- At the Christmas cabaret in the politics department of
Aarhus University in Denmark last year, the cast members joined together
at the end to sing a song about one of the associate professors. 'Bjorn,
when will you come back?' went the refrain. 'Don't just get lost out in
the world.' (It was better in Danish.)
- Bjorn Lomborg - young, blond, piano-playing, but basically
a statistics nerd - may not be back soon. He has just succeeded Monsanto
as the official chief villain of the world environmental movement. In January
Scientific American devoted 11 pages to an unattractive attempt to attack
his work. He had a pie thrown in his face when he spoke in Oxford last
- The great and the good of greendom are competing to find
epithets for him: 'Wilful ignorance, selective quotations, destructive
campaigning,' says E.O. Wilson, guru of biodiversity. 'Lacks even a preliminary
understanding of the science in question,' says Norman Myers, guru of extinction.
His book is 'nothing more than a diatribe', says Lester Brown, serial predictor
of imminent global famine. Stephen Schneider, high priest of global warming,
even berates Cambridge University Press for publishing it.
- What can this mild statistician have said to annoy these
great men so? In 1996 he published an obscure but brilliant article on
game theory, which earned him an invitation to a conference on 'computable
economics' in Los Angeles (and an offer of a job at the University of California).
While browsing in a bookshop there he came across a profile in Wired magazine
of the late Julian Simon, an economist, who claimed, with graphs, that
on most measures the environment was improving, not getting worse. Irritated,
Lomborg went back to Denmark and set his students the exercise of finding
the flaw in Simon's statistics.
- They could find none. So Lomborg wrote The Skeptical
Environmentalist, which not only endorses most of Simon's claims, but also
goes further, providing an immense compendium of factual evidence that
the litany of environmental gloom we hear is mostly either exaggerated
(species extinction, global warming) or wrong (population, air and water
pollution, natural resources, food and hunger, health and life-expectancy,
waste, forest loss).
- You might think that environmentalists would welcome
such news. Having argued that we should find a way to live sustainably
on the planet, they ought to be pleased that population growth is falling
faster (in percentage and absolute terms) than anybody predicted even ten
years ago; that per-capita food production is rising rapidly, even in the
developing world; that all measures of air pollution are falling almost
everywhere; that oil, gas and minerals are not running out nearly as fast
as was predicted in the 1970s; and so on.
- Instead they are beside themselves with fury. It cannot
be Lomborg's politics that annoy them. He is leftish, concerned about world
poverty, and no fan of big business. It cannot be his recommendations:
in favour of renewable energy and worried about the pollution that is getting
worse. Vegetarian, he rides a bicycle and approves of Denmark's punitive
car taxes. His sin - his heresy - is to be optimistic.
- This is very threatening to lots of people's livelihoods.
The environmental movement raises most of its funds through direct mail,
paid advertising and news coverage. A steady supply of peril is essential
fuel for all three. H.L. Mencken said, 'The whole aim of practical politics
is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety
- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.'
- For instance, remember acid rain in the 1980s and sperm
counts in the 1990s? 'There is no evidence of a general or unusual decline
of forests in the United States or Canada due to acid rain,' concluded
the official independent study of the subject. Sperm counts are not falling.
If you do not believe me, look up the statistics. Lomborg did.
- The media, too, prefer pessimism. When the United Nations
panel on global warming produced new estimates of the rise in temperature
by 2100, they gave a range of 1.4 to 5.8°C. CNN, CBS, Time and the
New York Times all quoted only the high figure and omitted the low one.
- An increasing number of scientists have vested interests
in pessimism, too. The study of global warming has brought them fame, funds,
speaking fees and room service. Lomborg's crime is to rain on their parade.
- In the Scientific American critique, four leading environmental
scientists lambasted Lomborg. The magazine refused Lomborg the right to
reply in the same issue, refused to post his response on its website immediately,
and threatened him for infringement of copyright when he tried to reproduce
their articles, with his responses, on his own website.
- Yet the Scientific American articles are devastating
not to Lomborg, but to his critics. Again and again, before insulting him,
the critics concede, through gritted teeth, that he has got his facts right.
