Here is Denmark, that harmonious northern country known for its curiously vanilla accomplishments (comprehensive social welfare, pastry, Hans Christian Anderson), and here is its latest export, Bjorn Lomborg, come to announce the good news that we live in a fairy-tale world.
The medium for the message is The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg’s 500-plus page blow-by-blow of “the Real State of the World,” as the book is confidently subtitled. Lomborg’s thesis is simple enough: Environmentalists have deluded the masses into believing that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, when in fact, as the title of the first chapter bluntly states, “Things are getting better.”
As science writing goes, The Skeptical Environmentalist is C-minus stuff, as straight-forward and lackluster as a 10th-grade term paper. Oddly, this has not deterred the press from going mad over Lomborg, who has become the Danish darling of publications that ought to disagree with one another (the left-leaning London Guardian and the conservative Economist) and people who ought to know better (reviewers for the New York Times and the Washington Post).
So what has inspired this bipartisan media love-in? Certainly not the author’s credentials: An associate professor of statistics, Lomborg has never published an article or done original research in any field related to biology, ecology, or environmental science. And not his arguments, which weren’t peer-reviewed and in many cases are simply erroneous, as leading scientists argue in this special issue of Grist.
What the media love about The Skeptical Environmentalist is the tale of its genesis, which smacks of the apocryphal but, for what it’s worth, goes like this: Once upon a time, our protagonist earnestly believed in saving the world from ecological destruction. He believed so hard that he joined Greenpeace and stopped eating meat. Then one day he came across the writings of Julian Simon, who claimed that environmental concerns were largely bunk. Horrified, Lomborg set out to disprove Simon, only to find that he was correct in virtually every particular. With the blinders removed from his own eyes, Lomborg set out to enlighten the rest of us. And the media swallowed this creation myth whole — because, from Jim Jeffords to Jane Roe, the folks who switch horses in mid-stream make great copy.
However, they do not always make great sense. Such is the case with The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg doesn’t take issue with most primary research on the environment, which he says “generally appears to be professionally competent and well balanced”; his battle is with environmental advocacy groups, like the Greenpeace of his salad days. According to him, these groups have constructed a “Litany” of environmental woes — global warming, deforestation, extinction, air pollution, energy shortages, food scarcity, yada yada yada. Trouble is, he says, the Litany is a) false and b) disseminated so broadly and effectively that it leads us to make misguided policy decisions.
Eminently qualified people are tackling the first point elsewhere in this issue of Grist; I’ll take on the second. Although it has been largely ignored by the media, this point is of equal importance; indeed, it is why we care whether science is on the side of Lomborg or the Litany.
Good Causes and False Choices
Lomborg begins by making the entirely reasonable point that accurate information is critical to informed decision-making. If information is skewed to paint a bleaker environmental picture than is justified by reality, as he claims, then we will in turn skew our limited resources in favor of the environment and away from other important causes.
Fair enough. But then Lomborg proceeds to weigh the causes championed by the environmental movement against a deliberately circumscribed universe of other possible “good causes.” It is up to us, he says, to make responsible decisions about whether to protect the environment or “boost Medicaid, increase funding to the arts, or cut taxes.” But be warned: Environmentalists will do everything in their power to make the state of the world seem as bleak as possible because, “The worse they can make this state appear, the easier it is for them to convince us we need to spend more money on the environment rather on hospitals, kindergartens, etc.” A few pages later he again claims that the purpose of the Litany is to cause us to prioritize the environment over “hospitals, child day care, etc.”
This argument is patently bogus — Lomborg fails to generate a single example of an environmental organization promoting its own ends at the expense of health, welfare, or education — and it is also patently divisive. One might, perhaps, justifiably charge the environmental movement with failing to sufficiently support other important progressive causes, but Lomborg is not trying to reform the movement; he’s trying to divide and conquer the left by blaming environmentalism for inadequate social welfare programs. Lomborg writes, “If we fail to consider how the money could otherwise have been spent, we actually create a societal structure in which fewer people survive. … We are in reality committing statistical murder.” But who is really failing to consider how our money is spent? As Lomborg notes, “We will never have enough money,” and therefore, “Prioritization is absolutely essential.” Why, then, does he weigh the environment only against hospitals and childcare, rather than against, say, industry subsidies and defense spending?
