Commentary Magazine


The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg

The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World
by Bjørn Lomborg
Cambridge. 496 pp. $21.95 (paper)

On Church Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a large and colorful mural, sponsored by the Women’s Community Cancer Project (WCCP), encourages environmental awareness and activism. The mural depicts several women gathered around a model of the earth, and is emblazoned with the motto: “Indication of harm, not proof of harm, is our call to action.”

In other words, we should not wait for confirmation of our fears; if something seems horribly awry, it probably is, and will only get worse while we do nothing. This has been called the precautionary principle, and it is often invoked today in connection not only with chemical pollution, the elimination of which is the goal of the WCCP, but also with supposedly even greater threats like overpopulation and global warming.

The problem with the precautionary principle, however, is that it is wrong. One of the peculiarities of the human condition is that we are irrationally averse to risks, and tend to overestimate the probable negative consequences of actions and events. We are fascinated by bad news, and generally bored by good news; more often than not, we tend to perceive things as being worse than they actually are. Whatever the ultimate reasons for this predilection, it is hardly a sound basis for dealing with complex, long-term problems.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, a string of alarmist tracts—most notably Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968)—stoked fears in America and Europe of an imminent apocalypse that, needless to say, never came about. Strangely, however, we took no notice of the fact that the catastrophes we worried about had failed to occur. Even more strangely, the doomsayers never lost their credibility, instead merely postponing their deadlines to convenient future dates.

One person who pointed out the absurdity of all this was the late economist Julian Simon. It is true that Simon had a somewhat bellicose style, and a flair for provocative thought-experiments. (In his 1981 book, The Ultimate Resource, for example, he estimated that the entire population of the world could be supplied with food from an area equal to the combined land mass of Vermont and Massachusetts, or about one-thousandth of presently cultivated land.) Partly for this reason—but mostly because his arguments ran counter to what environmentalists believed to be true—Simon was dismissed as a right-wing crank. Meanwhile, the environmental movement continued to imagine new and even greater problems, all of them requiring immediate action.

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But was Simon mistaken? In 1997, the Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg, a self-described “old left-wing Greenpeace member,” set out to disprove Simon’s disproofs and confirm the claims of environmental alarmists. But he failed spectacularly—and, what is much more unusual, in The Skeptical Environmentalist he says so. In 25 chapters supplemented and supported by almost 3,000 footnotes, Lomborg takes a fresh look at the data, using the newest publicly available evidence to examine long-term trends in human welfare and the quality of the environment. What he shows is that not only are things not getting worse, they are getting better.

Lomborg’s tone throughout is mild and modest, and his arguments are exceedingly careful. His explanations are lucid, unbiased, and unadorned by rhetorical flourishes (which makes for a sometimes clunkily matter-of-fact style). At every possible turn he is willing to grant the benefit of the doubt to his adversaries. Nevertheless, his conclusions are nothing short of breathtaking.

Throughout the world, including the developing world, life expectancy is increasing. Food and energy are becoming both cheaper and more plentiful. Natural resources are available in greater abundance. Inequality in purchasing power is decreasing. The air and water in our cities are cleaner than has been the case in at least 500 years. These are facts, and there is no getting around them.

Environmental organizations, when faced with such data, argue that even if they are true, progress has come at too great a cost—namely, the irreversible disruption of nature—and is therefore immoral and unsustainable. Lomborg takes on and demolishes this assertion, demonstrating that most of the problems environmentalists predict for the future are unlikely to materialize.

Thus, at least one fear common in the 1980’s—that acid rain would cause the death of forests—has already been conclusively dispelled (though we never heard about this from the media). As for the effects of so-called ecological catastrophes like oil spills, these have been surprisingly benign; in almost all cases, the affected ecosystems are well on their way to total recovery. Estimates of the proportion of species likely to become extinct as a result of human activity are also wildly exaggerated, often by a factor of more than 50. Global warming is demonstrably overestimated, and even if the estimates were correct, climate change would most probably not have anything like the calamitous effects that are usually foretold. Population growth, whose supposed perils constitute a major shibboleth of the environmental movement, is likely to level off in the near future, and in any case there is more than enough food and space in the world to accommodate many more people.

