on 10 March 2002
Apparently, 83% of people will not make any effort to think critically about a statistic which supports something they already believe*. This is a problem for any debate that revolves around statistics, as any GLOBAL assessment of human impact on the environment must do - nobody can personally visit the entire planet to decide whether the mess humans can make locally is becoming a significant systemic hazard.
Lomberg's thesis is that a lot of what he terms "the Litany" - a view that humans are steadily sending the global environment to hell in a handcart and things will get catastrophically bad some time soon -is based on very shoddy use of the available data. He provides numerous cases of misleading conclusions that have reached the public. He does not claim that all is well, just that an accurate picture of what is going on is needed if we are to make the correct decisions about how much to do to reduce human impact on the globe. And that the current picture is not accurate.
I give this book 5 stars because having read it you will have to think hard about what you believe to be the truth and what kind of evidence would convince you (and why). This critical thought is something easily avoided on an issue where ready-made opinions are handed down by lobbyists of both camps. Personally I find it convincing that many environmentalists are guilty as charged of allowing their own preconceptions of what is happening to influence how they handle the available data. If this book leads to a higher standard of debate, great.
I agree with another reviewer that it is fascinating how the negative reviews of this book seem to concentrate on "Lomberg is a heretic" - a profoundly unscientific (and revealing?) reaction to what you'd suppose is a scientific debate.
The book is structured nicely into summaries (if you're one of the 83% who don't question) and much detailed argument if you're in the remaining 17% (and it looks as if more of us should be)
* One final note : I made that "83%" figure up as a joke when discussing this book with friends, to see if they'd challenge that "statistic" (no-one has yet). But creepily enough, having bandied this entirely bogus figure about a few times I almost begin to believe in it. It seems to be taking on a life of its own. It can only be a matter of time before I see it on the web...
on 29 December 2001
No doubt you have noticed the great polarity of opinion on this book -- so far, eight people have given the book five stars, and two have given it one. I suspect that all too often, we rate controversial books like this according to whether they agree with our existing opinions! This applies to myself as much as to anyone else.
I think this is an excellent book, and for me its strength are the meticulously researched references which back up almost every paragraph in the book (the references and the index make up 30% of the pages).
Not being any kind of environmental expert, I find one of the one-star reviewers' comments useful: is it possible that Lomberg is falling into the trap of presenting selective data, which he himself warns against? I do not know the answer to this question, but this book has at least piqued my interest to find out.
Can I make a suggestion to potential one-star reviewers: Your arguments against the book would be much more convincing if you could point out specific, major errors (ie. not typos etc.), with references to primary research. The current one-star reviews are emotional in tone, and not fact-based.
Dr Victor Chua, MB BChir, MRCS
on 16 May 2004
This is an ambitious and controversial book. If you read the reviews, you will notice that they fall largely into two camps: love it or hate it. Some support what Lomborg calls The Litany, the currently accepted (or fashionable, depending on your position) view that the world's environment is in inexorable decline. They reason that the 'experts' cannot all be wrong and, for reasons which I don't have enough psychology to understand fully, some are attracted to the concept that man is a voracious beast that will not rest until he has defiled the Earth totally. Others, will be convinced by the data and the argument, and find the experience enlightening and empowering. The question that was uppermost in my mind is, is the data reliable? For if it is, then Lomborg's arguments are difficult to fault.
When the book was first published (1998 in Danish, 2001 in English). There were many people with a strong vested interest in faulting those arguments. They were given the opportunity in major magazines and scientific journals and, so far as I have been able to track down, failed comprehensively to do so. For example, Scientific American, in an extremely unscientific exercise, let four of Lomborg's strongest critics off the leash in an eleven page review. The arguments that Lomborg uses are not difficult, nor is the data obscure. If he had made major mistakes in any of his many assertions that contradict the orthodoxy, it would have been easy to expose them. But his critics concentrated instead on attacking the man and on nibbling around the edges of the considerable body of data which he had assembled. They found a few minor errors, since put right, and sometimes revealed their own lack of understanding. But they didn't disturb the central arguments. It is worth reading the original Scientific American review and Lomborg's rebuttal, which are available on the web. I found they gave confidence in the integrity of the book but left me a little depressed about the state of science. Incidentally, the years since publication have provided nothing to shake the book's conclusions.
