The Mugging of an Environmental Skeptic
Lomborg's Book Is Meticulously Researched
JULY 01, 2002 by JAMES PERON
When I read Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist I felt a sense of déjà vu. As excellent as it is, what Lomborg has to say—that the world is not going to hell—has been said before. But it was ignored because it was said by a brilliant man, the late Julian Simon, who was considered politically incorrect.1 Simon was never taken seriously by the political or media establishment.
It’s not that Lomborg’s education is better than Simon’s. Simon had a Ph.D. in business economics. Lomborg has a Ph.D. in political science. Simon was a professor of economics and business administration at the universities of Illinois and Maryland. Lomborg is a professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.
But Simon had the wrong political credentials. In short, he was an advocate of capitalism. Lomborg, on the other hand, has all the right (or in this case left) credentials. One Danish political journal described him as a “sandal-wearing leftie.”2 He was a member of Greenpeace. He’s young and that helps. He’s not American, and among the left that is in his favor. He’s gay—he should get at least two points for that. He’s a vegetarian—bells are ringing.
Professor Denis Dutton, who reviewed the book in the Washington Post, said that Lomborg “has the correct cultural aura: a young left-wing European with the looks of a movie star.”3 Lomborg himself hastens to point out that despite his newfound skepticism about environmental alarms he is not “a demonic little free-market individualist.”4
Lomborg did not set out to write a book affirming Simon’s thesis. On the contrary, he says that in 1997, while visiting a Los Angeles bookstore, “I was standing leafing through Wired Magazine and read an interview with American economist Julian Simon . . . [who] maintained that much of our traditional knowledge about the environment is quite simply based on preconceptions and poor statistics. Our doomsday conceptions of the environment are not correct.”5 The statistics professor figured he could easily debunk Simon. But in the process of analyzing the numbers from the same establishment sources Simon used, including the United Nations—the debunker got debunked. And The Skeptical Environmentalist is now a worldwide bestseller.
Lomborg’s credentials may not be the only reason for his book’s recognition. After four decades of doomsday hype, the disasters simply haven’t occurred. Perhaps the dominant environmental paradigm is about to shift.
While Lomborg’s cultural attitudes may have helped attract the media’s attention, they are also the reason he is being treated so badly by his former environmental allies. If Simon was the antichrist, Lomborg is Judas.
As expected, the green left is trying to stop the debate Lomborg prompted by, among other things, smearing him as an ideological compatriot of Simon. Mikael Skou Andersen, a Danish professor of political science, argued that Lomborg should be ignored because he was merely repeating Simon, whom Andersen falsely accuses of being “a declared opponent of birth control.”6 Lomborg has been falsely called Simon’s protégé—and Simon, Lomborg’s mentor.
The green lobby is convinced that invoking Simon’s name is tantamount to refuting Lomborg. The World Resources Institute (WRI) website includes an attack on Lomborg that, like most of the “rebuttals,” is fundamentally an ad hominem diatribe. Edward Flattau, a writer for an environmentalist publication, calls Lomborg’s 350-page book a “tract” that is just “a revival of the late Julian Simon’s discredited debunking of the environmental movement.” He informs us that Simon’s view was nothing more than a “messianic rallying cry” for opponents of the green agenda and was “misleading and/or deeply in scientific disrepute.” Lomborg, who gathers far more data in one place than dozens of environmentalist books put together, is said to “regurgitate Simon’s simplistic contrarian views” and thus he “seems destined to experience the same widespread scientific repudiation of his predecessor.”7
Flattau ignores that many of Simon’s books were collections of essays by reputable scientists. The green lobby has its Gospel; it simply pretends that this is the scientific consensus. Political support is confused with academic support. Flattau also says that “the environmental community is optimistic that a bright future is in the wings.”8 That’s surprising, considering that environmentalist presentations to governments, and appeals for money, are filled with dire warnings.
In his response to Lomborg, environmentalist guru Lester Brown said that in looking over his own dire predictions he was “struck more by the issues that we understated or discovered after the fact than by those we overstate or issues that turned out to be unimportant after all.”9 So Brown, who said the world was about to fall apart on several occasions, now says he was too moderate.
The left-of-center theologian Martin E. Marty dismissed Lomborg and did instant psychoanalysis on him: Lomborg, he said, “is motivated by revenge on his own intellectual past as a self-described left-wing Greenpeacer.”10
That’s mild compared to some other commentary. As Jonathan Leake, science editor for the London Sunday Times, reported, “Nature magazine, likens him [Lomborg] to apologists for the Nazis. He has been physically attacked and has had to employ bodyguards.” Leake noted that “Even respectable scientific venues are not safe for Lomborg. When he recently gave a lecture at London’s Royal Institution he was protected by four bodyguards, and threats were made against him when he addressed the London School of Economics.”11
Paul Ehrlich, grandfather of the doomsday ecologists, told Lomborg the Nature review “was much too kind to your book.” Another Lomborg opponent, biologist E.O. Wilson, wrote him saying that Ehrlich spoke for him as well. Jeff Harvey, coauthor of the review and senior scientist in the Department of Multitrophic Interactions, Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Centre for Terrestrial Ecology, contends that a vast right-wing conspiracy is behind Lomborg’s book: “The media is largely supporting Lomborg because his message, as scientifically fraudulent as it is, bolsters the arguments of those of the political right and lends weight to a corporate-driven political agenda.” And as for Leake’s comments on the unfairness of Harvey’s review, this expert on terrestrial ecology said: “Mr. Leake, you are therefore just exposing your own political bias, even if it’s crapola. I am also sure that CEO’s in boardrooms all over the world are toasting their ‘new hero.’”12
Alex Kirby, the environmental correspondent for the BBC, uses a peculiar logic to dismiss Lomborg, saying “he reaches conclusions radically different from almost everybody else.” 13 What Kirby means is that Lomborg reached conclusions different from the “everybody” the media considers anybody. Kirby displays his peculiar logic with another complaint: “What really riles me about his book is that it is so damnably reasonable. . . . [H]is separate snapshots of the world may be accurate. Taken together, they make a dangerously misleading picture.”14 It’s unwise to disagree with those Thomas Sowell calls the “anointed”—that clique of intellectuals who lay out the agenda of the left. Lomborg is dangerous not because he is unreasonable, but because he reasonably counters the litany of problems invented as an excuse to further the advancement of state control.
