It's Not Easy Beating Greens
A leftist vegetarian academic who once belonged to Greenpeace writes about the state of the world's environment. The outcome would seem predictable---a tale of deepening gloom, accompanied by a metaphorical kick in the guts to the industrial capitalist system that is destroying our fragile planet.
That was BjÃ¸rn Lomborg's intention when he started his project. In 1997 the Danish professor of statistics was infuriated by reading an interview in Wired Magazine with Julian Simon, an American economist who claimed that the environmental movement had got it all wrong.
Simon argued that readily available and uncontroversial official statistics showed the environment was not deteriorating. He predicted that the material conditions of life would 'continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely'. The real problem was that too many people had accepted the green litany that the earth's ecosystems are breaking down, and that we are all going to hell in a handbasket.
So Lomborg assembled a team of his best students to test Simon's claims, expecting to show that they were just the ravings of a right-wing American Pollyanna. To their complete surprise, most of what Simon was saying turned out to be correct.
Despite substantial increases in population and economic growth over the past three decades, air pollution in the developed world is actually decreasing. Indeed in London---the city which has the best available relevant data---air quality is now higher than at any time since the late 16th century. A similar trajectory can be expected in Third World countries as their prosperity grows through investment in physical and human capital, and further participation in international trade.
While there has been an increasing loss of biodiversity over the past four centuries, the threat has been vastly overstated. Prominent scientists such as Paul Ehrlich and E.O. Wilson have claimed that we are losing somewhere between 25,000 and 100,000 species each year, with perhaps 50 per cent of all species becoming extinct within the next 50 years.
But Lomborg found that these figures are fanciful---either the outcome of wild guesses that have achieved respectability through constant repetition, or the results of careless back of the envelope calculations. A much more realistic estimate, which is also consistent with one produced by the 1995 United Nations Global Biodiversity Assessment, is that in the next 50 years around 0.7 per cent of species will become extinct. Certainly, this is a problem; but it is not a catastrophe.
A similar picture emerged with most of the other supposed environmental crises that Lomborg and his team examined. Using the best available data, the evidence indicated either that the situation was improving, or that the problem had been greatly exaggerated.
Acid rain is not killing off the forests, and in any case the rate of deforestation even in tropical developing countries is three to ten times less than the figures bandied around by environmentalists. The temperate forests of North America and Europe have actually expanded in area over the past four decades.
Fears about an approaching exhaustion of non-renewable resources have proved to be unfounded. The population explosion has peaked, and the rate of growth is now declining. Furthermore, technical advances have allowed world food production to keep well ahead of population increases without bringing additional land under cultivation.
Realising that many of his countrymen shared his previous fear of an impending environmental disaster, Lomborg wrote four articles for the left-of-centre Danish newspaper Politiken, setting out his findings. He set off a furore, with hundreds of commentaries and critiques appearing across the whole Danish press. A book soon followed.
That book has been revised, updated, and translated into English as The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. While accessible to anyone with an intelligent interest in the environment, it is documented with relentless thoroughness and its 350 pages of text are followed by 150 pages of notes and references.
Released only a few weeks ago, The Skeptical Environmentalist has already created a sensation, and is now into its fourth printing. English greens are braying about a pie-in-the-face attack on Lomborg by one of their number at the book launch in Oxford, clearly oblivious to what such an act says about their attitude towards a critical assessment of their arguments.
Despite attempts to discredit him, Lomborg is not an anti-environmentalist. He acknowledges that the world faces significant environmental problems. But he stresses that we must take a realistic approach to risk, and deal with the genuine threats in the most cost-effective and technologically sophisticated way. This approach upsets many greens, because they try to use the environment as a weapon against economic and technological progress.
Lomborg does not dismiss the dangers of global warming, for instance. But he is concerned that we address the problem sensibly, and he argues that the Kyoto Protocol will be a very expensive way of achieving only minuscule reductions in greenhouse gases. Nor is he someone who believes that the market can solve all our difficulties, and he accepts the need for strong regulations in some areas, such as with genetically modified foods.
BjÃ¸rn Lomborg will be coming to Australia later this month as the keynote speaker at the Australian Institute of Energy's conference in Sydney. Whoever becomes Minister for the Environment after today's election would be well advised to meet with him. He may help to set an environmental agenda for the new government that is directed at genuine improvement rather than satisfying green illusions.