Debunking Green Myths

An environmentalist gets it right.


The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, by Bjorn Lomborg, New York: Cambridge University Press, 496 pages, $27.95

Modern environmentalism, born of the radical movements of the 1960s, has often made recourse to science to press its claims that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But this environmentalism has never really been a matter of objectively describing the world and calling for the particular social policies that the description implies.

Environmentalism is an ideology, very much like Marxism, which pretended to base its social critique on a "scientific" theory of economic relations. Like Marxists, environmentalists have had to force the facts to fit their theory. Environmentalism is an ideology in crisis: The massive, accumulating contradictions between its pretensions and the actual state of the world can no longer be easily explained away.

The publication of The Skeptical Environmentalist, a magnificent and important book by a former member of Greenpeace, deals a major blow to that ideology by superbly documenting a response to environmental doomsaying. The author, Bjorn Lomborg, is an associate professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. On a trip to the United States a few years ago, Lomborg picked up a copy of Wired that included an article about the late "doomslayer" Julian Simon.

Simon, a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland, claimed that by most measures, the lot of humanity is improving and the world's natural environment was not critically imperiled. Lomborg, thinking it would be an amusing and instructive exercise to debunk a "right-wing" anti-environmentalist American, assigned his students the project of finding the "real" data that would contradict Simon's outrageous claims.

Lomborg and his students discovered that Simon was essentially right, and that the most famous environmental alarmists (Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown, former Vice President Al Gore, Silent Spring author Rachel Carson) and the leading environmentalist lobbying groups (Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth) were wrong. It turns out that the natural environment is in good shape, and the prospects of humanity are actually quite good.

Lomborg begins with "the Litany" of environmentalist doom, writing: "We are all familiar with the Litany….Our resources are running out. The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat. The air and water are becoming ever more polluted. The planet's species are becoming extinct in vast numbers….The world's ecosystem is breaking down….We all know the Litany and have heard it so often that yet another repetition is, well, almost reassuring." Lomborg notes that there is just one problem with the Litany: "It does not seem to be backed up by the available evidence."

Lomborg then proceeds to demolish the Litany. He shows how, time and again, ideological environmentalists misuse, distort, and ignore the vast reams of data that contradict their dour visions. In the course of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg demonstrates that the environmentalist lobby is just that, a collection of interest groups that must hype doom in order to survive monetarily and politically.

Lomborg notes, "As the industry and farming organizations have an obvious interest in portraying the environment as just-fine and no-need-to-do-anything, the environmental organizations also have a clear interest in telling us that the environment is in a bad state, and that we need to act now. And the worse they can make this state appear, the easier it is for them to convince us we need to spend more money on the environment rather than on hospitals, kindergartens, etc. Of course, if we were equally skeptical of both sorts of organization there would be less of a problem. But since we tend to treat environmental organizations with much less skepticism, this might cause a grave bias in our understanding of the state of the world." Lomborg's book amply shows that our understanding of the state of the world is indeed biased.

So what is the real state of humanity and the planet?

Human life expectancy in the developing world has more than doubled in the past century, from 31 years to 65. Since 1960, the average amount of food per person in the developing countries has increased by 38 percent, and although world population has doubled, the percentage of malnourished poor people has fallen globally from 35 percent to 18 percent, and will likely fall further over the next decade, to 12 percent. In real terms, food costs a third of what it did in the 1960s. Lomborg points out that increasing food production trends show no sign of slackening in the future.

What about air pollution? Completely uncontroversial data show that concentrations of sulfur dioxide are down 80 percent in the U.S. since 1962, carbon monoxide levels are down 75 percent since 1970, nitrogen oxides are down 38 percent since 1975, and ground level ozone is down 30 percent since 1977. These trends are mirrored in all developed countries.

Lomborg shows that claims of rapid deforestation are vastly exaggerated. One United Nations Food and Agriculture survey found that globally, forest cover has been reduced by a minuscule 0.44 percent since 1961. The World Wildlife Fund claims that two-thirds of the world's forests have been lost since the dawn of agriculture; the reality is that the world still has 80 percent of its forests. What about the Brazilian rainforests? Eighty-six percent remain uncut, and the rate of clearing is falling. Lomborg also debunks the widely circulated claim that the world will soon lose up to half of its species. In fact, the best evidence indicates that 0.7 percent of species might be lost in the next 50 years if nothing is done. And of course, it is unlikely that nothing will be done.

Finally, Lomborg shows that global warming caused by burning fossil fuels is unlikely to be a catastrophe. Why? First, because actual measured temperatures aren't increasing nearly as fast as the computer climate models say they should be—in fact, any increase is likely to be at the low end of the predictions, and no one thinks that would be a disaster. Second, even in the unlikely event that temperatures were to increase substantially, it will be far less costly and more environmentally sound to adapt to the changes rather than institute draconian cuts in fossil fuel use.

The best calculations show that adapting to global warming would cost $5 trillion over the next century. By comparison, substantially cutting back on fossil fuel emissions in the manner suggested by the Kyoto Protocol would cost between $107 and $274 trillion over the same period. (Keep in mind that the current yearly U.S. gross domestic product is $10 trillion.) Such costs would mean that people living in developing countries would lose over 75 percent of their expected increases in income over the next century. That would be not only a human tragedy, but an environmental one as well, since poor people generally have little time for environmental concerns.

Where does Lomborg fall short? He clearly understands that increasing prosperity is the key to improving human and environmental health, but he often takes for granted the institutions of property and markets that make progress and prosperity possible. His analysis, as good as it is, fails to identify the chief cause of most environmental problems. In most cases, imperiled resources such as fisheries and airsheds are in open-access commons where the incentive is for people to take as much as possible of the resource before someone else beats them to it. Since they don't own the resource, they have no incentive to protect and conserve it.

Clearly, regulation has worked to improve the state of many open-access commons in developed countries such as the U.S. Our air and streams are much cleaner than they were 30 years ago, in large part due to things like installing catalytic converters on automobiles and building more municipal sewage treatment plants. Yet there is good evidence that assigning private property rights to these resources would have resulted in a faster and cheaper cleanup. Lomborg's analysis would have been even stronger had he more directly taken on ideological environmentalism's bias against markets. But perhaps that is asking for too much in an already superb book.

"Things are better now," writes Lomborg, "but they are still not good enough." He's right. Only continued economic growth will enable the 800 million people who are still malnourished to get the food they need; only continued economic growth will let the 1.2 billion who don't have access to clean water and sanitation obtain those amenities. It turns out that ideological environmentalism, with its hostility to economic growth and technological progress, is the biggest threat to the natural environment and to the hopes of the poorest people in the world for achieving better lives.

"The very message of the book," Lomborg concludes, is that "children born today—in both the industrialized world and the developing countries—will live longer and be healthier, they will get more food, a better education, a higher standard of living, more leisure time and far more possibilities—without the global environment being destroyed. And that is a beautiful world."