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The Cynical "Environmentalist". (Essay).

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Mark Twain

Over the past several months, we have received numerous alarmed queries from readers about a new book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, by an academic Danish statistician named Bjorn Lomborg. The book has reinvigorated largely discredited anti-environmental arguments, with its message that there are no serious environmental problems in the world.

There is a long-standing political niche for environmental contrarians like Lomborg, of whom the best known in the United States was the late Julian Simon. These contrarians endear themselves to opponents of environmentalism by providing an "every day in every way, everything's getting better and better" gloss on major environmental problems. Such rosy projections are music to the ears of the powers that be, since they justify continuing with business as usual, ignoring problems like global warming and the accelerated extinction of species.

Lomborg is an avowed apostle of Simon. Unlike Simon, he is young and attractive, a person who loves the great outdoors. But while Simon at least managed to preserve a slight sense of humor in his attacks, Lomborg has chosen to go down the low road, claiming that the environmentalists' alarms were fabricated as a fundraising ploy.

Lomborg presents himself as the soul of modesty, suggesting that anyone who took the time to review the scientific literature as he has done would discover that Julian Simon had been right all along. One must wonder how it is that someone who was by his own admission unfamiliar with the environmental sciences could, in the space of a few years, prove that tens of thousands of peer-reviewed scientists across a whole spectrum of disciplines were misleading us in their concerns about environmental problems in their areas of study.

Even a quick look reveals substantive problems with Lomborg's approach. For example, to discredit scientists who study the rate of species extinction, Lomborg offers the following "quote" from researcher Paul Colinvaux, as a way of dismissing estimates such as those published by Norman Myers, E.O. Wilson, or the World Conservation Union:

"Colinvaux admits in Scientific American that the [extinction] rate is 'incalculable."'

But the actual text from which this supposed quote was taken reads:

"As human beings lay waste to massive tracts of vegetation, an incalculable and unprecedented number of species are rapidiy becoming extinct."

Lomborg claims that the world's forests are not, in fact, disappearing. To reach this conclusion, he uses agricultural production data that the U.N. discontinued in 1994 because of inaccuracies, according to the head of the U.N.'s Forest Resources Assessment--who told Worldwatch that this agriculture data was never intended to determine forest cover in the first place.

What the Forest Resources Assessment actually reports is that during the last two decades, 16 million hectares of natural forest, on average, are converted to other uses each year. And Lomborg focuses on the United States and Europe, where forest cover has been fairly stable, while largely ignoring or obfuscating the enormously rapid destruction taking place throughout the developing world.

The publisher, Cambridge University Press, cites Loinborg's scholarly apparatus of 3,000 endnotes as proof of the seriousness and integrity of the book, as if the sheer number of endnotes itself guarantees a sound argument.

Confronted with such a wrong-headed mass, most environmental scientists were hopeful that Lomborg's book would pass with little notice so that they would not be required to spend scarce resources to refute its conclusions. To their great surprise, a number of prestigious newspapers and journals, including The Economist, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have given the book undue prominence with their uncritical reviews.

Faced with such coverage, the scientific community is organizing to produce detailed replies that take Lomborg's work apart, claim by claim, and source by source. We at Worldwatch are looking forward to playing our part in the coming months to help the truth get its shoes on and overtake Lomborg's deeply flawed analysis.

Richard C. Bell

Vice President, Communications
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Title Annotation:author Bjorn Lomborg aims to discredit environmental movement
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUDE
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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