In two cases, Stephen Schneider accuses Lomborg of misquoting sources and
promptly does so himself. In the first case, Schneider's response 'completely
misunderstands what we have done', according to Richard Lindzen, the original
author of work on the 'iris effect' and upper-level cirrus clouds. In the
second, Eigil Friis-Christensen says that Schneider 'makes three unsubstantiated
statements regarding our studies on the effect of cosmic rays on global
cloud cover'. Result: there are worse howlers in Schneider's short article
than in Lomborg's whole book.
- By the end of 11 pages, the Scientific American critics
have found two certain errors in Lomborg's work. In one he uses the word
'catalyse' instead of 'electrolyse'. In the other he refers to 20 per cent
of energy use, when he means 20 per cent of electricity generation. You
get the drift.
- What the affair reveals is how much environmentalists
are now the establishment, accustomed to doing the criticising, not being
criticised. The editor of Scientific American, apparently without irony,
condemns Lomborg for his 'presumption' in challenging 'investigators who
have devoted their lives' to the subject, as if seniority defined truth.
- Lomborg is also criticised for his effrontery in challenging
the widely accepted figure that 40,000 species become extinct every year.
The number was first used in 1979 by the British scientist Norman Myers.
Yet what was the evidence for it? Here is what Myers actually said: 'Let
us suppose that, as a consequence of this manhandling of the natural environments,
the final one-quarter of this century witnesses the elimination of one
million species, a far from unlikely prospect. This would work out, during
the course of 25 years, at an average rate of 40,000 species per year.'
That's it. No data at all; just a circular assumption: if 40,000 species
go extinct a year, then 40,000 species go extinct a year. QED.
- Now look where this little trick of arithmetic has got
Myers. He describes himself thus: 'Norman Myers is an Honorary Visiting
Fellow of Oxford University. He has served as visiting professor at universities
from Harvard to Stanford, and is a foreign member of the US National Academy
of Sciences. He works as an independent scientist, undertaking research
projects for the US National Research Council, the World Bank and United
Nations agencies. He has received the UNEP environment prize, the Volvo
environment prize and, most recently, the 2001 Blue Planet prize.' (Myers's
share of the Volvo prize was worth $130,000; Lomborg does not own a car.)
- Lomborg does not deny that species are becoming extinct
at an unnaturally high rate, but he cites a far from conservative calculation
that this rate may reach about 0.7 per cent in 50 years, not the 25 to
75 per cent implied by Myers, and calls it 'not a catastrophe but a problem
- one of many that mankind still needs to solve'. Greens are trying to
portray Lomborg as a sort of Pollyanna Pangloss with her head in the sand.
But Lomborg does not dispute the need to save the planet, only the assertion
that this is impossibly difficult and the particular priorities foisted
on us by the big environmental pressure groups.
- Forty years ago this year, Rachel Carson, in her book
Silent Spring, alerted a complacent world to the dangers posed by pesticides.
Vilified by the chemical industry, Carson was already dying of cancer when
the book was published. In the intervening years the environmental movement
has turned from David into Goliath. With huge advertising budgets and ready
access to the media, it can dominate the news, terrify multinational companies
and expect to be invited to policy discussions at the highest levels. It
is the bully now.
- Consider the treatment meted out to Julian Simon for
having the temerity to be right. In 1990 Simon won $576.07 in settlement
of a wager from the environmentalist Paul Ehrlich. Simon had bet him that
the prices of metals would fall during the 1980s and Ehrlich accepted 'Simon's
astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in'.
- When, a decade later, Simon won easily, Ehrlich refused
a rematch and called Simon an imbecile in a speech. Ehrlich, who, in contrast,
won a 'genius award' from the MacArthur Foundation, is the man who argued
in 1967 that with the world on the brink of starvation the West 'should
no longer send emergency aid to countries such as India where sober analysis
shows a hopeless imbalance between food production and population'. Since
then India has doubled its population, more than doubled its food production,
increased its cultivated land acreage by only 5 per cent and begun to export
- The pessimists argue that Lomborg's good news might lead
to complacency. But Ehrlich's counsel of despair is far more dangerous.
