Volume 1, Number 29
30 November 2001

The Skeptical Environmentalist

Dear Friends,

In his new book of this title (Cambridge 2001), Bjorn Lomborg of Denmark begins with a quotation from Julian Simon, Professor of Business Management at the University of Maryland, who died in 1998 (just after I had met him):

"This is my long-run forecast in brief: The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today's Western living standard. I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse."

Lomborg was an environmentalist, a member of Greenpeace . Then he met Julian Simon, and — convinced that Simon was wrong — he parceled out Simon's many statements about the environment to his students, asking them to do the research to prove Simon wrong. Instead, the students reported that they had found Simon correct in case after case. So Lomborg became skeptical about his former beliefs. As a scientist, he makes up his mind on the basis of evidence (not hearsay or ideology), and he will change his mind if the evidence shows he was wrong. Not many of us will do that.

Let me quote from a review of The Skeptical Environmentalist that appeared in The Economist (8/4/01):

"These environmentalists, led by such veterans as Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, and Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, have developed a sort of 'litany' of four big environmental fears:

  • 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.

"The trouble is, the evidence does not back up this litany. First, energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, not less so since the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth in 1972. Second, more food is now produced per head of the world's population than at any time in history. Fewer people are starving. Third, although species are indeed becoming extinct, only about 0.7% of them are expected to disappear in the next 50 years, not 25-50%, as has so often been predicted. And finally, most forms of environmental pollution either appear to have been exaggerated, or are transient — associated with the early phases of industrialisation and therefore best cured not by restricting economic growth, but by accelerating it. One form of pollution — the release of greenhouse gases that causes global warming — does appear to be a long-term phenomenon, but its total impact is unlikely to pose a devastating problem for the future of humanity. A bigger problem may well turn out to be an inappropriate response to it."

Furthermore, all the trash that the United States* will generate over the next century would (according to Lomborg's estimates) fit within a landfill eighteen miles square and 100 feet deep. In 1997, the Worldwide Fund for Nature stated that two-thirds of the world's forests are lost forever. The truth is nearer 20%, and much of this occurred in Europe during the first millennium CE. The land covered by forests has actually increased since World War II.

Let me now quote from myself:

For decades we have been concerned with overpopulation. Now we discover that Europe, Russia, Japan, and other countries are deeply disturbed about loss of population. (See TQE #6 for the rest). Population is growing in the Third World, where however the growth rate is decelerating and is expected to reach zero by 2050.

The Washington Post is enthusiastic about Lomborg. Here is a quotation from Book World (10/21/01):

"In a massive, meticulously presented argument that extends over 500 pages, supported by nearly 3,000 footnotes and 182 tables and diagrams, Lomborg revisits a number of heartening breakthroughs in the life of the planet. Chief among these is the decline of poverty and starvation across the world. Starvation still exists, but there is less of it than ever, as our capacity to produce abundant quantities of food continues to improve. Likewise with other dire scenarios of resource depletion: We are emphatically not running out of energy and mineral resources, the population bomb is fizzling, and, far from killing us, pesticides and chemicals are improving longevity and the quality of life. Neither need we fear anything from the genetic modification of organisms." [Maybe you won't believe these statements. But please hold off, until you read Lomborg's evidence.]

Lomborg also "traces the urban legends of the green movement back to their sources." For example, he "traces the oft-repeated claim that 40,000 species go extinct every year ... back to an offhand and completely unfounded guess made by a scientist in 1979. It's been repeated endlessly ever since — and in 1981 was increased by arch-doomsayer Paul Ehrlich to 250,000 species per year. (Ehrlich also predicted that half the planet's species would be extinct by 2000").

I have read Lomborg and find his data compelling. They either fit with what I had already known (as in population growth) or his sources are scholarly. But I do have some caveats. Everything we do or do not do, that impacts upon the environment, involves risk. Without the green revolution, millions might have died from hunger. At the time of the green revolution, however, we did not know the environmental consequences (which turned out to be benign). The same may be so today on genetic engineering and global warming.

Why do many Americans — especially Quakers — continue to believe the litany? Maybe the story of the five monkeys will help us understand that. Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result: all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it. Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him.

