Economy vs. ecology

Empire editorial

Posted: Sunday, December 02, 2001

Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and one-time self-professed holder of "left-wing Greenpeace views," has published a thought-provoking book entitled "The Skeptical Environmentalist."

In 1997, Lomborg embarked on a research project to challenge Julian Simon, an economist who doubted environmentalist claims. To his astonishment, Lomborg discovered that the scientific data he uncovered generally supported Simon.

Lomborg sought to challenge the environmentalists' belief that from an ecological standpoint the world is going downhill. In his book, Lomborg makes grounded, factual observations to prove that this notion is wrong.

An article on the subject published in the Aug. 2 edition of The Economist states: "Ecology and economics should push in the same direction. After all, the 'eco' part of each word derives from the Greek word for 'home,' and the protagonists of both claim to have humanity's welfare as their goal. Yet environmentalists and economists are often at loggerheads. For economists, the world seems to be getting better. For many environmentalists, it seems to be getting worse."

The article goes on to identify the four most prominent environmental fears as embraced by the leaders of the environmental movement:

"Natural resources are running out. The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat. Species are becoming extinct in vast numbers: forests are disappearing and fish stocks are collapsing. The planet's air and water are becoming ever more polluted. Human activity is thus defiling the earth, and humanity may end up killing itself in the process."

In his book, Lomborg diffuses these claims one by one, providing reams of statistics and supporting evidence to disprove each. He provides factual evidence that the earth's natural resources are not running out, directly challenging assertions made in the 1972 Club of Rome published book, "The Limits to Growth." Science has proven that the mineral reserves of the earth are vastly more abundant than estimated in 1972. Oil reserves, for instance, are plentiful enough to meet energy needs for another 150 years at present consumption rates, while the price of solar energy has declined by 50 percent in each of the past three decades.

Lomborg takes on Dr. Paul Ehrlich, who warned in his best-selling book, "The Population Bomb," "the battle to feed humanity is over. In the course of the 1970s the world will experience starvation of tragic proportions hundreds of millions of people will starve to death."

Lomborg cites data from the United Nations confirming "agricultural production in the developing world has increased by 52 percent per person since 1961. The daily food intake in poor countries has increased from 1,932 calories, barely enough for survival, in 1961 to 2,650 calories in 1998, and is expected to rise to 3,020 by 2030. Likewise, the proportion of people in developing countries who are starving has dropped from 45 percent in 1949 to 18 percent today, and is expected to decline even further."

Statistical science also shows that world population growth has slowed to 1.26 percent and is expected to fall to .46 percent by 2050.

Lomborg points out that the third threat, the loss of biodiversity, is real, but exaggerated. Without question, forestlands have been decimated in the developed world. Many people expected the number of species to fall by half globally within a generation or two. Scientific proof exists that this has not happened. Species, therefore, seem more resilient than expected. Lomborg would have a field day shooting down mythology associated with the Tongass.

Lomborg provides scientific evidence that shows air and water pollution claims have been greatly exaggerated. His data provides evidence that air and water pollution in developed nations has been greatly reduced over the past century. This fact is true especially for countries such as the United States and rich enough to be concerned about the environment.

Lomborg notes, however, that developing countries, entering into the early stages of industrialization are contributing heavily to global pollution. Lomborg makes the point that opinion polls suggest that many people in the rich world hold the belief that environmental standards are on the decline. Yet, in London air quality is better today than it was in 1585.

The Economist concludes the article on Lomborg's book by observing that environmental organizations should be looked upon in the same light as other lobby groups, that environmental lobbying should be subject to the same degree of skepticism as lobby groups in other fields. The article states: "A trade organization arguing for, say, weaker pollution controls is instantly seen as self-interested. Yet a green organization opposing such a weakening is seen as altruistic, even if a dispassionate view of the controls in question might suggest they are doing more harm than good."

Certainly, the scientific data available is not without fault and interpretation is frequently in the eye of the beholder. Some of Lomborg's assertions have been effectively challenged since his book was published, but his work has raised awareness around the world about danger in falsely characterizing the true state of the environment.

Don Smith


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