As a Professor of Statistics, Lomborg was criticised for entering the environmental arena, and covering areas of science in which he was not qualified. However, this book is about the interpretation of data much more than about science per see. I think he is ideally qualified for the task he has chosen and, coming as he does with a 'green' background, his credibility is higher than that of many of his critics. Many of them have a strong personal stake - economic or emotional - in the answers which make re-evaluating their positions especially difficult. Lomborg does not examine the scientific judgements in, for example, climate models. But he does question the public policy interpretation of the results and add a measure of economic good sense. Moreover, it should be no surprise that environmental organisations, governmental agencies and scientific institutions are just as capable as big business of becoming wedded to a particular stance, and selecting or interpreting the data to suit. Some of them come out of this with little credit, and no credible excuses.
I understand why Lomborg did not delve deeper into source data. But I would like to know whether issues like publications bias and data dredging, which distort scientific results elsewhere, are problematic in these areas. If they are, and I would be surprised if they are not, that fact would almost certainly strengthen his arguments further. In that sense, I wonder if he is sceptical enough. But it would also have stirred up another hornets nest, so perhaps he is wise to have avoided the issue.
In summary, it is nonsense to class this book as anti-environmental. It does not criticise environmentalism, it criticises abuse of information leading to a misunderstanding of the environment. This, Lomborg believes, should lead to a more rational assessment and better policy options. I think it is an outstanding and illuminating piece of work which you should approach with an open mind and, as always, a degree of healthy scepticism.
The Skeptical Environmentalist arguments that many of the environmental issues are not as severve as claimed by many environmentalist. There are already many reviews on the book that for most part either hate it and renounce its conclusions or love it and embrace its reasoning. I belong more to the latter category, as is evident from the five stars I gave. In this review I strive to explain why I do so, although I don't have any significant prior knowledge in the fields covered in the book (I have nonetheless a scientific education).
The topic of The Skeptical Environmentalist (the state of the world) is something that interests me a lot due to its social importance. Hence, I was very enthusiastic in reading the book and getting a better understanding of the different environmental issues. However, The Skeptical Environmentalist is a highly controversial book with its positive view on the state of our planet. Naturally this kind of conclusions raised my suspicion over their quality. The book is written in a very logically and consistent way backed by a huge number of data and references (about 1800), but as I am not particularly indoctrinated in environmental issues, it would be possible for a clever author to mislead me.
Therefore I spent at least as much time reading various critique and counter-critique on the Skeptical Environmentalist as I read the book itself. I read the very critical reviews on some science magazines such as Scientific American, I read the critique posted on several environmentalist sites, I read several newsgroup discussions, I read the more positive reviews e.g. by the Economist and Patrick Moore from Greenspirit, and I also read the responses that Mr. Lomborg had posted on his webpage. The type of critique varied from the passionate and trashing to the thoughtful and analytical. I was not interested in emotional bashing, but in convincing critique that can seriously challenge Lomborg's reasoning and conclusions. However, I was hard pressed to find such critique.
I am not implying that there would not be any errors or doubtful issues in The Skeptical Environmentalist. On the contrary, many critiques raise a lot of valid points. But this has to be put into contrast: The Skeptical Environmentalist contains a huge amount of data of varying degree of robustness as it covers 22 different environmental issues range from overpopulation to global warming. Therefore, it is quite natural that some errors will be included and some of analyses are less robust. To Mr. Lomborg's honor has to be said that for most of the time he tells in advance what the problems are in the data (these issues are often repeated by critiques, as if Lomborg never would have mentioned them). However, the important point is that while many of the critiques raise doubts over some the conclusions, they are rarely capable of actually proving the conclusion wrong. In other words, doubt is raised about Lomborg's conclusions, but the critiques are not capable to say how wrong Lomborg is - the critique seemed to me mostly intellectually petty.
