THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST
Measuring the Real State
Of the World
By Bjorn Lomborg
Cambridge Univ. 515 pp. $69.95; paperback, $27.95
That the human race faces environmental problems is unquestionable. That environmental experts have regularly tried to scare us out of our wits with doomsday chants is also beyond dispute. In the 1960s overpopulation was going to cause massive worldwide famine around 1980. A decade later we were being told the world would be out of oil by the 1990s. This was an especially chilly prospect, since, as Newsweek reported in 1975, we were in a climatic cooling trend that was going to reduce agricultural outputs for the rest of the century, leading possibly to a new Ice Age.
Bjorn Lomborg, a young statistics professor and political scientist at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, knows all about the enduring appeal -- for journalists, politicians and the public -- of environmental doomsday tales, having swallowed more than a few himself. In 1997, Lomborg -- a self-described left-winger and former Greenpeace member -- came across an article in Wired magazine about Julian Simon, a University of Maryland economist. Simon claimed that the "litany" of the Green movement -- its fears about overpopulation, animal species dying by the hour, deforestation -- was hysterical nonsense, and that the quality of life on the planet was radically improving. Lomborg was shocked by this, and he returned to Denmark to set about doing the research that would refute Simon.
He and his team of academicians discovered something sobering and cheering: In every one of his claims, Simon was correct. Moreover, Lomborg found on close analysis that the factual foundation on which the environmental doomsayers stood was deeply flawed: exaggeration, prevarications, white lies and even convenient typographical errors had been absorbed unchallenged into the folklore of environmental disaster scenarios.
Lomborg still feels at one with the basic sentiments that underlie the Green movement: that we should strive toward a cleaner, healthier world for everyone, including animals (he's a vegetarian with ethical objections to eating flesh). But his aim in this new catalogue of environmental issues is to counter the gloom with a clear, scientifically based picture of the true state of the Earth and to take a rational view of what we can expect in the next century.
In a massive, meticulously presented argument that extends over 500 pages, supported by nearly 3,000 footnotes and 182 tables and diagrams, Lomborg revisits a number of heartening breakthroughs in the recent life of the planet. Chief among these is the decline of poverty and starvation across the world. Starvation still exists, but there is less of it than ever, as our capacity to produce abundant quantities of food continues to improve. Likewise with other dire scenarios of resource depletion: We are emphatically not running out of energy and mineral resources, the population bomb is fizzling, and, far from killing us, pesticides and chemicals are improving longevity and the quality of life. Neither need we fear anything from the genetic modification of organisms.
For a factual encyclopedia, the book has immense entertainment value, particularly in the way Lomborg traces the urban legends of the Green movement back to their sources. Consider the oft-repeated claim that 40,000 species go extinct every year. Such an annual loss of species, Lomborg points out, would be disaster for the future of life on earth, amounting perhaps to a loss of 25 to 50 percent of all species in the next half century. He manages, however, to locate the source of the story -- an off-hand and completely unfounded guess made by a scientist in 1979. It's been repeated endlessly ever since -- and in 1981 was increased by arch-doomsayer Paul Ehrlich to 250,000 species per year. (Ehrlich also predicted that half the planet's species would be extinct by 2000.)
Lomborg brings these unhinged forecasts back down to Earth by reminding us that the only actual scientific documentation for species loss is in United Nations figures, which show an actual loss of between a tenth of a percent and 1 percent of all species for all of the next 50 years. This includes beetles, ants, flies, worms, bacteria and fungi, which make up 99 percent of all species, plus a small but unknown number of mammals and birds. Extinction, Lomborg argues, is a problem to be realistically faced and solved, not a catastrophe to be bewailed.
Or consider deforestation. It's been claimed that the world has lost two-thirds of its forests since the dawn of agriculture. The real figure, Lomborg shows, is around 20 percent, and this figure has hardly changed since the World War II. Tropical forests are declining at a small annual rate of 0.46 percent, but this is offset by growth in commercial plantations, which should be encouraged, as their products take the pressure off the tropical forests. In fact, the world's wood and paper needs could be permanently satisfied by tree plantations amounting to just 5 percent of the world's forest cover.
Then there's waste disposal. Are we really running out of landfill space for our garbage? Lomborg shows how the entire trash-dumping requirements for the United States through the whole of the coming century (assuming the country doubles in population) could be met by a single landfill that measures 100 feet high and 18 miles square. That's a lot of trash, but as the total leavings of the increasing U.S. population over a hundred years, it is certainly not unmanageable, and if it's properly dealt with, it need pose no serious pollution threat to air or water.
