Matt Ridley celebrates Bjorn Lomborg, the environmentalist brave enough to tell the truth -- that the end is not nigh
At the Christmas cabaret in the politics department of Aarhus University in Denmark last year, the cast members joined together at the end to sing a song about one of the associate professors. "Bjorn, when will you come back?" went the refrain. "Don"t just get lost out in the world." (It was better in Danish.)
Bjorn Lomborg -- young, blond, piano-playing, but basically a statistics nerd -- may not be back soon. He has just succeeded Monsanto as the official chief villain of the world environmental movement. In January Scientific American devoted 11 pages to an unattractive attempt to attack his work. He had a pie thrown in his face when he spoke in Oxford last September.
The great and the good of greendom are competing to find epithets for him: "Wilful ignorance, selective quotations, destructive campaigning," says E.O. Wilson, guru of biodiversity. "Lacks even a preliminary understanding of the science in question," says Norman Myers, guru of extinction. His book is "nothing more than a diatribe", says Lester Brown, serial predictor of imminent global famine. Stephen Schneider, high priest of global warming, even berates Cambridge University Press for publishing it.
What can this mild statistician have said to annoy these great men so? In 1996 he published an obscure but brilliant article on game theory, which earned him an invitation to a conference on "computable economics" in Los Angeles (and an offer of a job at the University of California). While browsing in a bookshop there he came across a profile in Wired magazine of the late Julian Simon, an economist, who claimed, with graphs, that on most measures the environment was improving, not getting worse. Irritated, Lomborg went back to Denmark and set his students the exercise of finding the flaw in Simon"s statistics.
They could find none. So Lomborg wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist, which not only endorses most of Simon"s claims, but also goes further, providing an immense compendium of factual evidence that the litany of environmental gloom we hear is mostly either exaggerated (species extinction, global warming) or wrong (population, air and water pollution, natural resources, food and hunger, health and life-expectancy, waste, forest loss).
You might think that environmentalists would welcome such news. Having argued that we should find a way to live sustainably on the planet, they ought to be pleased that population growth is falling faster (in percentage and absolute terms) than anybody predicted even ten years ago; that per-capita food production is rising rapidly, even in the developing world; that all measures of air pollution are falling almost everywhere; that oil, gas and minerals are not running out nearly as fast as was predicted in the 1970s; and so on.
Instead they are beside themselves with fury. It cannot be Lomborg"s politics that annoy them. He is leftish, concerned about world poverty, and no fan of big business. It cannot be his recommendations: in favour of renewable energy and worried about the pollution that is getting worse. Vegetarian, he rides a bicycle and approves of Denmark"s punitive car taxes. His sin -- his heresy -- is to be optimistic.
This is very threatening to lots of people"s livelihoods. The environmental movement raises most of its funds through direct mail, paid advertising and news coverage. A steady supply of peril is essential fuel for all three. H.L. Mencken said, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and hence clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
For instance, remember acid rain in the 1980s and sperm counts in the 1990s? "There is no evidence of a general or unusual decline of forests in the United States or Canada due to acid rain," concluded the official independent study of the subject. Sperm counts are not falling. If you do not believe me, look up the statistics. Lomborg did.
The media, too, prefer pessimism. When the United Nations panel on global warming produced new estimates of the rise in temperature by 2100, they gave a range of 1.4 to 5.8C. CNN, CBS, Time and the New York Times all quoted only the high figure and omitted the low one.
An increasing number of scientists have vested interests in pessimism, too. The study of global warming has brought them fame, funds, speaking fees and room service. Lomborg"s crime is to rain on their parade.
In the Scientific American critique, four leading environmental scientists lambasted Lomborg. The magazine refused Lomborg the right to reply in the same issue, refused to post his response on its website immediately, and threatened him for infringement of copyright when he tried to reproduce their articles, with his responses, on his own website.
Yet the Scientific American articles are devastating not to Lomborg, but to his critics. Again and again, before insulting him, the critics concede, through gritted teeth, that he has got his facts right. In two cases, Stephen Schneider accuses Lomborg of misquoting sources and promptly does so himself. In the first case, Schneider"s response "completely misunderstands what we have done", according to Richard Lindzen, the original author of work on the "iris effect" and upper-level cirrus clouds. In the second, Eigil Friis-Christensen says that Schneider "makes three unsubstantiated statements regarding our studies on the effect of cosmic rays on global cloud cover". Result: there are worse howlers in Schneider"s short article than in Lomborg"s whole book.
By the end of 11 pages, the Scientific American critics have found two certain errors in Lomborg"s work. In one he uses the word "catalyse" instead of "electrolyse". In the other he refers to 20 per cent of energy use, when he means 20 per cent of electricity generation. You get the drift.
What the affair reveals is how much environmentalists are now the establishment, accustomed to doing the criticising, not being criticised. The editor of Scientific American, apparently without irony, condemns Lomborg for his "presumption" in challenging "investigators who have devoted their lives" to the subject, as if seniority defined truth.
