January 12th 2002

  Buy Issue 2624

Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Eyewitness in East Timor

Editorial: Population - time for a new approach

Canberra Observed: Howard understands ALP better than it knows itself

Straws in the Wind: Cries for help / Political terrorism / Opium of the children

Public policy and the family

Books: Demons and Democrats - Re-evaluating Labor's disastrous 'Splits'

Media - Selective indignation / Ideological consistency

US welfare cuts coming home to roost?

Trade: Debt will return to haunt us

The search for meaning

Books: Don't despair: 'The Skeptical Environmentalist', by Bjorn Lomborg

'Queen Victoria: A Personal History', by Christopher Hibbert

Books promotion page

Books: Don't despair: 'The Skeptical Environmentalist', by Bjorn Lomborg

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, January 12, 2002

The Skeptical Environmentalist
by Bjorn Lomborg

Cambridge University Press
Available from News Weekly Books for $49.95 plus p&h

In 1661, Robert Boyle published The Skeptical Chemist - a book aimed at taking superstition and unproven assumptions out of the science of chemistry.

Now, 340 years later, Bjorn Lomborg aims to do the same with environmental science. Put simply, The Skeptical Environmentalist turns just about all of the passionately-held environmental doctrines on their heads, whether it be in relation to pollution, deforestation, overpopulation, energy resources, or a host of other and similar issues where doomsayers regularly predict that some global catastrophe is just around the corner.

Lomborg's book is massively detailed. There are 173 figures (mainly graphs showing trends), 2,930 endnotes and more than 1,500 references. This is not one of those books you would take off to bed for a little light reading! Lomborg is an Associate Professor of Statistics at Aarhus University, Denmark, and he revels in data and the ways in which it can be presented.

I am always wary of what I like to call "big-picture" authors - those writers, like Paul Ehrlich or E.O. Wilson, who suppose that they can deliver some overarching analysis of Planet Earth and all contained in it. Lomborg's book is certainly encyclopaedic in this way. It covers human health and prosperity and the related issues of resource use (food, forests, energy, minerals, water, etc). It also covers topics such as pollution, biodiversity, and global warming.

In all of these areas, Lomborg's message is the same - things are a lot better than we are regularly told by the Worldwatch Institute, Greenpeace, etc., but they are not necessarily good.

Now Lomborg may not always be right in his analyses, but I suspect that his appraisal is far more realistic than those environmental doomsayers who regularly tell us that the end is nigh.

C.P. Scott, the famous editor of the Manchester Guardian (1872-1929), once said something very important about the way in which information should be reported: "Comment is free, but facts are sacred". What Lomborg demonstrates is that environmental "facts" are not always to be trusted and, even when they can be trusted, it is often the case that they are used selectively to cast things in a certain way.

To pick an example at random, Lomborg shows that the cancer mortality rate in humans in America can be depicted in several ways. If one simply looks at number of cancer deaths per year, then it is true that the figure has risen dramatically since 1950. However, if one adjusts for the fact that the human population has also increased over this period, then the cancer death rate drops back considerably. If one then adjusts for the fact that people are now living longer (on average) than they did in 1950, then the age-adjusted cancer death rate is actually in decline.

Lomborg has done some very nice detective work in tracking down certain "facts" related to environmental disasters and then demonstrating that they are not facts at all, merely well-worn opinion - C.P. Scott's free "comment".

Another random example from his book: Many environmentalists claim that some 40,000 species of biological organisms are irretrievably lost each year due to destruction of forests, etc.

Now it turns out that this figure of 40,000 is simply a guess by a man called Myers in 1979. He assumed that forest clearing during the final quarter of the 20th century witnessed the elimination of one million species (a handy little figure from his mind). "This would work out," he says, "... at an average extinction rate of 40,000 species per year." Lomborg points out that this figure is about 10,000 times greater than the latest observed rate of extinction.

The Skeptical Environmentalist is an important book and one which should be on the shelves of all those with a professional or keen amateur interest in environmental science and environmental politics. It may well be the case that some of Lomborg's environmental optimism is no less problematical than the pessimism of those whom he opposes.

If this is the case, we should see some lively debate on the issues raised by Lomborg. His critics will not be able to dismiss him simply as a crank and so they ought to refute him, point by point. But I doubt this will happen. Lomborg's potential critics hold their particular views as a matter of religious faith and any contrary analysis of "facts" will simply be seen as a sort of heresy. In the old days you could burn heretics at the stake. These days, you simply ignore them.

Perhaps the real difference between Lomborg and those he criticises has to do with a particular view of human life. For the radical environmentalists, humans are simply an aberrant species. We are an evolutionary disaster and the world would be better off without us. For Lomborg, I suspect, humans are inescapably at the centre of the universe and human interaction with nature is not necessarily an evil thing. Indeed, it has the potential to produce much good.

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