121 Skeptical Environmentalists

                 Were more of us more skeptical, less credulous, fewer of us would fear environmental collapse.  So argues Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus, in The Skeptical Environmentalist:  Measuring the Real State of the World (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, c. 2001)–a densely documented repudiation of the environmentalist litany which orchestrates world opinion and political action.  As “an old left-wing Greenpeace member,” it was difficult for Lomborg to entertain second thoughts about the movement he’d supported, but reading an interview with Julian Simon prodded him “to put my beliefs under the statistical microscope” (p. xixi).  The results–displayed in charts and graphs on almost every page as well as 2,930 footnotes and 1,800 bibliographical entries– undermined the worldview he’d too easily championed.

                Economist Julian Simon is well known for challenging the dogmas enshrined in one of environmentalism’s foundational documents, Limits to Growth, by offering “to bet $10,000 that any given raw material” would drop in price.  Some Stanford University environmentalists, led by Paul Ehrlich, took up his challenge, breezily averring that “the lure of easy money can be irresistible” (p. 137).  They picked chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten, betting that in 10 years they would be more expensive.  In 1990, however, Simon won the bet, for these raw materials were all cheaper than they had been in 1980.  “Truth is,” Lomborg says, “they could not have won” (p. 137).  All basic materials–whether food or cotton or wool or whatever–were cheaper!  But Ehrlich and friends monopolized the media, and Simon’s truth garnered little attention.

                Lomborg first examines the doomsaying “litany”–best illustrated in Lester Brown’s Worldwatch Institute’s yearly  State of the World manifestoes and Time Magazine cover stories–chanted, in unison, by environmental activists.  Most of the claims made by Brown et al. cannot be trusted.  Respected “authorities,” such as Cornell University’s David Pimentel, often cited for his expertise and scientific rigor, err egregiously in their enthusiasm for the environmental agenda.  In fact, things are much better than they were a century ago. Summing up his conclusions, Bomborg says:


We are not running out of energy or natural resources.  There will be more and more food per head of the world’s population.  Fewer and fewer people are starving.  In 1900 we lived for an average of 30 years; today we live for 67.  According to the UN we have reduced poverty more in the last 50 years than we did in the preceding 500, and it has been reduced in practically every country.

      Global warming [he continues] though its size and future projections are rather  unrealistically pessimistic, is almost certainly taking place, but the typical cure of early and radical fossil fuel cutbacks is way worse than the original affliction, and moreover its total impact will not pose a devastating problem for our future.  Nor will we lose 25-50 percent of all species in our lifetime–in fact we are losing probably 0.7 percent.  Acid rain does not kill the forests, and the air and water around us are becoming less and less polluted.

      Mankind’s lot has actually improved in terms of practically every measurable indicator (p. 4). 


                We hear lots of bad news about the environment because bad news makes the news.  Popular publications, and public educators, pick up on alarming announcements, and all too quickly extreme cases become accepted as basic norms.  Fears fly faster and further than facts!  Ungrounded alarms send folks scurrying for shelter when nothing has happened!  Scientists, as prone to vanity as any other professional group, enjoy the spotlight as lonely prophets and feed the frenzy.  As preachers have long understood, to predict the end of the world always gets one attention!

                Contrary to those who lament the grinding poverty and immanent starvation of the world’s masses, Lomborg devotes a chapter to “life expectancy and health” to show how much better life is for vast numbers of us.  We’re healthier and live longer.  Food is more abundant and cheaper than ever.  Predictions by Paul Ehrlich in the ’70’s, direly declaring that massive famines would sweep across the globe, have been utterly disproven.  Lester Brown’s laments concerning the world’s declining fisheries conveniently ignore the rapidly-expanding fish farms which provide the world with more fish than ever before!  More food is certainly needed, but the Green Revolution, “a milestone in the history of mankind” (p. 63), makes it possible to provide for Earth’s burgeoning population.  China, impoverished 30 years ago, granted its people economic freedom when Mao died, and the people now have more than enough to eat.  China demonstrates that political, not ecological, factors determine whether or not a people will have sufficient food.

