The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World.

Author:Kozinski, Alex

THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST: MEASURING THE REAL STATE OF THE WORLD. By Bjorn Lomborg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001. Pp. xxiv, 515. Cloth, $69.95; paper, $27.95.

Unless you've been frozen in carbonite or are hopelessly gullible, it must have occurred to you at some point during the last three decades that environmental activists are exaggerating just a bit when they claim that, unless we dramatically change our way of life, we'll soon see the end of civilization as we know it. I'm not sure when these doomsday predictions got started--probably they go back to Malthus and beyond--but I first became aware of environmental Jeremiadism in college in the early 1970s, when tout-le-monde were reading a little book called The Limits to Growth. (1) Authored by a group of scientists going by the pretentious name "The Club of Rome," the book was designed as a shrill wake-up call to a complacent humanity headed for environmental disaster. (2) Filled with charts, tables and diagrams, and supported by computer-generated predictions (a new-fangled tool at the time), The Limits of Growth made some very concrete and highly alarming predictions: "there will ... be a desperate [arable] land shortage before the year 2000"; (3) we would run short of gold by 1979, of silver and mercury by 1983, of petroleum by 1990, of zinc by 1988, of tin by 1985 and of natural gas by 1992. (4) The book's forceful message was that we were headed for a world-wide calamity, and must fundamentally--and immediately--change the way we live. Nor was this merely a question of physical survival; at stake was humanity's very soul: "The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether it can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence." (5)

"Wow! Heavy!," as we used to say in those days. The book definitely made you feel guilty about taking a trip in your gas-guzzling, air-polluting, resource-wasting Millennium Falcon to go hiking in the Great Outdoors. It was almost enough to make you walk the twelve parsecs to the Forest of Endor and back.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that The Limits to Growth was a bunch of hooey; virtually nothing the Club of Rome predicted with such alarm has come to pass. Of course, its members did not then come out with a big press release: "Oh what fools we were! We apologize for worrying the world unnecessarily." (6) Instead, doomsday predictions proven wrong by the passage of time are quietly forgotten, denying the public the important lesson that one ought to be wary of predictive models because they often reflect, not reality, but the preconceptions of the model's creators.

Since The Limits to Growth, there have been many doomsday predictions, the one about global warming being only the latest. We have been warned in the most urgent terms against global cooling (yes, cooling); (7) massive loss of species; (8) acid rain; (9) destruction of forests; (10) overpopulation; (11) depletion of petroleum and other natural resources; (12) running out of space to store garbage; (13) cancer and other maladies caused by pesticides and toxic wastes; (14) depletion of food resources and drinking water; (15) and a variety of other hazards too numerous to mention. While some of these may well be issues we should worry about in building a better world for ourselves and future generations, they have turned out to be manageable--rather than cataclysmic--problems. Some turned out to be nothing but hype. (16) Others had some substance, but were nowhere near as threatening as the alarmists claimed. (17) The press dutifully reported each of these supposed crises, largely without skepticism. In turn, prominent politicians called for measures preventing environmental disaster as center-planks of their platforms. No less a figure than Al Gore declared, in his acceptance speech for the Vice Presidential nomination, that "[t]he task of saving the Earth's environment must and will become the central organizing principle of the post Cold-War world." (18) The result of this Jedi mind trick was frequent, costly and disruptive changes in our laws that are difficult or impossible to undo. (19)

By the time it becomes clear that the problem doesn't really exist--or is not nearly as serious as portrayed in the alarmist reports--public attention has shifted away from the issue and few people bother to revise their views, if they hear about the recantation at all. Even for those who have grown skeptical over time--or are just skeptical by nature--it's quite difficult to assess whether a particular environmental scare story is really anything to worry about. After all, they all come swaddled in dire pronouncements from the usual suspects and carry the imprimatur of some scientific-sounding group ready to vouch that this crisis will cause as much damage to Earth as the Death Star did to the planet Alderaan. I have often wondered whether anyone would write a book thoroughly analyzing the great environmental scares of the recent past and explaining how much was legitimate and how much was hype.

