July 27, 2003

Lomborg Book Reviewed

For people who have heard of The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjorn Lomborg, but have not yet bought or read it, this excellent review and summary of the book may be of real interest. It was written by Alex Kozinski, and reprinted from the Michigan Law Review. I have slogged my way through about 90% of the book's 500 pages, (passing on some topics, the details of which didn't interest me a whole lot), and having done so I can attest to the accuracy and thoroughness of this review. (link via Chicago Boyz)

The review itself is long, (in .pdf format) but it is well documented, very readable, and may well persuade you to spring for the whole enchilada. The following excerpt from the review gives a bit of a feel for Lomborg's premise.

The great bulk of Lomborg’s book, nearly two hundred tightlywritten and densely-footnoted pages, is devoted to examining the true state of the world in those areas that have been the subject of alarmist prediction by environmental activists. He paints a picture of a world where human welfare is dramatically improving in just about every way one might measure it. While, as Lomborg readily admits, there are many ways in which things can continue to improve, all measurable trends point in a positive direction.

Thus, “we now have far more food per person than we used to, even though the population has doubled since 1961” (p. 61). While the population is continuing to increase, it is doing so at a continually slower rate and is expected to peak during the middle of the next century. We have more — and cleaner — water per person than we ever did before (ch. 13); our population is healthier and better educated; infant mortality is sharply reduced; and life expectancy has increased dramatically (ch. 4). Indeed, the main reason for the continued increase in world population is, in the words of a UN consultant, “not that people suddenly started breeding like rabbits; it’s just that they stopped dying like flies” (p. 46). We have more leisure time and greater access to consumer products (ch. 6); we breathe cleaner air (p. 210); we suffer less from natural disasters (p. 85). Animal species are not dying out at an alarming rate, as has often been asserted as fact by environmentalists (ch. 23); our forests are not disappearing, in fact, they’re making a comeback strong enough to satisfy any Ewok.

As discussed earlier, we are nowhere near running out of waste space (p. 206). Nor are we running out of energy or other natural resources. While we use more energy every year, proven reserves of oil, gas, coal and uranium are constantly increasing (ch. 11). Technology for extracting energy from renewable sources, such as solar power and wind, is improving and will become cost-effective within a few decades — long before we run into a serious shortage of non-renewable energy sources. Proven reserves of other resources, such as iron, copper, aluminum and zinc have also been increasing; their prices have steadily declined (ch. 12). Acid rain was never the “ecological Hiroshima”34 that environmentalists proclaimed it to be, and has been largely eliminated as an environmental problem (ch. 16). The relationship between pesticides and disease, notably cancer, is vanishingly small, and elimination of pesticides would be quite costly and, in fact, dramatically increase cancer deaths.35

If Lomborg’s description of the world differs markedly from the one most of us have come to accept, it is likely because our perceptions are shaped by media reports that uncritically adopt and amplify the predictions of doom peddled by professional environmentalists. Examining with a statistician’s eye the very same sources used by the environmentalists, Lomborg comes to very different conclusions. Does his analysis make sense? Is it adequately documented? In a word, yes.

A professional statistician, Lomborg doesn't claim to be an environmental scientist. He uses the sources cited by those scientists and cuts through the doomsday talk, to the nuts and bolts of "costs vs. benefits", spending priorities, and rational, reasoned, fact-based debate.

Absent the apocalyptic rhetoric, environmentalism can become what it should be. A serious topic for scientific study, a matter for vigorous public policy debate, and concerted government and private sector action. The environmental lobby can become what it should be. One among many "interest groups" in our society, educating citizens, recommending options, and advocating for environmental issues as significant priorities to be addressed by a society and a government with finite resources, and other important priorities.

Amazon.com link to The Skeptical Environmentalist containing many additional reviews.

Posted by dan at July 27, 2003 10:12 PM
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