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Bjorn Lomborg is neither sceptical nor an environmentalist

By Ian Lowe - posted Wednesday, 8 October 2003


The controversial book by Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg is called The Skeptical Environmentalist. I have read it. He is neither sceptical nor an environmentalist in any normal sense of those words. A better title might have been "The Gullible Economist".

In fairness, the book has some good points. It correctly points out that some environmentalists are either selective in their use of evidence or not rigorous in their thinking. If Lomborg had applied the rigorous thinking he advocates, he would have extended that criticism to some industrialists, many economists and most politicians - but he didn't. He is very selective in his scepticism. As another example, he analyses the limits of global climate models, but accepts uncritically the much shakier claims of economic models.

In other cases, Lomborg is just wrong. He claims that the 1972 Club of Rome report Limits to Growth predicted we would run out of resources. It actually said that limits to growth would be reached within a hundred years if all of the trends of increasing population, resource use, industrial production, agricultural output and production of waste were to continue, before showing that it is possible to re-direct development onto a sustainable path. Lomborg claims that the UN climate projections are "worst case" scenarios, when the scientific panel said its estimates could be wrong in either direction.

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Lomborg lists the broad litany of environmental problems: "forests are shrinking, water tables are falling, soils are eroding, wetlands are disappearing, fisheries are collapsing, rangelands are deteriorating, rivers are running dry, temperatures are rising, coral reefs are dying, and plant and animal species are disappearing". He then claims to have refuted them. In fact, almost all of those statements are true for Australia. Most of them are also true globally. The second national report on the state of the environment noted some good signs before stating that the environment "has improved very little since 1996, and in some critical aspects has worsened", blaming the compounding pressures of growing population and increasing material demands per person.

The third UN report on the Global Environmental Outlook found "indisputable evidence of continuing and widespread environmental degradation". It said policy measures have not been able to counter the pressures of unsustainable consumption levels in rich countries and increasing numbers of desperately poor people in the developing world. It specifically noted problems of water stress, species extinction, depletion of fish stocks, land degradation, forest loss, urban air pollution in developing countries and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. That is the very depressing picture that comes from scientific analysis. Lomborg argues that we are not losing biodiversity because the lowest of the credible estimates for species extinction is only 1500 times the planet's long-run average. Biologists like Lord Robert May, President of the Royal Society, say that figure is typical of major extinction events.

The fundamental belief driving Lomborg's argument is that "it is imperative that we focus primarily on the economy" - the environmental equivalent of the discredited trickle-down model of economic development. It suggests our environmental problems will be solved if we get rich enough. The book has a graph showing wealthier countries are more likely to have clean environments. The actual data reveal that some nations with a GDP below $1000 per head have better environmental quality than others with over $20,000 per head. So there isn't a simple link.

The second problem is a logical fallacy. A similarity between two changes doesn't mean one is causing the other. The number of lawyers in Australia is growing and so is the number of drug addicts, but there is no reason to suggest the changes are linked. Even if there is a connection, as in the fact that taller people tend to be heavier than shorter people, it doesn't necessarily suggest a policy response; you won't become taller if you put on weight! If the best way to clean up the environment was to increase the rate of economic growth, it would actually be sensible to trash the environment to get rich because we could then afford to clean up the mess. That has been our approach. It is now clear that some environmental problems are effectively irreversible. No amount of wealth will bring back an extinct species, or restore saline land on any human time scale.

Politicians and industrialists like to believe that things are getting better. So Lomborg's claims are being hailed by the usual suspects: those on the right of the political spectrum and the ecologically illiterate. But the scientific evidence is clear: we have very serious problems which demand urgent attention. As the UNEP report GEO2000 said, the present course is unsustainable; "doing nothing is no longer an option".

The Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2002 report Measuring Australia's Progress found all the economic indicators for the 1990s were positive, but social indicators were mixed with worrying trends. All the environmental indicators measured by the ABS were getting worse, except for urban air quality. So economic growth is not delivering better social conditions and environmental improvements. In fact, our economic growth is running down our natural and social capital. That is no basis for a sustainable future.

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As the first national report on the state of the environment said, achieving our stated goal of sustainable development requires the integration of ecological thinking into all our social and economic planning. A naïve faith in the magic of the market or the power of growth is no substitute for considered policies that nurture our natural and social systems. Propaganda units like the Institute of Public Affairs fund the travel of people like Lomborg to muddy the water and obscure the harsh reality that we are not using our natural resources sustainably. The facts show that we desperately need a new approach. Trusting business and the magic of markets has caused the problem; it cannot solve it, even in principle.

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About the Author

Professor Ian Lowe is emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University. Professor Lowe is the Energy Champion ambassador for Earth Dialogues Brisbane 2006 July 21-24 a part of the Brisbane Festival.

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