We received an unprecedented number of responses to Something Is Rotten in the State of Denmark, our special edition on Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. As usual, Grist readers were impassioned and opinionated. What follows is a sampling of their letters — largely positive, occasionally scathing, and frequently informative.
I don’t know if Bjorn Lomborg got his science right or if he’s blowing smoke, but when he received a green pie in the face, I knew he’d hit pay dirt.
Since I was a kid we’ve been warned by the Greens that the world is overpopulated, that the masses would soon be starving, that acid rain would strip the trees bare. We’ve been told that global warming would make our winters into summer and our summers into a living hell. From the thinning ozone layer to the horrors of Alar to the problems with asbestos, “experts” have warned us, been proven false, and then moved on to the next horror. Unable to convince the public with “facts,” the Greens now strike in the dark of night, burning and stealing and destroying. Lomborg has put the movement on the defensive, as shown by the massive retaliation against him. Maybe now, with both sides clearing away the BS, we’ll be able to get a true picture of our environment and real solutions to the problems.
New York, N.Y.
Rock on! Thank you so much for devoting an entire issue to the much-needed topic of tackling Bjorn Lomborg’s book. I appreciate that you commissioned an expert panel to provide a sound alternative analysis to the one that seems to be getting out in the press. Keep up the great work.
Kimberly Nicholas Cahill
Excellent job on the series of articles rebutting the Bjorn Lomborg litany. I offer a possible explanation for the reported flaws in his book’s premise and presentation. Because Lomborg, by his own admission, is “very left wing,” he may not be familiar with the conservative principles that underlie conservation: prudent reduction of risks, stewardship of the resources in our care, piety toward God’s creation, and, perhaps most important, equity for the generations that will follow ours.
As the conservative thinker Edmund Burke taught, society is an intergenerational contract linking past, present, and future. We owe it to our descendants to be better safe than sorry, be conservative, and take good care of the only planet we have.
Republicans for Environmental Protection
Bjorn Lomberg’s book was also reviewed by Michael Grubb in the Nov. 9, 2001, issue of Science. Grubb stated it nicely: “The ultimate irony is that Lomborg could have presented his mass of data as a tribute to the effectiveness of environmental policy. That he chooses to do the opposite says far more about him than about any claimed objectivity of his statistical analysis.”
Just what does Bjorn Lomborg think are the ends of environmentalists? Are we making some kind of power grab? Are we trying to rule the world? So many of the skeptics make it sound as if there must be some sort of hidden agenda — because of course no one would do anything without some sort of personal gain! The skeptics talk about air and water improving but fail to ask how this has happened.
I can speak from experience because at one time I thought the “greenies” were crazy. I thought they all wanted us to give up our cars, houses, and way of life, and move into caves. I never asked the simple question: What do they hope to gain?
Jack M. Pedigo
The fact that The Skeptical Environmentalist is so infuriating may be exactly what we environmentalists need.
Until we have long-term scientific proof (published doubled-blind studies) about the effects of the environment on our health, we will continue to be challenged by idiots like Bjorn Lomborg. We should be cutting them off at the pass, instead of reacting after the damage is done.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being viewed as a namby-pamby tree-hugging health nut. It’s time to play hardball and literally shove cold hard scientific evidence in the opposition’s face. This means environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace, and others will have to shift gears and put most of their funds toward scientific research — not an easy task.
Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
Your review of Bjorn Lomborg’s book was the most pathetic attempt to give an opposing point of view that I have ever seen. That is probably due to the fact that Lomborg is pretty much right on most of what he said. Running scared? Yes, your kind are, and it’s obvious. Time and again the environmental movement has been exposed for what it really is; this book just piles it on.
Land use editor, Off-Road.com
Las Vegas, Nev.
Re: Hostile Climate
In his climate change article, Stephen Schneider laments that the mainstream media hail The Skeptical Environmentalist as containing new revelations. He then takes Lomborg to task for trying to assign some level of certainty to the climate debate, closing with the quote, “Those of us who have spent decades grappling with the numbing uncertainties involved in environmental protection would never claim to know the real state of the world, let alone pretend that selective citation to fuzzy historical data would tell us.”
The message that the man on the street has heard is not one of uncertainty and fuzzy data. Instead we get quotes like, “The overwhelming scientific consensus is …” take your pick. We get the Stuart Pimm quote from the TomPaine.com article, “[Bjorn Lomborg] is in opposition to absolutely everyone in the field, Nobel Prize winners and all.” The same goes for the complaint about the book containing no “new” conclusions. While these experts may think it’s common knowledge that many things have improved (air and water pollution, longevity, world hunger, general affluence), that is not the impression the layperson has been given.
And as for the more speculative issues on which the experts do, often correctly, fault Lomborg’s analyses, the mere fact that there is great uncertainty would come as a shock to most people, for that has not been the story told by the media. That these scientists do not realize this borders on the boggling.
David Nemtzow gives too much credit to Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. Nemtzow says Lomborg is right to challenge claims made in the 1970s that the world would begin to experience energy and resource shortages in coming decades. I assume that Nemtzow means the projections (or better, the warnings) published by the late Donella Meadows et al. In Limits to Growth (1972). Limits was trashed by legions of techno-optimists and market economists (many of whom seem not to have read it). This trashing seems to be the basis for Nemtzow’s argument that Lomborg “is expending a great deal of energy to counter an argument that hardly anyone is making anymore.”
