he lambastes the environmental movement. Reached in his London office, Grubb says he found the book weakest in his own specialty of climatology but thought that it provided some useful data to rebut more extreme environmentalists in other areas.
Lomborg has not written a perfect book by any standards. The Skeptical Environmentalist contains some outright errors (corrected on Lomborgs Web site), and it may overstate its case on issues ranging from global warming to forest loss. Lomborg produced the book with assistance from a team of his very brightest undergraduate students, and in a few places (superfluous footnotes, factual errors) this approach seems to have caught up with him. Nearly everyone TAE spoke with, even those who were sympathetic to the book, said that it showed signs of hurry. Most of the outright errors, however, involve rather inconsequential points, which dont undermine the books fundamental arguments.
Scientists unsympathetic to Lomborg point to a deeper flaw: a tendency to err on the side of the most optimistic estimates when talking about future trends. The books first half, devoted to rebutting the assessment that environmental conditions are getting worse, stands up to even the most extreme scrutiny. Later portions of the manuscript presenting relatively optimistic scenarios of the future are inherently more contentious.
Still, even Lomborgs harshest critics acknowledge that the book could serve some limited use as a rejoinder to extreme environmentalism. Of course the environmental movement exaggerates, says Steven Schneider, a Stanford University climatologist and environmental policy analyst who has emerged as one of Lomborgs foremost opponents. I say it in all of my classes. But Lomborg exaggerates too. He exaggerates a lot. Even Stuart Pimm, a Columbia University biologist who takes a gloomy view of the environment, admits that the Green movements own exaggerations have set the stage for a book like Lomborgs. I was told the other day about a package of coffee which says on it that 74 species go extinct every day. Thats incredibly precise and rather wrong, he says. But Pimm insists Lomborgs book is also sloppy and dishonest. Im incredibly critical of the World Watch Institute [a group Lester Brown founded] for the way they mine U.N. data, says Pimm. They just take it on faith. You have to sometimes look at even official data more cleverly. But thats not what [Lomborg] does.
While theres plenty of room for criticism of Lomborgs book, some of the attacks reek of desperation. Every critic TAE spoke with lambasted Lomborg for having a limited scientific background in the areas he explores. Lomborg has a doctorate in statistics but is not an environmental scientist.
But if a book synthesizing data from many different scientific fields like this were allowed to be written only by someone with a Ph.D. in every field he or she discussed, it would never be written. If Lomborg disputed the underlying models scientists use in each area, or forwarded new hypotheses, then these critics would have a point. But The Skeptical Environmentalist is mostly a work of statistical assessment. The science is complex enough at times that Lomborg sometimes makes mistakes, perhaps serious ones. But writing this sort of overarching book is actually a task perfectly suited to a statistician skilled at wading through reams of existing data, rather than an area specialist.
Lomborgs book is overly ambitious for sure, and likely over-optimistic about the future. But it also lays bare hundreds of false and misleading claims about the state of our environment. In so doing, it exposes the environmental movement as another special interest group in need of critical scrutiny. For that alone, thinking people everywhere owe Lomborg a debt of gratitude.
The American Enterprise Online:
And after you read the book, some reviewers leave you convinced they merely skipped through it.
Here's one review that I liked, but there are many others around the web.
One thing not mentioned in any of the reviews I've read is that Lomborg shows that many of the species that supposedly have died out or gotten very small in numbers have been found to recover and thrive. Sometimes in the same areas.
Lomborg really goes into detail about the computer model data used by the global warming advocates. He shows how unscientific and based on almost magical thinking they are.
It's a lovely, careful book, and even the most rabid critics of Lomborg have found extremely few factual mistakes.
Also...Lomborg's website is a very interesting one, with great conservation links.