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The Skeptical Environmentalist
Measuring the Real State of the World
By Bjorn Lomborg
Cambridge University Press
515 pages, US$27.95/$69.95

The final nail

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 22, 2001

The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the WorldBack in February 1997, Danish statistical professor Bjorn Lomborg happened to be in a Los Angeles bookshop leafing through a copy of Wired magazine when he came across an interview with the late economist Julian Simon. Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource, its follow up The Ultimate Resource 2 and the now classic The State of Humanity, was a proponent of the belief that life on Earth was only getting better. To prove that, he marshaled an impressive collection of data which proved that economic and political freedom was spreading around the world and bringing prosperity. Then, as now, those are heretical notions ... ones that Lomborg believed were simple libertarian propaganda.

At the time, Lomborg was a soft-left card carrying member of Greenpeace and a firm believer in what he has come to call the Litany. Peddled by people like Lester Brown and Paul Ehrlich, the Litany held that every indicator showed that life on Earth was actually getting worse. The Greenhouse Effect is beginning to affect Earth's climate, pollution is rampant, food shortages are around the corner, pesticides are everywhere, wars will soon break out over water and resources are growing scarce, among other dire predictions that make up the canon of the Litany. Reading Simon's optimistic cant prompted Lomborg to assemble his best students at the University of Aarhus to find out once and for all whether Simon's research held any validity. To his great surprise, nearly every single one of Simon's claims held up to rigorous scrutiny. The result of Lomborg's work is The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, a tour de force rebuttal of the Litany.

Exhaustive in its scope, Lomborg's effort addresses every conceivable weapon in the armory of the Litany and does so from a dispassionate perspective. Rather than simply accepting a commonly held belief – such as the one that air pollution is getting worse – Lomborg examines the raw data to present the reality. In air pollution's case, poor air quality was a problem that stretches back centuries – people complained about London's fetid air in the 1500s – and is a problem that is only getting better. London's air quality today, Lomborg points out using the best available research, is actually cleaner then it was in the 1550s.

Where there are legitimate concerns, such as the availability of water or CO2 emissions, Lomborg provides viable alternative ways rather than simply calling for collectivist intervention. In the case of water, Lomborg points out that water isn't priced realistically as most of the developing world gets it much too cheaply thanks to government subsidization. For the gasses attributed to global warming, and Lomborg does accept that human activity has affected Earth's climate to some degree, but he asks what the costs of the various proposed solutions are and whether they would cost more then simply letting global warming take place.

Whether it's genetically modified food or the future availability of energy, Lomborg builds impressive case after case by carefully examining the claims and sources of the doomsayers. Time and time again he finds that their data is either badly flawed or even contradicts their claims. Through sheer weight of documentation, Lomborg invalidates the claims of people like Brown and Ehrlich as senseless scaremongering that divert attention away from legitimate problems.

Admittedly, if The Skeptical Environmentalist does have a weakness – and it is bordering on facetiousness to term it a problem – is that it may be too well-researched. A reader could find themselves drowning in the the mass of charts and figures that Lomborg brings to bear in an effort to prove his case. That aside, it is also one of the most impressive achievements in terms of the thoroughness of its research. Unlike many of his critics Lomborg provides extensive citations for his work – readers can check each of his 2 930 footnotes if they care too – and provides extensive background information for each of the broad subjects he addresses.

Although his orthodox environmentalist credentials may be in tatters, his soft liberalism remains intact. Lomborg does occasionally editorialize, though admittedly in a subtle way, to express a preference for collective action to solve what he believes is the source of many of our problems: poverty. A number of times he states that money spent on fighting global warming or the religious zeal to eliminate pesticides from food and water could be better spent developing the Third World. Since those fights come at the expense of the taxpayer, Lomborg is essentially arguing that collectivist action is legitimate if it's going to solve the problems he believes are real. Simon may have greatly influenced him, but not when it comes to matters of economics.

All in all, The Skeptical Environmentalist should be the final nail in the coffin of the Litany and the ghost of Thomas Malthus. Whether the cult of the Litany have the intellectual honesty that Lomborg had remains to be seen. For the rest of us, Lomborg's incredible contribution to the the study of our future is required reading.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist at Amazon.com for only $19.56 (30% off) in paperback or $69.95 in hardcover

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