The best critique I found was on deforestation on [...] So based on my analysis it seems that Lomborg perhaps was wrong on deforestation (the amount of forest has actual decreased, not remained stable) and some other issues are perhaps not as clear-cut as Lomborg argues. But on large The Skeptical Environmentalist gives a quite accurate and certainly a comprehensive picture on the state of the world. And it also properly serves its purpose to be a discussion opener on environmental policy with a broad list of issues that can now more easily be prioritized.
on 1 December 2001
This book can change your life, and make you question many of the norms and certainties that you have been brought up with. As such it is strongly recommended.
I have always been, like most rich westerners, vaguely in support of the environmental movement, and against pollution and global warming. And then I read (or rather, ploughed through) Bjorn Lomborg's book: and I was intrigued by his arguments. He presents enormous amounts of evidence, and builds closely argued theories on that back of that evidence. I didn't always agree with his reasoning, but I could see a logical flow that led to a conclusion. And, remarkably, he often chose to acknowledge uncertainties and problems in the data that he used.
So I was left impressed, but sceptical - after all, surely the established view could not be wrong, could it? I expected floods of media articles rebutting him. Showing the flaws in his evidence. The gaps in his reasoning. Detailed, thoughtful, scientific argument. Not a pie in his face, in an Oxford bookshop. That was the final straw for me: I have waded through acres of newsprint, read hundreds of web discussions, watched TV discussions, and they all boil down to this: we, the environmentalists, are right, you (Lomborg) are wrong, and furthermore you are immoral and a big-corporation loving lackey and a lying statistician. Not one rational argument, not one well-reasoned counter-argument, not an iota of respect.
So, I am increasingly becoming a sceptic of many environmental norms, and particularly Kyoto. Finally, I can't get out of my mind the nagging feeling that there is an analogy here between the Catholic church and Galileo, with the "greens" lined up as the repressive defenders of the faith, and a Danish professor of statistics as the voice of reason. How sad that our society should have regressed four centuries in its ability to defy the forces of un-reason and ideology.
on 9 March 2006
Browsing the other reviews one can not fail to notice that people either give it 1 star or 5. I guess this is a love it or hate it book and I loved it. Lomborg has been made a hate figure by many self-proclaimed environmentalists and hence they hate the book. But I think any objective person would have to admit that the data in this book have been superbly compiled.
A point not often made about this book is that, considering it is almost like a textbook, it is actually very easy and enjoyable to read. I highly recommend it - you will learn a lot and will be surprised by many findings.
on 12 July 2007
The book is well written in a sane, reasonable manner and it makes a lot of sense to someone like me who vividly remembers the 'global cooling' panic of the 70's. I would recommend this book to anyone with an open mind. Green Activist's assertion that I should have my car vandalized for buying this book only proves how unreasonable such people are.
on 3 April 2005
I can't compete with some of the excellent reviews provided here. Just to say, I reckon this is a "must read" book for everyone. People (and media) who make significant claims should always support their propositions with appropriate detailed information - I find this is the exception rather than the rule. Lomborg is entirely open as to the basis of his analysis and I entirely respect him for this.
For those who rubbish Lomborg's book, please read the various challenges and replies provided at [...] If you have an important FACT (not emotive opinion) that Lomborg has not made clear, then do share it with him and us - but please do not just say "I know better".
on 5 September 2005
It is very challenging to write meaningful things on a very controversial yet brilliant book such as Lomborg's.
I personally thoroughly enjoyed it - much because it challenges many paradigms, some of which I considered unquestioned truths.