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If the predictions of environmental doomsayers are wrong, Lomborg also shows that the precautionary principle, if taken seriously, is downright dangerous. Take the simple example of pesticides, one of the great evils fought by the Women’s Community Cancer Project. At most, the use of pesticides results in twenty extra deaths from cancer per year in the United States (out of a total of 200,000)—equivalent to about 1 percent of the deaths caused by the use of spices like mustard and cinnamon, and about one-hundredth of 1 percent of the deaths caused by natural properties of foods themselves.

Proponents of “organic” farming might counter that this is, all the same, unacceptable: though we cannot (or do not wish to) eliminate the risk of cancer from eating spices, we can (and ought to) eliminate the risk from chemical pesticides. But not only would this be a hugely expensive proposition, costing the economy at least $1 billion per saved life, it would be counterproductive. If pesticides were phased out, fruit and vegetables would become more expensive, causing people to eat fewer of them in favor of fattier and starchier foods; this in turn would significantly increase the rate of death from cancer and heart disease.

A similarly stark example comes from a cost-benefit analysis of the precautionary principle as applied to climate change caused by carbon-dioxide emissions (CO2). On the assumption that global warming will occur to about the degree most often predicted, and that we do nothing about it, its adverse effects are likely to cost the world economy about $5 trillion in total—not a trivial sum. If, however, we attempt to stabilize global CO2 emissions, we will be faced with a cost of about $8.5 trillion, while actual cutbacks in CO2 emissions could cost an astronomical $38 trillion. Surely, suggests Lomborg, there are better ways to spend $33 trillion than in combating what is almost certain to be an insignificant environmental problem.

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This, indeed, is the central message of Lomborg’s book: given the range of large and small problems that we face as a civilization, we should use our resources wisely, in ways that are likely to pay off in the long term. Although there is less starvation than there has been in the past, undoubtedly it is a moral imperative to reduce it even further. And the methods for doing so are not mysterious. In order to increase agricultural production in the developing world, we need to improve farming methods, both through better technology (genetically modified foods) and by increasing the use of existing aids to agriculture (fertilizer). These methods will not be available to third-world farmers if they remain impoverished. In like manner, poverty is the main stumbling block to improvements in the environment and human health.

The point here is stunningly simple. The real way to improve the environment is to reduce poverty in the world; the real way to reduce poverty is to encourage the global development of free and efficient markets. This requires a substantial initial investment in public health (sanitation and access to clean water) and education. Beyond that, however, the requirements are virtually cost-free—consisting, in the main, of democratic governance and adherence to the rule of law. (One of the conspicuous subtexts of The Skeptical Environmentalist is that exceptions to the general trend of global improvement have occurred in totalitarian systems; thus, caloric consumption, while rising in most of the developing world, has fallen in Cuba and Iraq.)

But the link between free-market economies and human progress is, perhaps more than anything else, exactly what the environmental movement is most perturbed by. Lomborg puts his finger squarely on this issue—the extent, that is, to which environmentalism has become a proxy for anti-capitalism. It is, he says, the “environmental trump card,” and it goes like this: even if we are doing better and better on almost every objective environmental indicator, we still need to change our way of life by decreasing consumption, limiting industrial activity, and sharing resources.

As Lomborg goes on to point out, this argument, untethered from either an objective evaluation of risks or any consideration of what will actually leave us better off, is wholly ideological. Indeed, if we followed the course of action loudly advocated by the largest environmental organizations, we would almost certainly end up, as P.J. O’Rourke put it in his 1994 book, All the Trouble in the World, in “a just and peaceful world full of powerless nobodies who are broke and have empty shopping malls.”

And herein lies the great value of The Skeptical Environmentalist, even apart from the clarity with which it shows that the state of the world is improving. A reader of this book cannot fail to be made acutely aware of the relationship between environmental decisions and human welfare. That relationship is precisely what goes suppressed or unrecognized when environmental issues are discussed by most policymakers and in the media, and it is certainly never invoked when the precautionary principle is under discussion. Bjørn Lomborg is correct to say that, in deciding how to apply our resources in order to better the state of humanity, we must be guided by evidence and not by intuition. He is also correct to point out, as was Julian Simon before him, that our record in this regard has been astonishingly good.

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About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.




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