Actually, lots of people are making the argument. The trashing of Limits to Growth was grossly premature; in fact, the book’s projections are more or less on target. In general, Limits argued that if trends continued the human enterprise would experience serious resource constraints within 100 years, with the pressure beginning to be felt in the early decades of the 21st century. Trends continued — indeed, accelerated — so problems are beginning to emerge on schedule. Climate change, collapsing fisheries, loss of biodiversity, and concerns over the sustainability of production agriculture are just a few examples of resource constraints on future growth.
Regarding energy supplies, Nemtzow (and Lomborg) is simply wrong that, “Per year, humankind discovers more oil and gas than it uses.” In fact, in the case of petroleum, we passed the point at which consumption regularly exceeds discovery in 1980 and the gap has been steadily widening. In recent years, consumption has reached about 25 billion barrels per year compared to a discovery rate averaging about 6 billion recoverable barrels. Consequently, numerous independent analysts and major oil companies agree that the global peak of conventional oil extraction is likely to occur within the decade. Natural gas is not far behind: Despite the great increase in drilling in the past few years, we are barely maintaining reserves in the face of rising demand.
As for alternatives, no one is saying that there are no potential “new energy sources,” but many analysts do argue that the shift to renewable energy supplies will be difficult, costly, and problematic. For example, most alternatives involve electricity, which cannot readily replace liquid portable fossil fuel; we can’t fly aircraft on electricity, for example. Furthermore, some much-touted alternatives — biomass ethanol and full-scale photovoltaic installations, for example — are net energy sinks, not sources.
My point is that achieving the transition to sustainability will be difficult enough for our fossil energy-addicted society. Brownlash publications like The Skeptical Environmentalist make it even harder for legitimate scientists to be heard by politicians and the public so that appropriate policy choices are made. Critics who damn Lomborg with faint praise, when he should simply be damned, further increase the burden.
William E. Rees
Vancouver, B.C., Canada
I enjoyed reading the perspectives of different experts on Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. However, there is one statement in David Nemtzow’s article that I believe is not completely accurate. He wrote, “We all recognize that there are enormous reserves of crude oil, coal, natural gas, shale oil, and uranium, and that the world will continue to find them for decades or centuries to come.” In fact, some experts have suggested that oil production may soon begin to decline as conventional oil reserves are depleted.
Former oil company geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere, writing in Scientific American (March 1998) suggested that many OPEC nations and oil companies were providing overly optimistic estimates of their oil reserves. They believe that a decline in oil production “will begin before 2010.” Unconventional oil reserves, such as oil found in shale, may not be an adequate substitute. More recently, Kenneth Deffeyes, a Princeton University geology professor, has also predicted the production of oil will begin to decline within the next three to five years.
In addition, Campbell and Laherrere predicted that the share of the oil market controlled by the mostly Middle East-based OPEC nations will rise to 50 percent as reserves elsewhere are exhausted. If true, this will increase the dependence of Western economies on energy supplies from an increasingly turbulent region, placing our economy at risk and requiring even greater involvement in a region where many people already resent Western interference.
In short, Lomborg’s assumptions about continued cheap oil supplies are debatable. Reducing our dependence on oil in favor of renewable energy such as solar power is not only wise from an environmental perspective, but also from a political standpoint.
Why doesn’t Norman Myers defend his early estimate of 40,000 species going extinct each year? His failure to do so, and the excuse he offers for making what he now accepts as an inflated estimate, support Lomborg’s attack on scientists who make wild claims.
After all, E.O. Wilson, in his response to Lomborg’s estimate of 0.014 percent for the annual extinction rate of species, argues that the real rate is probably in the order of 0.1 percent of extant species. Myers could have argued that there are 40 million species on the planet (many would consider this a low estimate), in which case 40,000 extinctions would represent 0.1 percent of species. If there are 80 million species, then Myers’ undefended 40,000 extinctions per year is 0.05 percent, half of Wilson’s estimate.
Lomborg’s attack on conservation scientists and environmentalists is a highly plausible one for non-specialists and has been welcomed by many, including the elites that run the world. Lomborg’s supporters are those in charge who believe that we all benefit by behaving in the ways that cause the current mass extinctions. Wilson’s tone of precious exasperation and Myers’ failure to consider Wilson’s arguments means that they are ignoring these political realities. Lomborg has restated the case for the status quo, whereas Myers and Wilson seem unaware that they have to convince decision makers to change their behavior.
Peter S. Grant
Wanganui, New Zealand
I praise the author of the political rebuttal to Lomborg’s arguments and intentions. Her analysis of this frightening book was biting while remaining professionally restrained. Being a student of political science and a professional skeptic, I would have been hard-pressed to respond so effectively and so eloquently. We need this quality of reasoning to be circulated far and wide. Again thanks for the article, as I was so frustrated by the book that only her clarity and political awareness saved me from spontaneous human combustion.
Amelia Island, Fla.