The Skeptical Environmentalist– Measuring the Real State of the World
reviewed by H. L. Senti
Some books appear on the market with big media hype. Television talk shows celebrate their authors. But after waiting a few months on a bookstore’s shelf for a buyer, most disappear quietly and the paper is collected for recycling. Others appear without fanfare, are sold and read here and there and, through their message, attract more and more readers. Out of a rivulet of readers grows slowly a large stream. One such book is Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist.
The deeper I became involved with reading Lomborg’s book the more I was reminded of his landsman Hans Christian Andersen. In the story "the emperor’s clothes," Andersen tells that it is easy to be fooled when under the spell of general opinion, and only the cool unassuming eye may see the truth. Believe it or not, Lomborg shows that the state of the world is getting better not worse. The air is less polluted today, wealth is increasing. Many countries have GDP comparable to Western countries; more food is available and so forth. To some ears this sounds like pure heresy and, indeed, Lomborg has been vehemently attacked from some quarters.
The book deals with the world’s environment, health, poverty, pollution, and overcrowding. People who wish to be informed in a rational way, free from ideological filters and preconceptions, will appreciate it. Lomborg shows that the world is in better shape than advertised by doomsayers (You may remember the prediction by the Club of Rome in 1970 that the world would run out of oil by 1992.) To make his point, he presents us with carefully crafted arguments. The writing is lucid and arguments are formulated with great clarity, free of rhetorical adornments. Lomborg is not a wild anti-environmentalist and throughout the text the underlying message shines through that we must use our resources carefully. He subjects alarmist arguments to sober and rigorous treatment with the tools of statistics. Through such treatment despair turns into hope. Bjorn Lomborg, who describes himself as an "old left-wing Greenpeace member, [who] had been for a long time concerned about environmental questions," is today associate professor of Statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. The book is organized in six parts: The Litany; Human Welfare; Can human prosperity continue? Pollution: does it undercut human prosperity?; Tomorrow’s problems; The real state of the world. Under these headings are discussed subjects such as demographics, life expectancy, Thomas Malthus, forests, water, energy, acid rain, allergies, pesticides and cancer, biodiversity, global warming, and others. A rich collection of 173 figures and 9 tables and 153 pages of notes and references support the text of 352 pages.
To give a taste of Lomborg’s arguments, consider a figure showing the number and rate of cases of tuberculosis in the United States. On a steeply declining curve over a period of 40 years (1945—1999) is a part where the tendency is reversed, showing 6 years (1985—1991) of increase. A well-known environmentalist used the six-year increase to infer a general increase of disease. In addition, Lomborg points out, that taking absolute figures for a certain period is misleading when considering that the general population increased during the same period. The book is full of arguments of this nature. In a chapter on non-energy resources he refers to the famous bet of USD 10 000 between the environmentalist Paul Ehrlich, who claimed that 10 years later the world would run out of chromium, copper, and other resources, and the economist Julian Simon who was convinced of the opposite. Lomborg does not contest that these metals are nonrenewable, but concludes "that significant scarcities are unlikely, because we continually find new resources and use them more efficiently . . ."
Many predictions concerning the state of the environment are based on assumptions. Such predictions often deflate when scrutinized with statistical tools. Statistics is a difficult subject and one in which even many scientists are not well trained. It is therefore of great general interest when someone who understands this discipline analyzes subjects that in our culture are heavily loaded with mythical preconceptions. Lastly, Lomborg admonishes us to apply our resources in such a way as to get the greatest beneficial effect. In that, we should be guided by observed facts rather than by intuition or fear-an idea that we can all subscribe to.
Dr. H.-Luzius Senti <email@example.com> is a member of the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry and Industry.
> Letters from Readers (Sep 2003)