A statistician with a mission

Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, tells Tony Gilland what made him ask the right questions.

Tony Gilland

Topics Politics

‘There is very little rocket science in this book’, states Professor Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Maybe not – but its publication in the UK has caused something of an explosion.

Lomborg does not strike you as the type to embrace the role of Eco-Enemy. This young-looking 36-year-old blond Dane carries a rucksack with a minidisc player in the pocket, and you can just imagine him taking an easy hike up a mountain and extolling the virtues of clean living and the natural world to those of us still trying to catch our breath. He is also, as I discovered over lunch, a vegetarian.

So what caused this fresh-faced former Greenpeace member to put together a relentless attack on what he terms ‘the Litany of our ever-deteriorating environment’, marshalling page after page of figures, tables and arguments to blow apart the commonly held beliefs of resource scarcity, species extinction, air and water pollution, massive deforestation, soil erosion and all kinds of other environmental scares? What transformed him from something of an armchair environmentalist into the Skeptical Environmentalist?

Lomborg did not set out to prove the conclusions he draws in his book. Indeed, until relatively recently, Lomborg himself bought into the very ‘Litany’ that he now condemns. From the age of 18 to 22, Lomborg was a member of Greenpeace – attracted to the organisation because of ‘a feeling that the world was coming apart, that man was abusing the Earth and we really had to do something about it’. While his track record as an environmental activist is unimpressive (‘I was never in a rubber boat, and when short of cash as a student I had to discontinue my membership of Greenpeace’), he maintains that his concerns for the environment ‘continued well into the 1990s’.

Lomborg describes his original environmental concerns as ‘fairly unreflective’ and ‘more the average intelligent newspaper reader kind of a worry’. Despite being an academic statistician, he had never thought to subject his own environmental beliefs to the rigorous scrutiny of his discipline.

But in 1997, Lomborg became a statistician with a mission. He happened across an interview with the late American economist and anti-environmental crusader Julian Simon in Wired magazine; and Simon’s argument – that much of our knowledge about the environment is based on preconceptions and poor statistics – provoked Lomborg to establish a study group of his 10 best students. Though he describes the exercise as ‘primarily for fun’, to Lomborg’s surprise much of what Simon had said ‘stood up to scrutiny’ and prompted him to probe the issue more deeply.

The Skeptical Environmentalist is the consequence: the product of four years of thorough statistical examination of the major environmental concerns over the past 30 years. The outcome of this research leads Lomborg to conclude that things are getting better on almost every count. While still claiming to be an environmentalist because he ‘cares for the Earth and the future health and wellbeing of its succeeding generations’, Lomborg’s analysis of environmental facts has clearly left him with a favourable impression of human beings and their achievements. ‘We have more leisure time, greater security and fewer accidents, more education, more amenities, higher incomes, fewer starving, more food, and a healthier and longer life,’ he writes. ‘This is the fantastic story of mankind, and to call such a civilisation “dysfunctional” is quite simply immoral.’

Armed with an impressive amount of statistical knowledge of environmental issues, from deforestation to species loss, from air and water pollution, to water scarcity and global warming, Lomborg now wants ‘to have a discussion with people who are like I was, and just go along with all this stuff’. Consequently, Lomborg, who regards himself as ‘something of a lefty’, turned down offers from The Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph to serialise his book, and instead pursued a (recently published) serialisation in the UK Guardian. This certainly provoked a reaction – although it is doubtful whether, given the pervasiveness of the environmental concerns addressed by Lomborg, readers of the more right-wing press would, as he had assumed, ‘just nod and say we knew that all along’.

The reaction against Lomborg’s arguments has been strong and vocal, yet to date it has been fairly superficial, and appears to be based on the abbreviated presentation of his facts and argument printed in the press. For example, after publishing Lomborg’s series, the Guardian invited three leading environmental figures to ‘dispute his theories’. Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, argued that Lomborg ‘has turned a proper scepticism about green claims into a slapdash attempt to dismiss all environmental arguments’. Tom Burke, a former director of Friends of the Earth, stated that ‘the one resource crunch that Lomborg neglects to mention is the availability of water’ – a resource that ‘many environmentalists have consistently warned is most likely to be the first to become indisputably under threat’.

Lomborg easily accepts the gaps in this particular serialisation: ‘Since I’m talking about the entire world there will always be stuff I haven’t been able to deal with in a six-page Guardian article.’ But had his critics managed to read his 500-page book, which contains over 180 well-presented figures and tables, over 80 pages of detailed notes and a 70-page bibliography, they might have qualified the ‘slapdash’ accusations. Likewise, they might have noticed that, far from ignoring the concerns about water scarcity, Lomborg has devoted a chapter of his book to this very issue.