The president of the WRI, Jonathan Lash, went to the unusual extreme of sending letters to all the members of the Society of Environmental Journalists warning them about Lomborg. Lash says that Lomborg “paints a caricature of the environmentalist agenda based on sometimes mistaken views widely held 30 years ago, but to which no serious environmental institution today subscribes.” 15 This claim can easily be disproved.
Anyone who looks at Lomborg’s endnotes will see that he quotes the environmentalists over several decades, including recent doomsday material published by Lash’s own institute. That is what has so infuriated the green lobby. Lomborg has shown that the lobby distorts the facts to promote its own agenda. For decades environmental activists have relied on the public’s false assumption that they are merely objective, public-spirited individuals.
The WRI brushes aside the evidence and attacks him because he “has no professional training—and has done no professional research—in ecology, climate science, resource economics, environmental policy, or other fields covered by his book.” 16 If a statistician isn’t qualified to judge environmental statistics, who is?
Curiously, the green lobby is never concerned about the credentials of its own icons. Paul Ehrlich, who writes best-selling books predicting famine and death in America due to overpopulation, studied butterflies. Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for president, is a lawyer. Dr. Helen Caldicott, who speaks out on nuclear power and environmentalism, is a pediatrician. When the National Resources Defense Council manufactured a scare about the preservative Alar, the spokesman was actress Meryl Streep. 17 And the great green hope for some years was Al Gore. He wrote a book promoting the doomsday environmental position, yet he learned his views on science in a theology course and then became a journalist and then a politician.
In reading Lomborg’s book, one can easily see why the environmental activists are in such a frenzy. He asks if the accepted statistics support or refute the environmentalists’ claims. Most of the time it appears the greens have intentionally twisted the facts to support their predicted disasters.
Lester Brown argues that Lomborg’s thesis (and Simon’s) could be easily tested. “A serious test of this hypothesis would require a systematic review of the research output of the leading environmental groups tabulating both the instances where they have overstated and where they have understated threats to the environment.” 18
That is exactly what Lomborg has done. All that his critics have found are minor errors that would be typical of a book this size. In a few places the translation from Lomborg’s Danish to English was imprecise and the meaning clouded or confusing. He openly acknowledges his errors on his website. 19 The fact remains that the book, with 2,930 endnotes, has to be one of the most meticulously researched volumes in history.
Denis Dutton accurately summed up what has happened: “an army of angry environmentalists has been crawling all over the book, trying to refute it. Lomborg’s claims have withstood the attack.” 20
- See Julian L. Simon and Herman Kahn, The Resourceful Earth (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984); Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), and The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998); Julian L. Simon, Population Matters (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1996); Julian L. Simon, ed., The State of Humanity (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995).
- Quoted in Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 359, n. 249.
- Denis Dutton, “Greener than You Think,” Washington Post Book World, October 21, 2001, www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=style/books&contentId=A12789-2001Oct18.
- Lomborg, p. 32.
- Ibid., p. xix.
- Mikael Skou Andersen, “Book Review,” Politica 1 (1999); www.au.dk/~cesamat/debate.Politica.pdf.
- Edward Flattau, “Simon Déjà vu,” Global Horizons, August 22, 2001; posted at www.wri.org/press/mk_lomborg_simon_dejavu.html.
- Lester Brown, “Bjorn Again: On Bjorn Lomborg and Population,” Grist Magazine, December 12, 2001; www.gristmagazine.com/grist/books/brown121201.asp.
- Martin E. Marty, “Faith-based Energy Policy,” University of Chicago Divinity School; http://divinity.uchicago.edu/
- Jonathan Leake, “Eco-Heretic Beset by Hate Campaign,” Sunday London Times, January 13, 2002; posted at www.freerepublic.com/focus/fr/607166/posts.
- All quotations in this paragraph are at http://legalminds.lp.findlaw.com/list/ecol-econ/msg03263.html.
- Alex Kirby, “Bjorn Lomborg’s Wonderful World,” BBC News, August 23, 2001; http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk/
- “Letter from Jonathan Lash to the Society of Environmental Journalists,” November 6, 2001; www.wri.org/press/
- World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund, “Nine things journalists should know about The Skeptical Environmentalist,” at www.wri.org/press/mk_lomborg_09_things.
- Reed Irvine, “Confessions of a Radical Disinformer,” AIM Report (Accuracy in Media), XVIII, no. 20, (1989), p. 2.
- See www.lomborg.com.