                Similarly, there is no grave “energy crisis,” for we have sufficient fossil fuel for the foreseeable future and alternative energy sources are already making their appearance.  Nor is there a “water crisis,” except in areas affecting 4 percent of earth’s population.  Plaintive appeals (implicit in a Time magazine headline:  “Forests:  the global chainsaw massacre”) to save the “rain forests” may touch the emotions, but in fact the planet’s forests are doing remarkably well.  From 1950-1994, a 0.85 percentage growth occurred.  The Amazon rainforest is neither the “lungs of the world,” nor is it disappearing!  In fact, 86 percent of the original Amazon forest still stands! 

                Lomborg devotes 68 double column pages to global warming, easily the most emotionally-charged current environmental issue.  He grants that many factors point to a slowly warming globe.  But the data are not totally persuasive.  And even worst-case scenarios will not unduly change life on earth.  Many of the headline-grabbing projections are little more than “computer-aided storytelling.”  Frantic efforts to retard the warming trend, evident in the Kyoto accords, would do little to alter the process.  We can expend enormous sums and reduce the initial amount of global warming, but in a century such efforts will make little difference!  So Lomborg urges us to invest in more realistic endeavors and deal with the consequences of global warming when and if they transpire.

                Lomborg’s work, rather than propaganda pieces such as Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, demands careful study and implementation.  For too long Leftist extremists, now positioned throughout bureaucracies such as the EPA, have set the agenda for environmental legislation.  For man’s and the planet’s good, wiser guides are needed.

                Much that Lomborg says was earlier set forth by Ronald Bailey in Eco-Scam:  The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, c. 1993).  He indicts the same culprits, the super-stars of environmentalism:  Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Dennis and Donella Meadows, Lester Brown, Jeremy Rifkin, Carl Sagan.  These “alarmists” must be exposed for “their faulty analyses, their wildly inaccurate predictions, and their heedless politicization of science” (p. xi).  They are, in fact, well-funded political activists, determined to replace capitalism with a socialistic utopia, not scholarly truth-tellers.  Hopes for the “New Soviet Man” having vanished, we’re now urged to prepare the way for a “New Ecological Person” (p. 11)  The “ban-the-bomb” folks, with their “peace and justice” mantras, found environmentalism a fertile field for their anti-Western revolutionary views.  The ancient allure of an egalitarian society, freed from the evils of private property, inspires the Greens in their various crusades. 

                Bailey invests much effort examining the errors of Ehrlich, Brown, Sagan et al. and the lavishly-funded organizations (Sierra Club; National Resources Defense Council; Environmental Defense Fund; Greenpeace; Nature Conservancy) which amplify their views.   In retrospect, their fantastic (and virtually always wrong) predictions do in fact seem ludicrous.  The major alarms sounded during the past 40 years have been false!  Ehrlich’s predicted “population explosion” now looks more like an implosion.  The “ozone hole” is hardly as serious as some proclaim it to be.  Soil erosion mainly shifts soil rather than actually losing it.  Screaming headlines, detailing disasters related to Alar pesticides on apples or toxic materials at Love Canal, misled the public, for we now know neither incident merited much concern.  Fears concerning “global cooling” resulting from the “greenhouse effect,” so dominant in the ’70’s, have shifted to fears about “global warming.” In all probability it too is simply another “alarm” sounded to persuade the public to appropriate more money for research and tolerate more government regulation.

