25 No. 2
Skeptical EnvironmentalistMeasuring the Real State of
Cambridge University Press, 2001.
by H. L. Senti
books appear on the market with big media hype. Television
talk shows celebrate their authors. But after waiting a few
months on a bookstores 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
Lomborgs The Skeptical Environmentalist.
deeper I became involved with reading Lomborgs book
the more I was reminded of his landsman Hans Christian Andersen.
In the story "the emperors 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.
book deals with the worlds 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?; Tomorrows 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.
give a taste of Lomborgs 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 (19451999) is a part where the tendency
is reversed, showing 6 years (19851991) 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
. . ."
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.
H.-Luzius Senti <[email protected]> is a member
of the IUPAC Committee
on Chemistry and Industry.
Letters from Readers (Sep
modified 3 September 2003.
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