The Litany Vs. Life
After blaming the environmental movement for problems it did not cause, Lomborg proceeds to attribute to its leaders a power they do not posses, even in their wildest dreams. Lomborg tells us that in countries from Uruguay to India, from South Korea to Nigeria, the majority of people are terribly worried about the environment. Why? Well, apparently in large part because of Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, to whom Lomborg says expressions of the Litany can frequently be traced. (In the index to The Skeptical Environmentalist, Brown gets 15 references — more than nuclear power, oil, the ozone hole, and the Kyoto Protocol.)
This is quite a load to lay at Lester Brown’s door — or even at the door of western environmental organizations and media outfits more generally. To do so is unjust, and it is also grossly disrespectful of our capacity as individuals to understand and assess our world. Certainly, we are all influenced to one degree or another by the media (although one wonders how much sway Time magazine has over the average Nigerian), but Lomborg utterly fails to consider the possibility that the Litany may be compelling because of people’s lived experiences. Lomborg envisions the environmental movement as a vast, top-down conspiracy originating with mainstream organizations and spreading its tentacles into everything from CNN to the World Bank; he could not be less interested in the community concerned about the cyanide in its water supply, the neighborhood battling the smelter in its backyard, or any of the millions of people all over the world who confront the consequences of environmental degradation every day.
In Lomborg’s formulation, all of those grass-roots environmentalists are acting not out of rational concern, but out of irrational, inculcated dread. “The fear created by the Litany,” Lomborg writes, “… is absolutely decisive because it paralyses our reasoned judgment.” It is “a challenge
to our democratic freedom and contests our basic right to decide for ourselves how we lead our lives.” Furthermore, it “undermines our confidence in our ability to solve our remaining problems. It gives us a feeling of being under siege, constantly having to act with our backs to the wall, and this means that we will often implement unwise decisions based on emotional gut reactions.”
That is heavy-duty stuff, but once again (and unsurprisingly), Lomborg cannot generate a single example of anyone, anywhere, who ever committed a rash act based on sheer, uncontrollable terror about the worsening environment. In fact, he notes that people are generally much more worried about the economy, employment, the deficit, crime, drugs, and healthcare, while “The environment seldom rises above 2 percent in most important-problem polls.”
But never mind the statistics; to hear Lomborg tell it, you would think we lived in a Greenocracy, where eco-fascists let hospitals and kindergartens fall into disrepair in order to fund supplies of recyclable toothbrushes. This kind of purple prose and political divisiveness undermines Lomborg’s ostensible objectivity so significantly that not even 3,000 footnotes can restore it.
There is no question that, in the process of creating a political movement and seeking the scientific evidence to support it, environmentalists have sometimes made both factual and strategic errors — who hasn’t? But environmentalists are not devious puppeteers controlling the heartstrings of the hoi polloi and the purse strings of politicians. The skeptical environmentalist is jousting at windmills, whereas the people he denounces are fighting real battles. If the words of Lomborg’s nemesis-turned-idol Julian Simon come true — if “the material conditions of life continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time” — it will be with the help of, not in spite of, the environmental movement.
More stories in this series:
For those of you who still haven’t gotten enough of the Lomborg controversy, look no further than your browser. We’ve compiled a collection of links to sites that praise the man, haze the man, and walk the middle ground.
When it comes to the world’s energy problems, Bjorn Lomborg’s unbridled optimism is quite enough to ruin anyone’s day.
You know what they say about people who become statisticians? They lacked the personality to become accountants.
Get Grist in your inbox