Speaking of trash, Lomborg favors recycling, but only when it makes sense, and he gives a hilarious analysis of a scheme from Environment magazine to mail used toothbrushes to a plant where they could be recycled as outdoor furniture. This would cost $4 billion to implement for the U.S. population, and that's without taking into account the costs of the postal system handling a billion packages of new and used toothbrushes annually. The recycling cure can be worse than the consumption disease (though I can imagine the U. S. Postal Service might see this idea as a revenue opportunity).
Many well-intentioned environmental policies can have surprising outcomes: Suppose minute pesticide residues have the potential to cause cancer in a tiny number of cases -- one estimate would have it around 20 cases per annum in the United States (not very many in a country where 300 people drown in bathtubs every year). So we ban the pesticides. This in turn, Lomborg points out, would sharply drive up the price of cancer-preventing fruits and vegetables. By reducing consumption, especially among the poor, the pesticide ban in the end would cause more cancer (perhaps 26,000 cases annually) than the pesticides would have caused in the first place. Sometimes, as with toothbrushes, the best thing to do about a "problem" is exactly nothing.
Lomborg enjoys placing what look to be serious environmental issues in a comparative context, which can often cause them to diminish considerably in scale. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was portrayed as a disaster of unparalleled magnitude: For example, it killed 250,000 birds. He shows how the long-term effects of the spill were far less damaging than environmentalists predicted, and also puts the avian mortality claim in perspective: Some 300,000 birds are killed by mammals, mostly cats, in Great Britain every 48 hours, and 250,000 birds die from striking plate glass in homes and offices in the United States every 24 hours. How could he know that? I wondered myself, so here as elsewhere, I followed Lomborg's claims back through the footnotes, traced the sources for myself, and found them to be sound. In fact, since The Skeptical Environmentalist was published last month in Britain, an army of angry environmentalists has been crawling all over the book, trying to refute it. Lomborg's claims have withstood the attack.
The book's longest, most detailed chapter is on global warming and the Kyoto Treaty. Lomborg agrees that a warming trend is real but says that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change exaggerates the possible threats and present-day proportions of global warming, while neglecting the benefits of more carbon dioxide in the air and warmer nighttime temperatures. These changes would improve agricultural output in the U.S. and China, and make for vast increases in crop production for Canada and Russia. In any event, Lomborg is promoter of solar energy, which he believes will take over from oil as our major energy source in the next 50 years.
His most stunning conclusion: Even if the Kyoto treaty were fully implemented, it would stave off warming by only about six years -- postponing it from 2100 to 2106. So what is the cost to the world economy of this almost invisible benefit we are to bestow on our great-great grandchildren? Anywhere from $80 to $350 billion per annum. Lomborg is very disturbed by these figures, since he sees health improvements as the greatest challenge now facing the human race -- especially the enormous gains against disease and poverty that will come from increasing the supply of clean drinking water and the quality of sanitation in the developing world. The costs of Kyoto for one year could give clean water and sanitation to the whole of the developing world, saving 2 million lives, and keeping half a billion people from serious illness. For future, unknown and perhaps nonexistent benefits, Kyoto would squander money that should be applied right now to real, life-and-death human problems. Lomborg's calculations are meticulous, his argument compelling: Implementation of the Kyoto Treaty would be an unforgivable mistake.
Lomborg's original inspiration, the radical Julian Simon, was just a bit too far ahead of his time. This bald, vaguely right-wing economist was on the money, but in the late 20th century, with Green mythology ascendant, no one wanted to know. Paul Ehrlich, as reward for being wrong in all his scary predictions about population and the environment, was showered with prizes, including a MacArthur "genius" fellowship. As Simon cheerfully remarked, "I can't even get a McDonald's." This irrepressible scholar did, however, provoke a young Dane into trying to disprove his claims -- a process that led to questioning the factual foundations of the environmental movement itself. Unlike Simon, Lomborg has the correct cultural aura: a young, left-wing European with the looks of a movie star. Simon, who died suddenly in 1998, would have loved to see how things are turning out.
Bjorn Lomborg's good news about the environment is bad news for Green ideologues. His richly informative, lucid book is now the place from which environmental policy decisions must be argued. In fact, The Skeptical Environmentalist is the most significant work on the environment since the appearance of its polar opposite, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, in 1962. It's a magnificent achievement. *
Denis Dutton is a professor of philosophy who lectures on the dangers of pseudoscience at the science faculties of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He is also editor of the website Arts & Letters Daily.