Many people now work to improve the environment at a local level with optimism
that they can make the world a better place. To be constantly told by the
big pressure groups that all is doom and gloom is no help. There is something
rotten in the state of environmentalism. It lies not just in the petty
factual dishonesty that is rife within the movement - Stephen Schneider
once said, 'We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic
statements and make little mention of any doubts we might have' - but in
the very philosophy that lies at the heart of greenery: the belief in constraint
- If six billion people have both more food and more forest
than their three billion parents did; if the prices of copper, wheat and
natural gas are going down, not up; if there are 20 times more carcinogens
in three cups of organic coffee than in daily dietary exposure to the worst
pesticide both before and after the DDT ban; if renewable resources such
as whales are more easily exhausted than non-renewables such as coal; if
lower infant mortality leads to falling populations, not rising ones, then
perhaps we need to think differently about what sustainability means. Perhaps
the most sustainable thing we can do is develop new technology, increase
trade and spread affluence.
- Nor will it do to claim that these successes have come
from green pressure. The reason so many environmental trends are benign
is not because of legislation, let alone protest. Apart from the ozone
layer and city smogs, where campaigns probably did accelerate change, most
improvements have been brought about more by innovation, development and
growth than by government action. If six billion people went back to nature,
nature would be in desperate trouble.
- The most arresting statistic that Lomborg produces is
this. It is well known that meeting the Kyoto treaty on carbon-dioxide
reduction will delay global warming by six years at most by 2100. Yet the
annual cost of that treaty, in each year of the century, will be the same
as the cost - once - of installing clean drinking water and sanitation
for every human being on the planet. Priorities, anyone?
- From Robert L. Phillips
- Jeff, This is preposterous, but I hear it all the
time: "The environment isn't in trouble, it is actually getting better.
It is just those radical, high-paid environmentalists pushing their selfish
agenda." Hello? What is being measured? The amount of chemical
pollutants like PCBs and pesticides in the human body can now be measured
in the scores; wilderness and wilderness-dependent species like the grizzly
bear, pandas, any number of New World monkeys and primates, the great
apes -- are in serious decline. The Pacific salmon runs into the headwaters
of the Rockies are virtually extinct. The last three months were the warmest
on record worldwide.
- Sure, there are probably some groups that don't want
to hear anything but bad news because it undermines their cause (I used
to work for one such "conservation" group, the Rocky Mountain
Elk Foundation, a lowest-common-denominator group that has a hard time
sustaining its mission in light of burgeoning elk populations; they're
interested in raking in dough from their members, paying big salaries
to their top executives, and that's about it. They refused to discuss
public lands habitat issues of critical importance while I was there,
and continue to avoid anything smacking of controversy today). But to
claim that the 'environment is improving' is foolish at best, blatantly
deceitful at worst.
- When centuries old stands of old-growth forest in the
Northern Rockies, lying in pristine watersheds without roads, are suddenly
razed amidst a network of roads twisting all across the landscape, and
when all the species that depend on those old growth forests suddenly
have no habitat left to live in - do we then count the 2-inch tall seedlings
as 'trees' and claim "there are more trees now than when Columbus
arrived"? This is the kind of logic that people like the author routinely
- Astronauts who made the trip into Earth orbit back in
the 70s and then again 10-15 years later reported that the planet's atmosphere
was growing visibly browner and dirtier. While some of the worst pollution
in the cities has been diminished, worldwide, the buildup of pollutants
and greenhouse gases has increased.
- The glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate, the
Antarctic ice cap is diminishing, warm-water fish species are being found
in northern waters where they have never before been seen. The oil interests
have their greedy sights set on the last vestiges of American wilderness,
which they claim they can exploit without harm to the environment - sure,
oil rigs, oil pipelines, roads, drilling rigs and such have no impact
in pristine environments - just more hysterical raving by the "greenies."
- People who believe this stuff must live in concrete boxes
in the middle of cities without a clue about the natural world. Pristine
to them is Central Park; they wouldn't be able to distinguish between
a cut-over, heavily roaded forest and one that has never seen a road or
bulldozer. And they probably can't even grasp the essential difference.
- The connection between humans and the natural world has
been so totally severed, in some people's cases, at least, that they haven't
a clue what a healthy environment might consist of. The Earth is indeed
in crisis, the human population itself is polluted so severely that cancer
rates today, in America at least, are some 100 times higher than a century
ago. Sure, everything is getting better. Just plug in the TV, turn on
the lights, close the curtains and enjoy Mother Nature while you drink
a can of aspartame-poisoned Diet Coke. Ignorance is bliss.
- Robert L. Phillips