Bjørn Lomborg, a former member of Greenpeace, challenges widely held beliefs that the world environmental situation is getting worse and worse in his new book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Using statistical information from internationally recognized research institutes, Lomborg systematically examines a range of major environmental issues that feature prominently in headline news around the world, including pollution, biodiversity, fear of chemicals, and the greenhouse effect, and documents that the world has actually improved. He supports his arguments with over 2500 footnotes, allowing readers to check his sources. Lomborg criticizes the way many environmental organizations make selective and misleading use of scientific evidence and argues that we are making decisions about the use of our limited resources based on inaccurate or incomplete information. Concluding that there are more reasons for optimism than pessimism, he stresses the need for clear-headed prioritization of resources to tackle real, not imagined, problems. The Skeptical Environmentalist offers readers a non-partisan evaluation that serves as a useful corrective to the more alarmist accounts favored by campaign groups and the media. Bjørn Lomborg is an associate professor of statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus. When he started to investigate the statistics behind the current gloomy view of the environment, he was genuinely surprised. He published four lengthy articles in the leading Danish newspaper, including statistics documenting an ever-improving world, and unleashed the biggest post-war debate with more than 400 articles in all the major papers. Since then, Lomborg has been a frequent participant in the European debate on environmentalism on television, radio, and in newspapers.
Lomborg systematically examines a range of major environmental issues and documents that the global environment has actually improved. Presents concrete factual errors made by environmental activist organizations in their use of scientific evidence. Softcover. Hardcover available.
About the Author
Bjørn Lomborg is an Associate Professor of Statistics in the Department of Political Science, University of Aarhus, Denmark. He has published in international journals in the fields of game theory and computer simulations. He has given invited lectures on the subjects discussed in The Skeptical Environmentalist in leading universities in North America and Europe following the success of the original Danish edition which has had a significant impact on the terms of the environmental debate within Scandinavia.
Staggering research boiled into all the key information, September 24, 2001
Worthy causes, whether religious, political or moral tend to see themselves as above the duty to provide evidence to substantiate both their claims about reality and the suitability of their proposed measures to improve said reality. To their believers, the state of the world is obvious (usually bad), and they are genuinely astonished to find that most people are unconcerned about the grave issues that drive them. Their natural reaction is to become even more feverish about their respective causes and to step up efforts to proselytise and convert the benighted masses.
Bjorn Lomborg started working on the issues that would eventually make up the content of his book by leading some of his statistics students into debunking some claims made by University of Maryland’s professor Julian Simon. Julian Simon had claimed that things were actually getting better rather than worse, and that most negative environmental indicators were connected to poverty, violence and bad government rather than consumption or wealth. To their surprise (for he initially took Simon’s claims as evidence of typical American arrogance), Lomborg and his students found that Simon was roughly right. It was true that things were getting better, and that many of the claims coming from environmental advocates were contradictory (for example they both dreaded global cooling in the 1970s and global warming in the 1990s as absolutely negative, although clearly both have benefits compared to each other, and neither is all bad), or tendentious (for example, advocates for particular causes often choose particular extreme years to show a negative tendency in a variable, while ignoring the long term trend), or simply shoddy (such as using a report on a tiny plot of slanting land in Belgium to extrapolate the global impact of erosion on land fertility). Lomborg published some articles discussing his findings on a left-leaning newspaper in Denmark, that greenest of countries, and was astonished at the public reaction. He decided to take upon himself a Gargantuan project, one that (I think) he couldn’t possibly have thought through before embarking on it, or I predict he wouldn’t have done it. He decided to review the state of the world from many, many angles, including humanity, all types of resources, animals and plants, as well as their interactions. The amount of work required to cover all these subjects, and to come up with data to back up his conclusions, must have been staggering. I have sometimes done this type of work, and I am in awe at Lomborg’s achievement. It is truly a tour de force.
While I don’t claim that everything Lomborg says makes perfect sense, or that all his data are correct (surely he won’t deny his readers the right to apply skepticism to his own claims as well, and it is quite easy to use the WWW to check out his opponents’ arguments), this is a rare book that attempts seriously to consider all facts from a variety of angles, which tries to answer objections or qualifications from opponents, and which carefully connects all the variables into a global picture, incorporating the temporal dimension both past and future. Lomborg is truly skeptical, in the sense of taking nothing for granted and approaching all the issues dispassionately. These are, as Descartes told us in his Discourse on the Method, some of the conditions for true knowledge. Reading Lomborg one sometimes feels like the light has been turned on or the mists have cleared on many topics. One is surprised to find many catastrophe-peddlers (such as Stanford’s Dr. Erlich, who is unrepentant of the obvious failure of his predictions for the 1980s of widespread famine and scarce resources due to population growth) are still around and doing fairly well. At least Lomborg takes them to task, and finds them wanting in logic and veracity.
I predict (and it doesn’t take Nostradamus to figure this out) that this book will be purchased by many people who normally wouldn’t think of reading even a newspaper article on environmental concerns. Many of these probably won’t make it through the entire book. In spite of Lomborg’s great asides about his debates with WorldWatch and with Danish government ministers and his glee in demolishing yet another sophism, he is sometimes prolix, and there is a point were yet another chart showing that some metal’s price has not gone up but down in the past hundred years is one too many. But let’s not forget his calling (he is a statistician, although an unusually lively one), and let’s not ask him from more than what he offers (which is a rational, dispassionate look at the environmentalist discourse). His chapter on global warming is both exhaustive and exhausting. I predict also that Mr. Lomborg will become a darling of the libertarian think tanks in the US and elsewhere, and a villain in the eyes of environmental organizations and their supporters. Both attitudes are mistaken. The only way to dismiss Mr. Lomborg is by showing that his data or his inferences from them are wrong. And, although roughly aligned with them on most issues, Mr. Lomborg is probably not of the libertarians’ perspective (they should be scared if Mr. Lomborg decides to write a book testing many of the libertarian’s claims, such as the trickle-down theory of economic development). Everything else is just taking things on faith, something Mr. Lomborg hasn’t done. He is entitled to the same treatment.
Need for a Reality Check, December 1, 2001
I have been a professional environmental consultant for nearly 25 years and served many US agencies and private concerns. Its about time we question many of the myths about environmentalism and contradictions of environmentalists (though I believe the overall need for protection is there). However, I do not necessarily think Mr. Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist always does this judicially.
Contrary to other reviews you read here, this is not about left and right. (The more one makes this a polarizing political discussion, the more it will never be a honest examination.) It is about slugging it through detailed analyses of facts and near-facts. It is about arriving at the truth, as much as can be done. Here is where Lomborg goes halfway. In some circumstances, he has selectively analyzed topics to arrive at a conclusion that convieniently provides a more consistent overarching summary for his book – that things are A-OK. Specifically, he does this on the topics of population, energy, habitat depletion, species elimination, and global warming. These are a few too many mishandled topics to give him high marks for his efforts. I think Lomborg commits the same crime he accuses others of; that is of jumping to conclusions, not seeing the complete picture and wanting to package a conclusion that is nearly impossible to neatly package.
Mr. Lomborg does bravely raise some very important issues and ideas. For this I applaud him and for this reason I recommend this book. There is a great need to be honest about ourselves in environmental policy. For too long, policy has been driven by the perception of doing good, excessive chemophobia, and too much of "its someone else’s responsibility" (never the individual citizen and their lifestyle but more likely that of industry). The resultant policy is also often cumbersome and micro-managed approach that is implemented long after a sensible, sometimes more creative approach should have been initiated. I hope that this book encourages an honest self-examination by its readers.