The Skeptical Environmentalist

John Gillott reviews the book that has landed like a bombshell on environmental debates.

John Gillott

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The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Bjørn Lomborg, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Reading The Skeptical Environmentalist, the first thing we learn about Bjørn Lomborg is that he cares more for truth than appearances. In the opening paragraphs he associates himself with the late Julian Simon, a critic of environmentalist thinking who was reviled and ridiculed by his enemies.

The second thing we learn is that, while Lomborg always considered himself an environmentalist, he hadn’t really studied the issue until recently. Any casual observer of the scene would have at least heard of Simon, but Lomborg’s whole interest in environmentalism was sparked in 1997 when he chanced upon Simon’s argument that ‘the material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely’. As a teacher of statistics, Lomborg, aided by 10 of his brightest students, set out to show that ‘most of Simon’s talk was simple, American right-wing propaganda’. But much to his own surprise, he found that Simon had a point.

Lomborg’s approach is fresh, direct and rigorous. There is no hedging of arguments, no kowtowing to the Green great-and-good, and no shame in using the methods of statistics and economic assessment where others prefer moralism. It’s not that Lomborg thinks this world is as good as it gets – but on most material and environmental indices, things are substantially better than they were.

Lomborg’s aim is to set the record straight. What he calls ‘the Litany’ of our ever-deteriorating environment has ‘pervaded the debate so deeply and for so long that blatantly false claims can be made again and again, without any references, and yet still be believed’. There are some shocking examples of this in the book – but it would be a mistake to focus on these at the expense of the broader methodological criticisms he makes.

As a professional statistician, Lomborg starts by telling us that it is no use trading example and counter-example. What we need are comprehensive, global statistics, and data on long-term trends. I particularly enjoyed his deconstruction of the claims made by Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, whose annual publication State of the World provides the counterpoint to Lomborg’s study (1).

Behind the specific examples discussed in The Skeptical Environmentalist lies the broader issue of limits. For environmentalists, humanity is crashing through one limit after another, piling up problems as it does so. Latent within this perspective is a streak of anti-humanism, an attitude that was summed up by Alan Gregg in A Medical Aspect of the Population Problem nearly 50 years ago: ‘To say that the world has cancer, and that the cancer cell is man, has neither experimental proof nor the validation of experimental accuracy; but I see no reason that instantly forbids such a speculation. The destruction of forests, the annihilation or near extinction of various animals, and the soil erosion consequent to overgrazing illustrate the cancer-like effect that man…has had on other forms of life on what we call “our” planet.’

This idea of human pressure on the natural world was not widely held in the 1950s – a time when Lewis L Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, promised ‘electrical energy too cheap to meter’; a world in which we would know ‘of great periodic regional famines in the world only as a matter of history’, we would travel effortlessly ‘over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds’, and we would ‘experience a life-span far larger than’ hitherto experienced. But such optimism was soon to fade.

The first report to the influential international body The Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, has sold over 20million copies worldwide since it was published in 1972. Its message was simple: exponential growth of resource consumption, driven by ‘the positive feedback loops of population growth and of capital growth’ would ultimately lead to a crisis – because natural resources are finite. What was needed was ‘deliberate constraints on growth’.

Since then the gloomy predictions of The Club have failed to materialise. The simplistic computer models used by the authors of The Limits to Growth failed to take into account the impressive ability of human ingenuity to unearth new stocks of existing resources, to find ways of making the same with less and to use different materials. But the idea of limits has not gone away; in fact it has multiplied and diversified, returning to encompass many of the issues highlighted by Gregg – the destruction of forests, the annihilation or near-extinction of various animals, soil erosion, as well as new concerns such as global warming. Cancer also figures, only this time not as metaphor but as the price humanity itself is said to be paying for poisoning the world around it. As Norman Myers puts it: ‘the environment/economics debate is no longer about the limits to growth. It is about the growth of limits.’

The old terrain of the depletion of non-renewable resources was the ground fought over by Julian Simon and the environmentalists in the 1980s. When Lomborg revisits the issue in the chapters on energy and non-energy resources, it seems a little like he is digging up a corpse for reburial. Lomborg also fails to delineate adequately the shifting forms of arguments about environmental limits over the years.

But thankfully, Lomborg’s focus on resources is merely a lead in to the discussion of the themes that animate contemporary discussions. His chapters on air pollution and ‘Our chemical fears’ highlight his skill in using statistics to deconstruct an issue and present the results in an accessible way.

On the issue of our chemical fears, Lomborg has many mainstream scientists on his side. Epidemiologists and cancer experts in particular are growing weary of the use and abuse of data by those with an obvious axe to grind. But on some of the other issues he highlights, it would appear that the environmentalists have science on their side. Lomborg is aware of this problem – and he argues that the influence of ‘the Litany’ of environmental disaster in these areas is ‘not due to primary research in the environmental field; this generally appears to be professionally competent and well-balanced. It is due, however, to the communication of environmental knowledge, which taps deeply into our doomsday beliefs’.

