A prominent environmentalist has dared to question the eco-orthodoxy he once espoused—and his supposed friends in the movement don’t like it one bit.
The environmental movement is striking back at its boldest, most successful critic so far, and the major science magazines have joined the fray. “Bjorn Lomborg accuses a pessimistic and dishonest cabal of environmental groups, institutions, and the media of distorting scientists’ actual findings,” said Scientific American’s editor-in-chief, John Rennie, “but the scientists themselves disavow it.” Lomborg, a Danish statistician and self-professed left-wing vegetarian, recently published a startling book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. The surprise is that he examines the available evidence and finds that the “litany of eco-doom” pervading the media (and recently the science journals) is mostly wrong and in fact wrong-headed.
Contradicting the gloomy arguments of eco-activists, Lomborg documents the First World’s positive environmental trends: high and rising levels of air and water quality, a low rate of species extinction, ample energy sources, declining cancer rates, and increasing food production per person from existing farmlands. He also notes that the world’s forest area hasn’t changed much in fifty years.
Lomborg is no Pollyanna. He agrees that the environmental outlook is still far from perfect. The Third World’s environmental trends, especially, need far more improvement. But he suggests that the environment has improved in the First World mainly through technology and the policies pursued by affluent people. He thinks that the best way to improve the Third World’s environmental outlook is to extend improved technology and greater prosperity there, too. For example, he would avoid the Kyoto Protocol’s forced escalation of energy costs, preferring instead to invest the money in public health and agricultural research for Africa.
This pro-environment but also pro-technology attitude has helped The Skeptical Environmentalist harvest huge swaths of newsprint on both sides of the Atlantic. Lomborg has been lionized in the Guardian of London, had a guest column in the prestigious Economist, and even been profiled favorably in the ultra-green New York Times.
Bad News Bearers
Scientific American, by contrast, encouraged four noted scientific doomsayers to pummel Lomborg in its January 2002 issue. John Bongaarts, vice president of the Population Council; John Holdren of Harvard; Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider; and Tom Lovejoy, former director of the World Wildlife Fund, gang-tackled him, but none of the critics made much of a dent in Lomborg’s case.
The critics’ first argument is that professional environmentalists never made the false claims that Lomborg cites. But there’s no question that for nearly forty years eco-activists and a number of their allies with science degrees and titles have claimed that the environment is doomed because people are raising too many babies and living too well. One of the most recent of such charges was from the noted Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, whose latest book claims that humans will destroy 50 percent of the world’s wild species in the next fifty years. The journal New Scientist, in its 2001 global environmental supplement, described an impending environmental “catastrophe.” The Worldwatch Institute (with more than a million books sold) has, year after year, given us the same message: “the key environmental indicators are increasingly negative,” and “local ecosystems are collapsing at an accelerating pace.” The homepage of the World Wildlife Federation website still declared recently: “We must ACT NOW to preserve the last remaining forests on earth,” a truly absurd claim, as Lomborg’s evidence on global forestation levels makes clear.
In addition to deforestation, the activists have been predicting massive famines, huge losses of wild species, energy shortages, unprecedented soil erosion, and a global warming that will fry the world’s crops and wildlife even as it melts the polar ice caps and floods cities. Lomborg flatly says that none of these predictions are likely to come true. (The world’s current temperatures, for example, are not significantly higher than those of a thousand years ago.)
Nor is there any question that the eco-movement’s dire predictions have been abetted by scaremongering, self-styled science activists. In the 1960s, biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted on NBC’s Tonight Show that America would starve in the 1970s. Way wrong. Climatologist Stephen Schneider first clamored for attention by predicting a new Ice Age, then reversed himself to support the swelling drumbeat of global warming agitators. Way wrong, twice. In recent decades, many scientists have learned that the way to get funding for research is to declare an impending ecological disaster in their specialty, and then coyly accept grants to study it. Research on global warming is now a multibillion-dollar industry.
Even though the eco-predictions have been largely and spectacularly wrong, the average citizen has had virtually no way to know it. The role of our modern media is supposedly to approach everybody’s claims skeptically and to monitor all claims equally. The environmental movement, however, tempted the journalists beyond their capacity to resist. The eco-activists were wonderfully and loudly anti-corporate, and, best of all, offered the juiciest scare stories of the century to the safest, most affluent people in history. Thus it should hardly have surprised us when Time magazine declared, about a decade ago, that it had joined the eco-activists.
