When Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, contemporary reports said that it ejected more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than all of man had in his entire existence. Given such a statement, how can we take seriously the claims of certain environmentalists that every industrial activity is destroying the planet? It would seem that Mother Nature herself is doing a bang-up job destroying the planet--yet the planet's still here.
Enter Bjorn Lomborg. Mr. Lomborg is a self-described Danish liberal, vegetarian, and former member of Greenpeace. He set out to determine statistically just how much damage man is doing to the planet, and when the facts didn't support his expectations, he had enough integrity to report what he'd found. He published his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in 2001.
What's the book say? Well, Lomborg looked at data from several reliable sources--including the UN, the World Bank, the OECD, etc--and found that things aren't as bad as you'd think. It took him 350-540 pages (depending on the edition), 2930 footnotes, 1800 bibliographical references, 173 graphs and figures, and 9 tables to discuss pollution, biodiversity, fear of chemicals, and the greenhouse effect. Here are just a few things he found:
1. There is more food today, and fewer people are starving.
2. Life expectancy world-wide has risen from 30 to 67 years in the last century.
3. Poverty has been reduced more in the past 50 years than it was in the preceeding 500.
4. Air pollution in the industrialized world has declined--in London the air hasn't been cleaner since medieval times.
5. We're not losing forests. (That doesn't mean Brazilians should clear-cut the Amazon.)
6. Oil won't run out.
7. "The world is not without problems, but on almost all accounts, things are going better and they are likely to continue to do so into the future."
Lomborg doesn't say or even imply that man should perform any activity he wants and ignore the environment. Instead, he presents information that allows us to make informed choices about courses of action rather than reacting to rhetoric, emotion, and anecdote. He believes in using cost-benefit analysis when making these decisions and shows that many so-called "green initiatives" are misguided and more likely to do serious harm than good. He criticizes the way many environmental organizations make selective and misleading use of scientific data--just as Patrick Moore did--about the allocation of limited resources.
What is the world's biggest environmental threat? Poverty. Agreeing with Lomborg on that count is Jack Hollander, an emeritus professor at Berkeley who in 2003 published The Real Environmental Crisis: How Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment's Number One Enemy. Anyone who's been to a third world country will readily see the truth of such an assertion. Yet, the major environmental groups target developed countries, the ones who already demonstrate far more stewardship for the environment than any nation ever has.
Like Moore, Lomborg has his detractors. The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty denounced Lomborg's book as one that fell "within the concept of scientific dishonesty." But why? And of course, environmental groups attacked his work and views, just as they attack anyone who doesn't subscribe to their orthodoxy. Where does the skeptical mind find the truth?
I myself don't find it amongst the pieces of sky that have fallen.