Above all, the important factor is the interpretation of data. It is not that there are no problems – in some areas we could be storing up problems for the future. But the problem is we tend to exaggerate these and underestimate the capacities of human ingenuity. In areas such as deforestation or biodiversity loss, there is a great deal of uncertainty, providing ample scope for worst-case scenarios to be presented as if they were fact. Over the past decade, the leading journal Science has carried numerous articles in which it is taken as a given that the rate of species loss is in the region of 40,000 per year, a figure derided by Lomborg as being pretty much made up (2).

My own judgement is that Lomborg is chancing it when he presents conservative estimates of forest and species loss, rather than simply challenging the excesses of environmentalists. But his discussion of climate change is more substantial, and has already proved controversial.

Here, Lomborg extends his statistical analysis into the realms of economic and social forecasting, over long time-spans. Following the logic of his general judgement concerning the competence of primary research in the environmental field, he accepts ‘the reality of manmade global warming’. But, using official sources, he challenges the idea that changes brought on by global warming will be as disruptive as is commonly believed and questions the way in which future scenarios have been arrived at – finding that forecasts of climate change of six degrees by the end of the century ‘are not plausible’ (3).

Lomborg’s foray into economic modelling and forecasting is quite speculative, but it does illustrate that the optimal strategy for managing the impact of climate change may well be to favour economic development over immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. One aspect of this can be put very crudely, he suggests: it would benefit people in developing countries a great deal more if the USA were to ignore calls to stabilise emissions of carbon dioxide and instead gave them the money it would lose doing so (or cancelled the equivalent amount of debt), and carried on regardless.

Despite using similar models, Lomborg ends up in a very different place to the mainstream UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is not that the scientists involved with the IPCC have presented bad data, but rather that they haven’t even analysed certain issues. Lomborg tells us that a political decision was taken that the IPCC should not take a cost-benefit approach to climate change – and Lomborg does something that the IPCC failed to do: he assesses the likelihood of the different scenarios presented for this coming century. The influential climatologist Stephen Schneider suggests that the IPCC wanted ‘to avoid endless disputes’, which may be true – but it has the effect of giving official sanction to worst-case scenarios.

In a hard-hitting section, Lomborg takes aim at the IPCC for allowing climate policy to be ‘used as a tool for charting an alternative course of development’. ‘“Against the background of environmental scarcities” [quoting from an IPCC report] this course has to focus on eco-efficiency, industrial ecology, eco-efficient consumption, etc.’ Basically, the IPCC concludes that it will be necessary to decouple wellbeing from production. Indeed, ‘it will be necessary to make people understand that the performance of things cannot keep improving, for the sake of the environment.’

But such official endorsement of the environmentalists’ agenda by a mainstream scientific/political body is far from unusual today, and is certainly not confined to climate policy. It was not Friends of the Earth, but 58 of World’s Scientific Academies (including the UK Royal Society and the American National Academy of Sciences) that declared in 1993 that ‘indicators of severe environmental stress include the growing loss of biodiversity, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing deforestation worldwide, stratospheric ozone depletion, acid rain, loss of topsoil, and shortages of water, food and fuel-wood in many parts of the world’. Governments and business have not been slow to express similar concerns.

Where does this leave Lomborg’s analysis of likely future social and economic trends? And who is communicating today’s ‘environmental knowledge, which taps deeply into our doomsday beliefs’ – just environmentalists, or government and big business as well? Lomborg lists ’environmental organisations’, ‘many individual commentators’ and ‘the media’. We absorb these messages, says Lomborg, because we have time to worry now – and our society has ‘begun to produce far more information about risks’.

Echoing Julian Simon, Lomborg tells us that progress to date has been achieved through hard work, the market and reasonable regulations. Will the future be like the past? He seems to think so: ‘We can forget about our fear of imminent breakdown. We can see the world is basically headed in the right direction and that we can help to steer this development process by focusing on and insisting on reasonable prioritisation.’

Is this a call to arms or a simple prognosis? It is hard to say. Lomborg has produced a powerful critique of ‘the Litany’ of our ‘ever-deteriorating environment’. Whether he has fully grasped the extent to which powerful political, economic and scientific institutions have taken this Litany on board is another matter.

However, Lomborg is certainly right to say our society is organising itself around environmental fears, many of which are ill-founded. And with institutional support, these changes threaten the future material developments he champions.

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

Read on:

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

A statistician with a mission, by Tony Gilland

Extinct arguments, by Kirk Leech

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

(1) See A statistician with a mission, by Tony Gilland

(2) Extinct arguments, by Kirk Leech

(3) See spiked-issues: Global warming

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