The critics’ difficulty with Lomborg, it seems, is not his failure to engage with the water issue, but the conclusions he draws from having done so: that the problem is not, as many claim, ‘a shortage of water’, but the difficulty in getting it to people. His analysis shows, in short, that ‘the problem is not that some are using too much water but that the world is using too little’. If more countries could afford to desalinate sea water, for example, the problem would be solved. That they cannot bears out Lomborg’s point: that ‘poverty, and not the environment, is the primary limitation for solutions to our problems’.

In order to appreciate fully The Skeptical Environmentalist, the whole book really needs to be digested. But discreet and sophisticated examples can give you a sense of the ‘shoddy and misleading’ statistics that Lomborg has become fascinated by and incensed with. One example that particularly intrigued me was Lomborg’s account of a figure used by the influential environmental organisation the Worldwatch Institute to support its Malthusian predictions about the impact of population growth on food consumption.

The figure in question – average grain produced per inhabitant of the world – is reputable, and is sourced from the United States Department of Agriculture. But the way it is presented is somewhat misleading. The statistic peaked in 1984 at 344 kg of grain produced per person in the world. This per capita average has since fallen by about 11 percent. The implication seems to be that improvements in agricultural productivity are no longer keeping pace with an expanding population, and that the amount of grain potentially available to each person (if it were distributed equally) is declining.

But Lomborg’s analysis shows that it pays to ask a few questions about the composition of this statistic. If you break the statistic down into industrialised countries and developing countries, you find that in industrialised countries grain production has stabilised at about 650 kg of grain per person. In developing countries, grain production has grown from 157 kg per person in 1961 to 211 kg in 2000.

While it is the case that, as the world population grows less grain is currently being produced per capita, the focus on the global average hides the fact that, in the developing countries where the population is growing, more food per capita is actually being produced. The reason why the global statistic shows a decline is because of the large number of additional people living where agricultural productivity is so much lower than productivity in the industrialised world. But productivity in the developing world is still increasing sufficiently to maintain an increasing per capita amount of grain production there, despite massive increases in population levels. Obviously, further improvements are desirable and achievable, but it is clearly not the case that things are getting worse, as the Worldwatch Institute would like us to believe. On the contrary, food production is improving.

Such statistical sleights of hand (described by Lomborg as ‘a statistical finesse’) are obviously nothing new, and their use has certainly not been restricted to environmentalists. However, The Skeptical Environmentalist is full of similar examples, which Lomborg has used to undermine some of the most cherished environmental concerns. And while Lomborg is not the first to highlight the gap between perception and reality when it comes to many environmental concerns, the breadth of his statistical examination is impressive. I have considered myself something of an eco-sceptic for some time: still, on reading Lomborg’s book I was struck by just how many questions have gone unasked, and statistics that have gone unchallenged, because so many seem predisposed to believe that things are getting worse and worse.

Even those companies and industries at the wrong end of environmental campaigns – which, you might imagine, would be the first to marshal Lomborg’s arguments in their defence – often prefer to go along with the general negativity about the environment. Here Lomborg has a story to tell. When he first got his study group together to examine Julian Simon’s claims, an initial thought was that Simon must be wrong, otherwise industry would be making far greater mileage out of his arguments. So Lomborg got on the phone to one of Denmark’s leading industrial trade associations to ask if they were aware of Simon’s work. They were. But when Lomborg asked them why they were not drawing people’s attention to these issues, the response was simply: ‘bad PR.’

As Lomborg now realises, ‘companies can pass on the cost of environmental regulations and they want to look good, so they don’t care because they are not paying’. While not true in every instance, in general industry has an interest in selling us things that society appears to want, and little interest in challenging deeply held myths. Ultimately, political argument, drawing on facts and analysis, is required to clarify why we have become so susceptible to pessimistic fears, and to encourage us to fight for a better human world than the one we inherit at birth.

Why are we such pessimists, when it comes to the environment? ‘I think it is basically something about what we want to see in the world’, says Lomborg. ‘If you know the world is going downhill you don’t even stop to ask questions.’ He went on to explain that ‘one of the main points in statistics is to check for a third variable to disaggregate and shed light on the information before you’. This sounds straightforward enough – for example, when it comes to grain production, the third variable would be per capita grain production in developing countries.