After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted. Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that's the way it's always been done around here. And that's how company policy begins...

Do you believe that story? Would you tell it to someone else as true? I asked my source if the experiment had been ever done, and he did not know. So far as he knew, it was just a story that makes a lot of sense. If repeated enough times, soon "everybody" will believe it, and it will become part of the culture. Is that the way popular acceptance of the litany came about?

If you had lived in Caesar's time (d. 44 BCE), would you have believed in Roman gods because "everybody" did? (Actually, not everybody did).

If you had lived in France in 1572 (Bartholomew Massacre), would you have believed that everyone had to adhere to the same religion, or the nation would fall apart?

If you had lived in Italy in Galileo's time (1564-1642), would you have believed the sun moves around the earth?

If you had lived in Salem, MA, in 1692, would you have believed in witchcraft?

So, what's different about 2001?

Lomborg carefully examines the sources of information that "support" the litany. He does not minimize problems of the environment. He cites studies showing that pollution and other negative effects are occurring. But he finds them vastly overblown in the public mind, and he puts them into perspective. It is a book that everyone concerned with the environment (and who isn't?) ought to read.

In the next Letter, I will take up global warming, citing Lomborg and other sources as well.

Yours in Peace,

Jack Powelson

* Editor's Note: This article contained an error that has been corrected. Lomborg's landfill estimate referred to all the trash generated by the United States, not the entire world, for a century. Lomborg calculated that this trash, compacted normally, would fit within a landfill 18 miles square and 100 feet high (a volume of some 25 billion cubic meters). Based on published rates of trash generation, Lomborg's claim is approximately correct. — Loren Cobb, Editor. [6 Jan 2007]

Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. London: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0521010689.

Readers' Comments:

Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer! The email address is tqe-comment followed by @quaker.org. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

Thank you for your witness through your Quaker Economist messages. It is good to read a point of view that departs from much of what passes for conventional wisdom among unprogrammed Friends.

In diversity, strength ... and that also is vital if we are to glean truth in our threshing. Keep on keeping on. In His Light,

— John Rich, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

I believe that abundance is the natural state that God intends for us. For those who believe that scarcity is the natural state, since the Fall, then there is guilt wherever the possibility of abundance is to some extent realized.

— J.D. von Pischke, Friend from Reston, VA.

I have some qualms also about your quotation of reviews, since I don't know from your email what the qualification of the reviewer is. For example the person who reviewed the book [Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environment] for The Washington Post (with what qualifications?) is overly impressed by the number of footnotes, and states, "neither need we fear anything from the genetic modification of organisms." This seems like a remarkably bold statement! I am not one of those who is paranoid about genetic modification, but a statement as bold as this reminds me of the optimism behind the "too cheap to meter" nuclear reactor optimists. I think that a statement like that tends to make me somewhat discount the entire review.

— Roger Conant, Mt. Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).

You didn't mention one very important measure of the human environment, that is some measure of the overall quality of life. We can talk about whether people are fed and housed, but sheer numbers do matter and seriously affect quality of life. I highly value uncrowded places and open space, I highly value other species, and commonly wonder whether humans really are the top life form, as we commonly proclaim. Sheer numbers of humans and constant growth require a constant battle to stay ahead of environmental degradation brought on by that continuing growth in human population. Unfettered population growth of the human species is the single biggest problem we face worldwide. It feeds and exacerbates the other matters we so commonly concern ourselves with, conflict, war, social and economic injustice.

— Richard Andrews, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.

At the November Friends Committee on National Legislation discussion of the new environmental policy, the most frequent question was, "What makes this a religious policy?" Many complained that Friends have not yet begun meaningful discernment on what are the issues in environmental policy, or of our individual and corporate niches in the answer.

Jack's letter did not effectively address these questions: Where do we get our information? What do we believe? What is important and what is not worrisome? Where do our responsibilities lie?

— Karen Street, Berkeley (CA) Friends Meeting

Note: Karen wrote a much longer piece, longer than we customarily publish in Readers' Responses. I have encouraged her to submit it to one of the more widely-distributed Friends' journals. — Jack


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Northampton, MA.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Merlyn Holmes, Unitarian, Boulder, Colorado.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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