Lomborg is also criticised for his effrontery in challenging the widely accepted figure that 40,000 species become extinct every year. The number was first used in 1979 by the British scientist Norman Myers. Yet what was the evidence for it? Here is what Myers actually said: "Let us suppose that, as a consequence of this manhandling of the natural environments, the final one-quarter of this century witnesses the elimination of one million species, a far from unlikely prospect. This would work out, during the course of 25 years, at an average rate of 40,000 species per year." That"s it. No data at all; just a circular assumption: if 40,000 species go extinct a year, then 40,000 species go extinct a year. QED.
Now look where this little trick of arithmetic has got Myers. He describes himself thus: "Norman Myers is an Honorary Visiting Fellow of Oxford University. He has served as visiting professor at universities from Harvard to Stanford, and is a foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences. He works as an independent scientist, undertaking research projects for the US National Research Council, the World Bank and United Nations agencies. He has received the UNEP environment prize, the Volvo environment prize and, most recently, the 2001 Blue Planet prize." (Myers"s share of the Volvo prize was worth $130,000; Lomborg does not own a car.)
Lomborg does not deny that species are becoming extinct at an unnaturally high rate, but he cites a far from conservative calculation that this rate may reach about 0.7 per cent in 50 years, not the 25 to 75 per cent implied by Myers, and calls it "not a catastrophe but a problem -- one of many that mankind still needs to solve". Greens are trying to portray Lomborg as a sort of Pollyanna Pangloss with her head in the sand. But Lomborg does not dispute the need to save the planet, only the assertion that this is impossibly difficult and the particular priorities foisted on us by the big environmental pressure groups.
Forty years ago this year, Rachel Carson, in her book Silent Spring, alerted a complacent world to the dangers posed by pesticides. Vilified by the chemical industry, Carson was already dying of cancer when the book was published. In the intervening years the environmental movement has turned from David into Goliath. With huge advertising budgets and ready access to the media, it can dominate the news, terrify multinational companies and expect to be invited to policy discussions at the highest levels. It is the bully now.
Consider the treatment meted out to Julian Simon for having the temerity to be right. In 1990 Simon won $576.07 in settlement of a wager from the environmentalist Paul Ehrlich. Simon had bet him that the prices of metals would fall during the 1980s and Ehrlich accepted "Simon"s astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in".
When, a decade later, Simon won easily, Ehrlich refused a rematch and called Simon an imbecile in a speech. Ehrlich, who, in contrast, won a "genius award" from the MacArthur Foundation, is the man who argued in 1967 that with the world on the brink of starvation the West "should no longer send emergency aid to countries such as India where sober analysis shows a hopeless imbalance between food production and population". Since then India has doubled its population, more than doubled its food production, increased its cultivated land acreage by only 5 per cent and begun to export food. Hopeless?
The pessimists argue that Lomborg"s good news might lead to complacency. But Ehrlich"s counsel of despair is far more dangerous. Many people now work to improve the environment at a local level with optimism that they can make the world a better place. To be constantly told by the big pressure groups that all is doom and gloom is no help. There is something rotten in the state of environmentalism. It lies not just in the petty factual dishonesty that is rife within the movement -- Stephen Schneider once said, "We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements and make little mention of any doubts we might have" -- but in the very philosophy that lies at the heart of greenery: the belief in constraint and retreat.
If six billion people have both more food and more forest than their three billion parents did; if the prices of copper, wheat and natural gas are going down, not up; if there are 20 times more carcinogens in three cups of organic coffee than in daily dietary exposure to the worst pesticide both before and after the DDT ban; if renewable resources such as whales are more easily exhausted than non-renewables such as coal; if lower infant mortality leads to falling populations, not rising ones, then perhaps we need to think differently about what sustainability means. Perhaps the most sustainable thing we can do is develop new technology, increase trade and spread affluence.
Nor will it do to claim that these successes have come from green pressure. The reason so many environmental trends are benign is not because of legislation, let alone protest. Apart from the ozone layer and city smogs, where campaigns probably did accelerate change, most improvements have been brought about more by innovation, development and growth than by government action. If six billion people went back to nature, nature would be in desperate trouble.
The most arresting statistic that Lomborg produces is this. It is well known that meeting the Kyoto treaty on carbon-dioxide reduction will delay global warming by six years at most by 2100. Yet the annual cost of that treaty, in each year of the century, will be the same as the cost -- once -- of installing clean drinking water and sanitation for every human being on the planet. Priorities, anyone?
NOTES ON THE ABOVE
This article originally appeared in the [U.K.] "Spectator" here on 23 February, 2002 and was reprinted in "The American Spectator" (not online) of 2002, vol. 35(2), pp. 52-53 under the heading: The Borking of Bjorn Lomborg)
Robert Bork was of course one of Ronald Reagan's nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court. He believed that judges should stick to judging and not make the law up as they went along. Needless to say, his nomination was opposed by huge numbers of liberal pressure groups who depend on the court to get them what they could never get from Congress. So despite Bork's impeccable legal credentials his nomination was blocked by Democrats in the Senate -- causing great damage to Bork's career, of course. So to be "borked" now means to be roughly treated and denied influence on purely ideological grounds -- regardless of merit. Greenie sympathizers tried to treat Lomborg in a similar way, but with much less success.