But as Lomborg points out, half the battle is working out what that third variable might be. ‘Students frequently ask me how we know which variable to check when there are an infinite amount of possibilities’, he explains – and to know that is ultimately a question of ‘smartness’ and your ability to ‘ask the right question’.

Clearly, one of Lomborg’s biggest talents is in asking the right question. But notwithstanding the impressive amount of insightful statistical analysis in his book, the broader political conclusions implicit in this analysis are crucial. Despite Lomborg’s desire to focus on the facts, his research has led him to an understanding about the way in which society has become so pessimistic about its relationship with nature, and what humanity can achieve, that we have lost the ability to question our own negative assumptions. Without this understanding, no number of facts can explain the impact of environmentalism today – let alone challenge this phenomenon.

Lomborg argues that he is still ‘very much an environmentalist’, and that ‘it is a good thing to have green organisations around, though we should not always treat them as complete truth-sayers’. However, Lomborg’s brand of environmentalism is clearly very much at odds with the environmental issues that hold sway today. For example, he doesn’t object to the concept of sustainable development in its literal and banal sense, but does object when ‘it is used as an argument against industrialisation based on the idea that we have consumed too much or that others would be repeating our mistakes’.

And when some argue that we are destroying the planet for future generations, Lomborg responds that ‘we are leaving future generations much more able to do pretty much whatever they want, that most of the things that matter to us we are fairly well in control of and passing on to our descendants an even better state of affairs’.

Lomborg places a great deal of emphasis on human ingenuity, which, he says, ‘seems to be solving the problems we face’. He is critical of the precautionary principle – the orthodoxy that every new scientific development should be treated with the utmost caution – because he believes that this exaggerates the significance of uncertainties in relation to the environment and leads to ‘a vast over investment in environmental areas and our missing out on much better opportunities elsewhere that cost lives’.

How successful does Lomborg think his critique of the ‘the Litany of our ever-deteriorating environment’ will be? He believes that his work has already had some positive impact in Denmark, and that as a result ‘when it comes to the environment people worry a little less and ask a few more questions’. Moreover, he argues that ‘the environmental ministry now has to step up its cost benefit analysis, and so we spend our money more wisely. That has to be good for everybody’. And now his book is published in the UK, we will see the impact for ourselves. Certainly, The Skeptical Environmentalist should be required reading for all senior civil servants, government ministers and corporate executives who adopt ever more environmental policies and regulations to assuage often misplaced fears.

As I wrap up my conversation with Lomborg, he tells me that his book will be coming out in the USA on 6 October, but that he is concerned that he will have to ‘be even more careful to say I’m just stating facts and not supporting George Bush…just providing a better foundation for making decisions about how to improve the world’. He is concerned about being misconstrued as a right-winger or a messenger boy for Bush, before people listen to his argument. But there is more to Lomborg than Mr Facts – and if The Skeptical Environmentalist is going to make the impact Lomborg desires, he has to get out there with the analysis, too.

Facts are crucial, but Lomborg’s analysis of the facts have led him to something just as important – the understanding that a human-centred world is something to be celebrated. Building on these points is the only way we will ever get to explore the full potential of being human. In this sense, the issue is not simply one of resource optimisation and prioritisation, as Lomborg has a tendency to present it, but one of recognising that human beings are our most important resource, as an asset not a burden.

While it is important to win the argument that in general things have got better and better, this alone would be too complacent. You only have to look at the underdeveloped character of so many parts of the world (of which Sub-Saharan Africa is the most glaring example), which the phrase ‘sustainable development’ has become an apology for, to see how human lives, creativity and potential are being squandered. And in the Western world can anybody seriously argue that they are intoxicated by how well we are maximising our human potential? To paraphrase the Skeptical Environmentalist – wake up and smell the coffee!

Buy Bjørn Lomborg‘s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Tony Gilland is science and society director at the Institute of Ideas. He is the editor of Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Nature’s Revenge?: Hurricanes, Floods and Climate Change, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also a contributor to Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

‘This is a case of table pounding’, by Helene Guldberg

Extinct arguments, by Kirk Leech

The Skeptical Environmentalist, by John Gillott

I’m right because…you’re a Nazi, by Josie Appleton

spiked debates: Kyoto

Read more:

Read the following pieces by Bjørn Lomborg:

The environmental litany and data (.pdf 61.9 KB)

Running out of resources (.pdf 56.7 KB)

Global warming – are we doing the right thing? (.pdf 51 KB)

Visit Bjørn Lomborg‘s official website

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Topics Politics


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