on 20 May 2002
I have also reviewed this book for a number of international scientific journals.
'In contrast to the received wisdom of environmentalists, the world is getting better, not worse, and both human progress and the quality of the environment will continue to increase.' This, in a sentence, is the central theme of Lomborg's book of 515 pages. Of these, 352 contain the main body of text and the remainder consist of 2930 footnotes and 71 pages of references. The point of the work is to use statistics as a dispassionate way of clarifying the world and present information as a base for political decisions. Lomborg's view is that if only we can get the real truth then progress can be made. This, as we will see, is a dangerous and incorrect assumption. The book is divided into six major sections, the first entitled the 'the Litany', with the following sections focussed on four themes and a conclusion: Human Welfare; Can Human Prosperity Continue?; Pollution: Does It Undercut Human Prosperity?; Tomorrow's Problems; and The Real State of the World. Section Four 'Tomorrow's Problems' makes up the largest section of the Book and the 'Global Warming' sub-section accounts for nearly 20% of the entire book's text.
Lomborg begins by painting a polarised picture of the environmental debate, splitting the world into two camps: the environmental movement as represented by groups such as the Worldwatch Institute, World Wide Fund for Nature and Greenpeace who recite 'The Litany'. This is the mantra that the world is in dire crisis, with over-use of resources, runaway pollution, increasing hunger and worse to come. The other camp (unlabelled), though generically termed 'contrarians', take the view that the world is not in a bad state. Lomborg's polarisation does not take into account the middle ground occupied notably by the scientific community, in the case of climate change represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the views of which are based on scientific fact and not emotional opinion. The four following sections each examine different aspects of the world, and provide copious statistics and counter-arguments against the Litany, often drawn from the same sources as those used by environmentalists. Section 2 examines issues such as demography, life expectancy and wealth, Section 3 the question of resource use, Section 4 the effects of pollution and Section 5 biodiversity, chemical poisoning and climate change.
In all cases, Lomborg challenges the prevailing environmentalist view, concluding that in nearly all areas, in contrast to many peoples' perceptions, the world is in better shape than it used to be, while still needing more to be done. Philosophically, this is a reasonable point; after all, the quality of the River Thames in London is probably far better now than the open sewer depicted in 19th century cartoons. The main problem is that Lomborg falls into the same trap as those he criticises, by assuming that his statistics are the right ones. His approach is that using global averages is necessary to paint the big picture, missing the vital point that the fundamental structure of those averages is equally important. Such measures take no account of the quality or the detail of each area studied, and only measure that which can be measured. For example, in showing a decrease in the global income inequality (which itself is highly contentious), there is no mention that even if this gap narrows, there is not necessarily a corresponding decrease in deprivation. Below a certain threshold, income increases make no difference to deprivation. In a similar vein, global forest cover may hardly have changed, but the type of forest has changed substantially with destruction of old-growth forest and replacement with fast-growing mono-culture plantations, which changes soil pH, affects local ecosystems, and causes variations in sequestration of atmospheric carbon. Even if the overall pollution burden has decreased, a vital consideration is who bears the burden. It is no use saying that if I have two houses and you have no house then on average we're both comfortable. The Earth's Net Primary Production, according to Lomborg's source, is expected to increase by 80% by 2100 but there is no mention of the type of production, whether the plant matter will be more or less edible or diverse. Some of Lomborg's presentation employs classical statistical distortions, such as plotting GDP per head vs. sustainability on a log scale, hiding the fact that as GDP per head rises, the corresponding rise in sustainability decreases. Creative use of scales in many places also serves to emphasise or de-emphasise the direction of trends.