That book is here, now. It's written by a young Danish (who would have guessed?) professor of statistics, Bjorn Lomborg, (20) and it provides a devastating critique of the environmental scare-mongering of the last three decades. The book, however, offers more than criticism; it presents a balanced, thoughtful approach to environmental problems, taking into account a world of limited resources and competing needs and wants. The Skeptical Environmentalist is an indispensable resource to anyone seriously interested in the environment, and in helping to formulate rational responses to the challenges presented by industrialized society.


    Lomborg starts by challenging what he calls "the Litany"--the now-familiar list of hazards that environmental groups present as plaguing mankind: overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, disappearing forests, chemical pollution, etc. He points out that much of the Litany is based not on fact, but on partial--or downright false--data, on anecdotal evidence so atypical as to give no credible basis for generalization, and on various other rhetorical tricks that present a wholly distorted picture of the world.

    For example, the Worldwatch Institute claims (without citing any supporting authority) that "the world's forest estate has declined significantly in both area and quality in recent decades," (21) but this claim is refuted by United Nations statistics that show an increase in worldwide forest-cover during the last half of the 20th century. (22) Similarly, the Worldwatch Institute refers to "[r]ecord rates of population growth," (23) ignoring the fact that the record for population growth (2.17 percent per year) was set in 1964, and population growth rates have declined steadily ever since to somewhat over one percent at present. (24)

    Here's another example: The popular pseudo-scientific book, Our Stolen Future, (25) claims a link between synthetic hormones and a one percent per year rise in the rate of breast cancer in the United States since 1940. (26) If true, this would be alarming indeed, because it would have meant a 75 percent increase in the breast cancer rate from 1940 to 1996, when the book was published. In reality, however, the breast cancer rate between 1940 and 1996 had dropped by nine percent. (27)

    In addition to using information that is entirely incorrect, many environmental reports manipulate statistics and other data to create a false sense of crisis. As an example, Lomborg discusses noted water expert Peter Gleick's book, Water in Crisis, (28) published by Oxford University Press (pp. 20-21). Looking at the period from 1980 to 1990, Gleick recognizes that access to drinking water has been steadily increasing, despite a growing population; while there were 750 million more people in the developing world at the end of that period, 1.3 billion more had access to drinking water, increasing the percentage of people with access from 44 to 69 percent. Much the same is shown to be true for sanitation. Yet in predicting what was then the future--the period from 1990 to 2000--Gleick reverses the trend and prophesies that a sharply growing percentage of people will lack access to clean water and sanitation.

    What could have brought about this turning point, Lomborg asks? When he checked the figures underlying Gleick's prediction, Lomborg found that Gleick had simply added the predicted population increase of 882 million (29) to the existing population, while predicting that the supply of clean water and sanitation would remain at 1990 levels (p. 21). In other words, Gleick assumed that the two-decades-long trend of increasing clean water and sanitation would come to an abrupt halt in 1990. Water in Crisis offers no explanation for this counter-factual assumption and, of course, its prediction turned out to have been wrong, precisely in the way one might have guessed by simply following the pre-1990 trends. An April 2000 UN study showed that, despite the increase in population in developing countries, the percentage of those who had access to clean drinking water had risen to eighty percent; a similar increase was shown regarding sanitation. (30)

    Lomborg presents many other eye-opening examples where environmentalists have cooked the numbers to create the illusion of crisis where none exists. In a 1998 article in the peer-reviewed journal Bio-Science, (31) well-known environmentalist David Pimentel of Cornell University tries to make a case for the proposition that increased population densities cause an increase in infectious disease (pp. 22-23). To make this point, Pimentel uses the biggest infectious disease killer, tuberculosis ("TB"), and argues that TB infection in the United States increased by eighteen percent between 1985 and 1991. (32) An increase of almost one fifth over six years is alarming indeed, except...

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