The journal Science has likewise thrown aside its commitment to scientific objectivity—and become a forum for unscientific doom-and-gloom speculation. Consider this contrast: in 1986, that magazine printed my article, “The Global Bad News Is Wrong”; recently it printed a piece that called nitrogen fertilizer “as big a danger as global warming.” Lomborg points out that commercially produced fertilizer is responsible for saving 25 percent of the world’s forests from being plowed down for low-yield food production.
The self-righteousness of the Greens has now risen so high, and the ethics of the movement have become so corrupt, that a group of federal and state wildlife biologists were recently discovered to have planted hair from domesticated Canada lynx in several U.S. national forests—apparently to trigger further restrictions on the public’s use of its own forests, under the Endangered Species Act. So much for environmental professionals not misleading the public.
Scientists Shading Facts
Lomborg represents a major crack in the eco-façade. Apparently, that’s why a journal like Scientific American felt the need to support the attacks on him. Until now, the movement has been content to ignore critics such as Julian Simon (who called the human brain the “ultimate resource”) or to dismiss them as corporate lackeys. In the Scientific American critique, John Bongaarts of the Population Council admits, “Environmentalists who predicted widespread famine and blamed rapid population growth for many of the world’s environmental, economic, and social problems overstated their cases.” But Bongaarts then claims, “The historically unprecedented population expansion in the poorest parts of the world continues largely unabated.” Bongaarts’s statement is patently false and inflammatory. Lomborg points out that births per woman in the Third World have dropped from 6.16 in 1950 to 2.8 today. That means that the poor countries have come four-fifths of the way to absolute population stability (2.1 births). The United Nations (UN) has just sharply lowered its estimate of the peak human population—again. Some demographers believe that Iraq is likely to be the last country in the world to reach population stability—in approximately 2030. Bongaarts calls this “largely unabated” growth.
Bongaarts also wrote, “Lomborg correctly notes that poverty is the main cause of hunger and malnutrition, but he neglects the contribution of population growth to poverty.” But Bongaarts is ignoring the fact that the areas of the world that are poor today were poor before modern medicine triggered their recent population surges by lowering death rates. Bluntly contradicting his claim, China and India are now becoming affluent despite hugely increased populations, and Cuba is becoming poorer with a stable population. Mongolia, with its wide-open spaces, is a less attractive place to live in than is highly crowded Singapore. Despite Bongaarts’s claims to the contrary, the keys to human well-being have been technology and democracy, not population policy.
John P. Holdren, who teaches environmental policy at Harvard, agrees with Lomborg that “the world’s energy resources—coal, oil shale, nuclear fuels, and renewable energy—are immense.” Holdren believes, however, that the use of these fuels is creating dreadful air pollution, acid rain, water pollution, and global warming. Lomborg finds that the First World’s air is clean and getting cleaner. Acid rain, moreover, “has nothing to do with big city pollution,” and is a minor problem for a few tree species in limited areas. The First World’s streams and coastal waters, he says, are rapidly being cleaned up.
On the issue of global warming, Scientific American offers us Stephen Schneider, who has already publicly declared (Discover, October 1989) that scientists must shade facts to generate public support for good causes. Schneider complains about Lomborg’s assessment that the warming will be mild, similar to what occurred during the Medieval Climate Optimum (A.D. 950 to 1300). Lomborg says that he has based his calculation of probabilities on figures from the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (though not from its highly politicized executive summary). Lomborg’s conclusion is that the warming should be approximately 2 degrees centigrade, with minimal effects on food production, sea level, storms, and incidence of malaria. He recommends that we adapt to warming instead of strangling the world’s economy with high energy prices in a probably vain attempt to stave off the higher temperatures. Schneider argues that we cannot know there won’t be catastrophic warming, and should therefore prepare for the worst, no matter what the cost.
Lomborg’s book sharply criticizes biologists’ projections that 40 to 50 percent of the world’s wild species will go extinct in the next fifty years. He points to the most recent UN Environment Program extinction estimate, which is that only 0.1 to 1 percent of the world’s species are likely to go extinct by 2050. Defending the earlier pessimistic projections, Thomas Lovejoy, a biodiversity adviser to the World Bank, claims that there is a “long-established relation” between habitat area and species numbers that supports projections of a very high extinction rate. Lomborg notes, however, that the American Midwest and coastal Brazil both cleared large forest areas without losing large numbers of species—directly contradicting Lovejoy’s linkage between wildlife area and species numbers. Lomborg lauds conservation policies in areas such as protecting specific bird species, which have been quite effective. Most of the documented extinctions, Lomborg notes, have been on islands, and were caused by invasions of wild organisms.
