The Skeptical Environmentalist:
Measuring the Real State of the World
Cambridge University Press, 2001
by Charles Curley
review: Read this
book. Since you are reading this on LewRockwell.com, you are
probably skeptical of the gloom and doom Litany of environmentalists.
You now have a lot to learn about just how wrong they really are.
If, on the other tentacle, you happen to believe in the environmentalist
Litany, you have something to learn.
Review: Bjorn Lomborg is an Associate Professor of statistics
in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus
in Denmark. He is (by his own description) a vegetarian, out of
respect for animal rights, and a former Greenpeace member. In February,
1997, he read an
interview in Wired Magazine with Julian Simon, who maintained
that much of our knowledge of the environment is, quite simply,
wrong. Lomborg was "provoked." That fall, he set up a study group
to check Simon's data. They expected to prove Simon wrong. They
didn't, which left them rather non-plussed. It was also the genesis
of a series of articles in a Danish newspaper that caused an uproar.
That, in turn, lead to publication of a book in Danish. The book
reviewed here is an updated and enlarged version of the 1998 volume,
with statistical data updated to May 2001.
term "Litany" is Simon's. Lomborg is so persuaded of the essential
facts of Simon's thesis that he has picked it up and used it in
this book. Part I is entitled "The Litany", and it examines and
challenges the set of beliefs that make up the Litany: that things
are getting worse, that (as Time Magazine put it last year) "everyone
knows the planet is in bad shape."
two covers Human Welfare: health and longevity, our food and our
prosperity. The proportion of people starving in the world has dropped
from 35% in 1970 to 18% today. This, in spite of the fact that we
have 2 billion more people to feed. In the same period, the average
caloric intake in the developing world has increased by 38%. This
is not to say that there are no problems, but Lomborg lays many
of those directly in the laps of African governments.
next part stares the malthusians in the eye. It deals with whether
our prosperity can continue. By "our", he means the entire planet.
Lomborg is convinced that by the end of this century, the poorest
parts of the world will be more prosperous in GDP per person than
the developed countries are today. We are not running out of resources.
In most cases, in spite of a larger population, we have more proven
reserves than we did twenty or fifty years ago. Nor are we running
out of food. Further, we are using our resources more efficiently.
"For the world at large, almost twice the amount of wealth was produced
in 1992 per energy unit compared to 1972." (page 126)
that, Lomborg takes on pollution. Acid rain is not killing the forests.
Remember the ozone layer? That is healing now. Remember the cleanup
of Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez ran aground? "While
this is naturally an awful toll, we also need to put this death
in perspective the total 250,000 dead birds ... is still less
than the number of birds which die on a single day in the US colliding
with plate glass, or the number of birds that are killed by domestic
cats in Britian in two days." (page 192) The cleanup may not have
helped as much as we would like to think. As an experiment, some
parts of the beaches were not pressure cleaned of oil. Thoise came
back to life in 18 months. The pressure cleaned areas took three
to four years.
V is entitled "Tomorrow's Problems" and deals with chemical pollution,
biodiversity and global warming. We are not loosing massive numbers
of species. While global warming is taking place, the typical proposed
remedy of massive cutbacks in fossil fuels is worse than
the damage the warming will do. (Drat, so much for my vast investments
in Wyoming sagebrush!)
and more is laid out in almost excruciating detail. The trade paperback
edition has 515 pages, of which 71 contain the bibliography, and
82 the 2930 endnotes. Lomborg's background as a professor of statistics
shows through. He manages to explain much of the statistical fog
clearly enough for a reasonably literate and numerate layperson
to pick it up.
are drawn from authoritative sources, such as the UN, the US EPA,
and the EU's analogous agency. Lomborg also cites from environmentalist
sources such as the Worldwatch Institute often to throw their
own reports back at them! You can quibble as to the FAO's reports
if you wish, but the point here is that Lomborg is using publicly
available data, data available to the creators of the Litany. Further,
he uses authoritative sources, which means that the burden is on
anyone who wants to dispute his data.
of Lomborg's sources are also available to the environmentalists.
