Published January 31, 2002
The Catholic Difference
Bjorn Lomborg, who describes himself as an “old left-wing Greenpeace member” and teaches statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, was wandering around Los Angeles in early 1997 when he found himself in a bookstore and started reading an interview with Julian Simon, the curmudgeonly economist then teaching at the University of Maryland. Simon argued that the doomsday scenarios favored by many environmental activists were just wrong, empirically speaking: claims that the environmental sky was falling were based on bad statistics, ideologically charged assumptions, or both. Simon emphasized that, in his work, he deliberately used official statistics that anyone else could check. The implicit challenge was to prove him wrong, using the same numbers.
Lomborg took up the challenge. He picked ten of his best students, and together they tried to prove that Julian Simon, whom they imagined a purveyor of “American right-wing propaganda,” was cooking the books. Much to their surprise, they couldn’t do it. They found a few flaws here and there, but, as Lomborg puts it, “a surprisingly large amount of his points stood up to scrutiny and conflicted with what we believed ourselves to know.” The sky wasn’t falling, after all.
Professor Lomborg took his results to the Danish press and a raging debate ensued. During the controversy, Lomborg discovered that “the only reaction from many environmental groups was the gut reaction of complete denial.” His old friends weren’t interested in data; they had simply decided, a priori, that Lomborg must be wrong, and that they “could comfortably go on believing in the impending doomsday.”
With the intellectual courage to follow the data wherever it led him, Lomborg produced one of last year’s most explosive books, The Skeptical Envionmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Cambridge University Press). No one can accuse Professor Lomborg of not doing his homework: his book contains seventy (minutely printed) pages of bibliography and 2,930 footnotes. Nor has Lomborg flipped from Chicken Little to Pollyanna, from enviro-pessimist to enviro-optimist; as he writes, “humanity still has a whole series of challenges to tackle, now and in the future…[because] things are still not good enough.”
What they are, Lomborg insists, is better. Much better. He marshals an overwhelming amount of data to demonstrate that Chicken Little is living in fantasy land. Life expectancy is increasing throughout the world, including the Third World. Energy is not disappearing and neither is food; in fact, both energy and food are cheaper and more plentiful than ever before. Natural resources are more abundant today than in the past. The gap between the purchasing power of the poor and the rich is narrowing, not widening. More people, not less, are reasonably prosperous and live in political security. Water and air are cleaner than before; in urban areas of the developed world, water and air are cleaner than they’ve been in five hundred years. Fears of chemicals poisoning the land are vastly exaggerated. Species aren’t disappearing at a precipitous rate. There is ample room for landfill left on the planet. Global warming is a “limited and manageable problem” that is “not anywhere near the most important problem facing the world.”
And so forth and so on. The picture, in sum, is one that Professor Lomborg describes as “unprecedented human prosperity.”
Yet things are still not good enough, he insists. We can do better, as a human race. That’s why it’s important to get the facts straight now – so that we can make reasonable policy choices about the human future. Especially choices about beating poverty, which involves empowering the poor to enter the economies of the developed world. Eradicating poverty doesn’t mean dismantling developed world economies, as some environmental activists imagine. The world can have a lot less poor people and better environmental quality: the key to both is the expansion of the free economy.
Bjorn Lomborg’s summons to intellectual honesty should be particularly challenging to religious environmentalists formed in the biblical tradition. We are the stewards of creation, according to Genesis. Genesis also teaches that, created with intelligence and free will, we must exercise that stewardship with our minds. Cooking the books so that Chicken Little always wins is, in a word, sinful.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.