Worried about the environment? Guilty about driving around town in your SUV? Feeling bad about not recycling? Afraid to venture outside without a haz-mat suit, a water purifier and a gallon of sunblock? Good news: If you believe what the pundits are saying about Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, you may absolve yourself of the liberal’s guilt over conspicuous consumption, get a grip on your rational mind, and put to rest all the superstitious, puritanical doomsday prophecies of the ecology movement.
Lomborg, a statistics professor at a Danish university, says he stumbled onto the idea for this book while working for Greenpeace, trying to refute the contentions of American economist Julian Simon, who maintained that the “material conditions of life will continue to get better, for most people in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely.” Lomborg says he was unable to disprove this idea, despite harrowing statistical analyses of a voluminous survey of global environmental data.
Lomborg, a vegetarian who claims his concern for the health of the planet is unwavering, then set out to provide policymakers and scientists with the most accurate numbers possible on the true state of the world. Along the way, Lomborg ends up challenging what he calls The Litany—the unchallenged and unreferenced contentions of the mainstream environmental movement, which, Lomborg claims, are often patently false.
Mission accomplished: The state of the world he presents in the 25 chapters of The Skeptical Environmentalist, including nearly 3,000 footnotes (which he proudly notes in the book’s preface), is brilliantly researched. What’s more, Lomborg manages to discuss most of this mountain of ecological data without coming across as totally wonkish. Writing in the informal style of a professor who likes to teach as much as research, much of the translation of Lomborg’s prose (the book was originally written in Danish) is accessible and thought-provoking. Even so, it leaves ample room for skepticism.
Lomborg writes that he would like to remain outside the political or moral squabbles over environmental politics. The author wishes only to provide policymakers with a means by which they can prioritize environmental concerns. In doing so, Lomborg winds up in some instances looking either profoundly naive or disappointingly disingenuous.
The Skeptical Environmentalist has caused quite a stir in certain political circles since it hit American bookshelves. In the past few months, Lomborg has been asked speak for think tanks such as the American Free Enterprise Institute, which believes that the timely exposure of the environmental movement as a fraud is a cause as righteous as the words of Alan Greenspan. In this script, Lomborg is the enlightened Renaissance man, bearing the light of truth to the victims of the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund, which simply prop up a privileged class of lazy scientists and slick lawyers who would otherwise be out of work.
What’s really been saving the biosphere all along, so the argument goes, is American insatiability for a consumer-driven democracy, wherein we can be patriotic and fulfill our obligations to the Republic by simply buying more stuff, which, as one spokesmen summed up in glowing terms (citing Lomborg’s work), is a political theorem virtually “cost-free—consisting, in the main, of democratic governance and adherence to the Rule of Law.” As for the people starving in Iraq and Cuba, it’s because these poor indigents just don’t practice this time-honored form of democracy.
Among the many problems with this argument is that there’s nothing in the novel-length footnotes, bibliography, or text of The Skeptical Environmentalist that correlates directly to this contention. It seems a misappropriation of science at least as egregious as glossy pictures of baby seals on melting ice floes presented as harbingers of impending global warming.
The rap against arguments based entirely in economics and statistics—that such formulas and theorems conveniently externalize certain “costs,” which in reality translate into enormous ecological devastation and human suffering—seems evident in The Skeptical Environmentalist. (One obvious example is the inclusion of vast plantations of monocultures in the total percentage of global forest cover.) This is not to dismiss the entire practice of economics, or even the validity of the scholarly work Lomborg patiently discusses in his book.
Still, Lomborg’s stated desire of providing the world with the best objective global environmental information by which we might “prioritize environmental concerns” ultimately raises important and unavoidable questions. By whose priorities and standards will such choices be made? When choices need to be made, would Lomborg rather have the American Free Enterprise Institute using his research to make such a list, or his erstwhile employer, Greenpeace? Such choices seem absurd, but highlight the rather limited framework of the human condition. Doctors, scientists, and journalists alike work within the limits of their lifetimes of opinions, beliefs and experiences that are inseparable from the rational brain that processes “objective” information. The only way around it, it seems, is to acknowledge that any serious discussion of the state of the world, whether from Lester Brown or Bjorn Lomborg, would have to take on tough questions that recognize the world is inherently political and emotional as well as rational and scientific.
Lomborg cites so diligently the objective reasons for a healthy skepticism toward environmental groups, yet doesn’t so much as hint at what fuels his avowed concern for the health of the planet, nor does he justify accepting accolades from groups who dismiss those concerns. It all leaves the reader wondering what motivated the author to write The Skeptical Environmentalist in the first place.