The controversy arises as the topics tackled in Lomborg's book are both extremely difficult to assess objectively and also politically charged. The debate about global warming, for example - of which Lomborg also claims there is sufficient evidence - is very much today's news and yet (Lomborg reminds us) still too much there is to know about it to make sensible plans to tackle the issue. Significant resources are being spent - or soon going to be spent - in addressing it and yet we are not really sure it is all actually going to make things better. It is infact possible that ill-conceived actions may actually make it worse, if not because of direct effects of those actions, because of the "opportunity cost" of wasting resources that would otherwise be better used in tackling more pressing and valuable issues. Sometimes inaction is better than wrong actions; politics often require that "something must be done" - lack of facts or understanding is not accepted as a reason to do otherwise.
The fundamendal principles that Lomborg advocates are unquestionable:
* We must make the most of scarce resources.
* We must have the correct information to make the right decisions on how to use these scarce resources to their maximum benefit.
The devil, as they say, is in the detail, for example in obtaining the "correct information". In that, I find Lomborg's book at its best when it challenges a lot of conventional wisdom about "information correctness". Even if one could in principle refute data and conclusions in the book (as I am sure there will be tons of paper written on that), healthy skepticism of what is presented as "unquestioned truth" is what made mankind progress from the dark ages onwards.
Be prepared for some heavy reading at times (lots of data and tables) but overall a very fluid and enjoyable book.
on 18 August 2002
When I read this book, I was amazed. Based on what I had heard I had thoroughly convinced myself that our environment is getting worse and worse. And then there is this Danish associate professor Bjorn Lomborg, who writes a book describing, among other things, how:
1. The world population is not growing at a record rate; the growth rate has been steadily declining since 1964. The world's population is expected to stabilize just short of 11 billion.
2. There is more and more food per head of the world's population. This is largely caused by the success of the so-called 'Green Revolution' (high-yield crops, irrigation and controlled water supply, fertilisers and pesticides, and farmers' management skills). The number of people starving is decreasing (although the numbers are still frighteningly high!)
3. Our lives and health have improved dramatically over the past couple of hundred years due to better standards of living, better hygiene and water supplies and better medical therapy. And over the past 50 years poverty has fallen more than in the previous 500. Also in the developing world a fantastic progress has been made (although there is still a long way to go!). Furthermore, over the past three decades, inequality between countries has not been increasing but decreasing. This trend is expected to continue throughout much of the century.
4. We are not headed for a major energy crisis, nor are we likely to experience any significant scarcity of raw materials. The earth is not running out of energy or natural recourses.
5. We need to manage and price water more carefully but we are not facing insurmountable water shortages.
6. Overall, the pollution burden has diminished dramatically in the developed world. Air pollution has dramatically decreased over the past decades in the Western world while at the same time there has been a dramatic economic growth. It would be a mistake to believe that economic growth is in the process of destroying the earth. Economy and ecology complement each other.
7. Global warming is almost certainly taking place, but 1) probably less devastating than often claimed, 2) radical fuel cutbacks are worse than the original affliction
8. Biodiversity-reduction and deforestation do exist but to a much lesser extent than often thought and claimed.
Lomborg describes all of this very transparantly, uses clear statistics, uses excellent references and argues very logically, intelligently and subtly. He constantly keeps on explaining and reminding throughout the book that the fact that things are getting better does not mean everything is OK. He clearly points at the necessity to keep on focusing on solving all of the real problems we still face. Also he acknowledges that the fact that things are getting better overall does not mean that there are no places or times were things get worse. The author says for instance: "A lot still needs to be done to improve conditions in Africa, not only in the context of AIDS prevention but also for food availability and economic production.
I think this is a brave and terrific book. I was surprised by how ferociously it was attached by some authoritative scientists, for instance in Scientific American. These scientists treat the book literally as if it were an attack on science. I read many of the criticisms and Lomborg's response to them. And according to me, Lomborg wins by knock out. The criticisms are full of irrelevant personal attacks, misquotations and unsubstantiated attacks. Lomborg's replies are factual and to the point. I am not an expert at all in this field and I can't know how right Lomborg is. But if he's right, it wouldn't be the first time that established scientists deny a truthful new message and try to isolate the messenger.