12 January 2012

Book Review: The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjorn Lomborg, *****

Pollution in the Maldives

Lomborg, an associate professor of statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus and a former member of Greenpeace, challenges widely held beliefs that the world environmental situation is getting worse and worse. Using statistical information from internationally recognized research institutes, Lomborg systematically examines a range of major environmental issues that feature prominently in headline news around the world, including pollution, biodiversity, fear of chemicals, and the greenhouse effect, and documents that the world has actually improved. He supports his arguments with over 2500 footnotes, allowing readers to check his sources.

Lomborg criticizes the way many environmental organizations make selective and misleading use of scientific evidence and argues that we are making decisions about the use of our limited resources based on inaccurate or incomplete information. Concluding that there are more reasons for optimism than pessimism, he stresses the need for clear-headed prioritization of resources to tackle real, not imagined, problems. The book offers readers a non-partisan evaluation that serves as a useful corrective to the more alarmist accounts favored by campaign groups and the media. When he started to investigate the statistics behind the current gloomy view of the environment, he was genuinely surprised. He published four lengthy articles in the leading Danish newspaper, including statistics documenting an ever-improving world, and unleashed the biggest post-war debate with more than 400 articles in all the major papers. Since then, Lomborg has been a frequent participant in the European debate on environmentalism on television, radio, and in newspapers.


This book is refreshing reading. To start, the title: skepticism is de rigeur in trying to understand scientific problems. Any scientific problem. Most self proclaimed environmentalists, however, are not skeptical enough. They always assume that the worst possible scenario is the most likely. They always make an environmental problem, any problem, to appear the most pressing of all. They, in other words, recite the "Litany" to which Lomborg refers. As a result, resources are not optimally allocated to address the real environmental problems, choices are not made in a rational way, and time, money and lives are lost.

Lomborg does NOT argue there is no environmental problem. He says there is. What he does convincingly argue is that, overall, humanity is going in the right direction in addressing them. Maybe not in an ideal way, surely mistakes have been made, but things are, all in all, better today thany they have ever been, and they are improving. Whether it's nutrition, medicine, the quality of the air we breath and the water we drink, housing, schooling, etc. we wre going to leave to our children a better world than the one we inherited from our fathers.

I am not arguing (I could not, possibly) that Lomborg is always right is his many arguments. Surely his statistics can be, and have been, questioned. However he proves that the Litany we have become accustomed to hear is both wrong and counterproductive in addressing the real problems of our environment.

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