And, thanks to the meticulous footnotes and bibliography and the
Internet, all are available to you as well, should you wish to check
Lomborg's work. Please do.
of this is set forth in calm, clear language. There is no ranting,
no name calling. Only in a few places does Lomborg even approach
showing emotion. In its way, this calm concise presentation is even
more chilling than an emotional approach would have been. The vast
contrast between the facts and the Litany is far more frightening
than any ranting could possibly have been. and it shows up by contrast
the hysteria with which the Litany is usually presented.
names names, calls a spade a spade, and takes no prisoners. For
example, he savages the Worldwatch Institute. "In its shorthand
appraisal of the state of the world since 1984, Worldwatch Institute
sets out a lit of problems, all of which have improved since
then, and all but one of which have improved immensely since then,
and one of which is just plain wrong. Not a great score for 16 years
that have supposedly been been meticulously covered by the Worldwatch
reports. The problem, of course, is not lack of data Worldwatch
Institute publishes fine data collections, which are also used in
this book but merely a carelessness that comes with the ingrained
belief in the Litany." (page 14)
again. Lomborg quotes Worldwatch's 1998 The State of the World
as saying that the long term trend in wheat prices may have ended
in the 1990s, and prices may now be climbing. This analysis is based
on a three year rise from a record low. But Lomborg points out that
wheat prices have been declining since at least 1800. And, at the
time of writing, in February 2001, wheat was at a new record low
well below the start of the uptick which so alarmed Worldwatch.
again: Lomborg goes through a detailed analysis of the problem of
pesticides in food, He points out that the scare is over synthetic
pesticides, not natural ones as though artificiality makes a
difference in carcinogenicity. Yet you are at far greater risk from
naturally occurring pesticides, like the caffeic acid in your coffee
and your lettuce, than from synthetic ones. "...[M]any of our perfectly
ordinary foods would not pass the regulatory criteria we use for
synthetic chemicals. Our intake of coffee is about 50 times more
carcinogenic than our intake of DDT before it was banned...." (page
the discussion is conservative. For example, nowhere in the discussion
of energy does Lomborg mention O'Neill colonies or cold fusion.
In the discussion of resources, he ignores lunar and asteroidal
sources. Nowhere does he discuss a proposal to handle global warming
by putting a vast sun shade in solar synchronous orbit. One suspects
that if Lomborg did hear of such a proposal, he'd wonder if the
cost was worth it.
point is not to argue for or against any particular policy proposals.
Rather, he insists that we used the data we already have to understand
what is really going on around us. Only then can we make the correct
policy decisions. "The central point here remains: if we are to
make the best decisions for our future, we should base our prioritizations
not on fear but on facts. Thus, we need to confront our fears; we
need to challenge the Litany." (page 327)
example, the Litany says that synthetic pesticides cause cancer.
In fact, they cause about 20 cancer deaths a year in the US. Yet,
if we banned synthetic pesticides, it would cost us $20-30 billion
a year, or at least $1 billion per life saved. But doing so would
raise the cost of fruits and vegetables noticeably. Since fruits
and vegetables are know to be less carcinogenic than meats, such
a ban would add 26,000 deaths a year from cancer due to the diet
must consider dollar costs, if for no other reason that a dollar
spent saving a life here might be better spent saving several lives
elsewhere. For example, if you examine the cost per life year saved
in various sectors of the economy, environmental regulation costs
more than an order of magnitude more per life year saved than the
next most expensive sector. Again, compare government agencies.
The EPA costs almost two orders of magnitude more per life year
saved than its nearest competitor, OSHA. In other words, ceteris
paribus, for every life year the EPA saves, the money could
be spent by other agencies at an efficiency that would save over
a hundred life years.
the Litany makes us demand regulation of particular areas of the
environment while we fail to consider how the money could otherwise
have been spent, we actually create a societal structure in which
fewer people survive. To use a harsh albeit fitting metaphor,
we could say that when we ignore the cost of our environmental decisions
on the lesser regulations in other areas, we are in reality committing
statistical murder." (page 342) And that moral bomb is as close
as Lomborg comes to showing any emotion in the entire book!
touches on related issues. The media are complicit in spreading
the Litany, but what is their motive? They exagerate when reporting
on news stories why?
important, why do people believe in the Litany? Sometimes they do
so in ignorance or because their only source of information is the
media. But others, like Lester Brown of WorldWatch, don't have that
excuse. Why do they believe, often in spite of the evidence? This
may be the most important question the book brings up. While Lomborg
offers some possible answers, they don't satisfy this reader. I
would suggest that the market works: if there is a demand for people
to propound the Litany, the market will provide people to propound
the Litany. Perhaps a thorough answer will have to await the leisure
and resources of the XXIInd century. And, by our standards, they'll
have them, in spades.
that we have that taken care of, let's see to it that the government
doesn't screw things up like they usually do. OK? Indeed, big government
run by an enviro-Taliban may be the greatest threat to the survival
of this and other species around. You can help deal with that threat
by reading this book.
[send him mail] lives
in Wyoming. Before reading this book he had been looking forward
to SCUBA diving in the coral encrusted ruins of the U.N. building.
© 2001 LewRockwell.com
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