Lovejoy even complains about plantation trees, which can produce twenty times as much wood per acre and thus sharply reduce the acres of wild forest logged to produce our timber and paper, while providing reasonably good wildlife habitat.
Lovejoy also claims that the kind of pessimism he is perpetuating created the current positive environmental trends, by identifying problems and triggering solutions. That, too, says Lomborg, is a vast overstatement. Lomborg notes, for example, that London’s once-dreadful air quality was improving just as rapidly before Britain passed air quality legislation as it has since—simply because greater wealth and technological advances were already cleaning up the city’s air.
Greens Throwing Pies
Lomborg’s critics say that he relies too heavily on media reports. Lomborg admits that his 3,000 footnotes do include many media reports, but that is the only way he can demonstrate the problem. For factual matters, Lomborg cites hundreds of scientific and professional sources, along with the same UN, World Bank, and national government statistics used by everyone in the debate. Lomborg’s critics also complain that he has no formal training in ecological science. Over the last fifty years, however, biologists have consistently made the world’s worst predictions about the environment. These range from Ehrlich’s wild-eyed claims of impending massive famines and an endless human population spiral to Dr. Adrian Sommer’s whopping 1976 exaggeration of Amazon rain forest losses (having drawn his observations only from the region’s roadsides).
The late economist Julian Simon warned that biologists tend to think of humans as just another large animal species. This is a huge mistake, Simon noted, because, “We may be animals, but we are not only animals.” Faced with a development bottleneck, Simon observes, humans can alter their behavior—and even change the size of the bottle. Ironically, Lomborg and ten graduate students began his book in 1997 after reading a Simon interview in which the economist expressed great skepticism toward the eco-activists’ claims of impending disaster on numerous fronts. “We honestly believed we were going to prove him wrong,” says Lomborg. “But we suddenly realized he had a lot of correct points. I felt cheated because I had spent my life believing something that turned out to be at least partially untrue. I can understand why people feel personally offended by me.”
Exemplifying this attitude, a former president of the Danish science academy recently called Lomborg’s claims “untrue and dangerous.” Lomborg recently told the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “Yes, there have been a lot of personal attacks, but I have always taken that as an indication of the weakness of the counter-arguments. When I got pied [in the face] in England, I was astounded. I mean, I can psychologically understand why somebody might pie a representative from the World Bank, because you feel powerless against such big, powerful bureaucracies. But if you feel powerless against an academic like me, armed only with arguments, what does that powerlessness indicate?”
What it indicates, of course, is the implosion of his opponents’ past predictions. Why have the eco-zealots so thoroughly overstated the world’s environmental problems? An open letter to Lomborg in Prospect magazine suggested the answer: “A broader point you miss is that environmentalists are not arguing that life has not got better for many people in many places, but that it has got better in ways that cannot be maintained if it is to be enjoyed with everyone—that is to say all of the nine billion or so people that we expect to be sharing our economy and our ecology later in the twenty-first century.”
This is the central question: whether the current improvements in human living conditions can be sustained and continue their spread throughout the world. The answer is definitely yes. The common man of the First World already lives longer and better than the royalty of 1800. We have enough sand for trillions of computer chips. Cars will become radically cheaper as chips replace mechanical parts, and there is unlimited hydrogen available for the environmentally friendly fuel cells now being developed. Pharmaceuticals researchers will create lots of new antibiotics. Primitive humans hunted more than forty species of large mammals to extinction in North America before Columbus arrived, and today’s peasant farmers are guilty of the most unsustainable farming on the planet. These behaviors can easily be changed. Genetically modified crops promise to make the world’s farms three times as productive, and sustainable forever.
Nature’s self-appointed guardians, however, categorically oppose these improvements. The most encouraging thing about the activists’ attack on The Skeptical Environmentalist is that they felt the need to launch it. Bjorn Lomborg is truly worrying the most pessimistic and dishonest people among today’s environmental groups, institutions, and journalists, who have long profited by playing on our fears. If Lomborg and other skeptical environmentalists succeed in changing things, everyone will benefit.