On September 5 the Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, sat down at a Borders bookstore in Oxford, England, to promote his controversial book. A pie was thrown in his direction. "I wanted to put a Baked Alaska in his smug face," said the perpetrator, "in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska."
It was one of the more honest attacks on Lomborg and his book. Filled with scores of charts and graphs, backed by some 2,900 endnotes and 70 pages of references, The Skeptical Environmentalist looks at a host of global environmental issues, including population growth, pollution, deforestation, and climate change. For his trouble in writing it, Lomborg has bec0me the target of an intellectual hate campaign.
The World Wildlife Fund and the World Resources Institute jointly warned journalists to "proceed with caution" in writing about the book. They accused Lomborg of deploying "distorted quotations, inaccurate or misleading citations, misuse of data, [and] interpretations that contradict well-established scientific work." Scientific American was vexed by Lomborg's "presumption," asserting that his analysis of the state of the global environment "is often marred by an incomplete use of data or a misunderstanding of the underlying science." In Nature, Lomborg was denounced as the moral equivalent of a Holocaust denier.
The bitter anti-Lomborg campaign reveals the hidden crisis of what we might call ideological environmentalism. Ideological environmentalism goes far beyond sensible efforts to reduce pollution or protect wilderness. It argues that the modern world fosters institutions and ideas that exploit and oppress people and degrade and destroy the environment. According to this view, the only solution to the supposedly looming ecological crisis is the sweeping, global transformation of the world's economies and political systems. The notion is neatly captured in former Vice President Al Gore's demand that humanity "make the effort to save the global environment the central organizing principle of our civilization."
Unfortunately for the doomsayers, their central predictions are simply not coming true. And so their best and perhaps only defense against a dispassionate analysis of their claims has been to smear the analyst.
The environmental canon is built on doom. In 1962 Rachel Carson's Silent Spring predicted that modern synthetic chemicals, especially pesticides, would cause epidemics of cancer and kill off massive quantities of wildlife. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich's infamous The Population Bomb confidently asserted in 1968 that "the battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines -- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." The Limits to Growth, a Club of Rome report published in 1972, coupled the dogma that natural resources were running out with concerns about growing population and rising pollution.
Each of these books was a bestseller. Each, along with the many similar works they inspired, were calls to action: to ban synthetic chemicals, coercively limit births, slash economic growth. The writers justified these goals by claiming that indisputable scientific findings demanded that they be adopted. If their science is wrong, so are their policies.
Today fears of global famines caused by overpopulation are receding. The growth in human numbers is decreasing: If current trends continue, demographers do not expect the world population ever to exceed 10 billion. Food grows ever cheaper and more available. Despite the introduction of thousands of new synthetic chemicals, cancer rates are falling. Synthetic chemicals have not killed off thousands of species -- including those pests at which pesticides are specifically aimed.
Nor is the world running out of any important "non-renewable" fuels or mineral resources. Even the Vital Signs 2001 report from the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C., acknowledges that "nonfuel commodities now fetch only about 46 percent as much as in the mid-1970s." Indeed, the editors note that "food and fertilizer prices are about one fourth their 1974 peak" and that metals are "at half their 1974 peak." The price of crude oil, which has risen lately, "nevertheless remains at about half the zenith reached in 1980." Overall, nonfuel commodities cost only a third of what they did in 1900. As we all know, falling prices generally indicate increased supply.
Yet environmental doomsaying remains strong. As recently as the summer of 2001, Earth First! founder David Foreman was defending Ehrlich's The Population Bomb as "misunderstood." The Pesticide Action Network continues to claim that synthetic chemicals are dramatically increasing cancer rates. Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes declared last year in his book Hubbert's Peak that the world will face another "oil crisis" later in this decade.
"The Limits to Growth is but one in a long series of books that have disturbed industrial society," Donella Meadows, a member of the original Limits to Growth team, declared some years ago. The members of Meadows' movement still "treasure and are sustained by all of them, quote from them, assign them to students," she added. "Each book in some way engenders another."
That has indeed been the case. Unfortunately for this juggernaut of doom, the books also engendered The Skeptical Environmentalist, which questions the very foundations of ideological environmentalism. Rather than refute its author, the environmentalist movement has attempted to ruin him.
The Lash Comes Down
Bjørn Lomborg, an associate professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus, describes himself as a suburban environmentalist who sent the occasional check to his local Greenpeace chapter. Lomborg naively accepted the conventional tenets of ideological environmentalism,
summarized in his book as "The Litany."