                When these alarms were ringing, however, many of us took them seriously, thinking they were anchored in careful research.  More ominously, they guided public policy and deeply shaped the nation.  H.L. Mencken’s witty observation still holds:  “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary” (p. 1).  Politicians, such as President Jimmy Carter, embraced the radical environmentalist agenda, and Carter’s Global 2000 provided the movement the imprimatur what many of us assumed was a dispassionate federal report.  Al Gore, first as a senator and then as Vice President, provided a pivotal political entry point for radical environmentalists.  He imbibed the wild allegations of Paul Ehrlich and Jeremy Rifkin and argued we must radically change course if we are to survive.  When he held hearings in the Senate, he stacked the deck, favoring, by a 10-to-1 margin, radical environmentalists above their critics.  Scientists who disagreed with him were subjected to intense, badgering inquisitions.  He tried to intimidate people, demanding they “recant” their views on global warming or ozone depletion. 

                Gore-like politicians succeeded with media assistance.  Almost uniformly, the major media forces embraced radical environmentalism.  PBS aired persuasive series such as “The Race to Save the Planet” and “After the Warming,” pushing viewers to accept an almost certain doomsday–unless, of course, a radical solution were publicly embraced and funded.  Hollywood and commercial television added their support, blending the pro-environmentalist position into “L.A. Law,” “The Simpsons,” “Knots Landing” and others.  CNN, under Ted Turner’s guidance, openly declared itself in support of the movement.  When it comes to the environment, as in the pro-choice stance on abortion, only one view merits exposure! 

                Eco-Scam reads easily and provides ample documentation for readers concerned with its accuracy.  In the light of the just-published Skeptical Environmentalist, Bailey’s treatise looks quite trenchant!

                Michael S. Coffman provides a different critique of environmentalism in Saviors of the Earth?  (Chicago:  Northfield Publishing, c. 1994).  By profession a forester, teaching and researching ecosystems, he for years considered himself an “environmentalist.  But in 1991 he decided “that there was an agenda behind the environmental movement that was far from being in the best interests of America, or even the environment itself” (p. 11).  He discovered the truth of Machiavelli:  “A hypothesis is always more believable than the truth, for it has been tailored to resemble our ideas of truth, whereas the truth is just its own clumsy self.  Ergo, never discover the truth when a hypothesis will do” (The Prince).  This book is a result of that awakening. 

                Though he glances at some of the bogus “catastrophes” proclaimed by environmentalists (pesticides, acid rain, CFCs, global warming, etc.), Coffman’s main concern is the religious worldview they embrace.  Facts matter little to the movement’s devotees, for they follow their feelings, their convictions that the world needs to change in accord with their beliefs.  Their beliefs are rooted in the thought of pantheists like John Muir or GAIA worshippers like James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis (married for a time to Carl Sagan).  They share the socialistic redistributionism espoused by New Age theosophists following the lead of Helen Blavatsky. 

                The religious aspects of the movement are quite clear in prominent leaders’ statements.  Gro Harlem Grundtland, the Norwegian Prime Minister whose “Report” strongly emphasized the “sustainable development” stance adopted by the United Nations and other international organizations, declared “that living as we do will make it impossible for [our] grandchildren to life at all,” so we must support sustainable development as “a religious belief” (p. 189).  New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine hosts the “Gaia Institute,” which “aims to create ‘mother goddess’ cults throughout the west . . . and is a movement to create a new religion” (p. 146).  Maurice Strong, the Canadian industrialist who now leads the crusade for radical environmentalism, served as secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Environment–the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  Addressing the delegates, he said:  “It is the responsibility of each human being today to choose between the force of darkness and the force of light.  We must therefore transform our attitudes and values, and adopt a renewed respect for the superior laws of Divine Nature” (p. 196). 

                Espousing such views, radical environmentalists advocate what Tal Brooke labels “The Great Lie.”  Formerly a disciple of a Hindu guru, Sai Baba, Brooke declares:  “‘The Great Lie is quite simply the belief that man is God, and that his true identity is the immortal self and is ageless and eternal, and that as God he will never die!'” (p. 256).  The Great Lie leaps out of a declaration of the Findhorn community–something of a Mecca for environmentalism–which says:  “At last, [you] no longer need to be controlled by events, but by your power of thought, you control them.  You can bring about anything by your thoughts.  That is why this new-found power can only be used when there no self left to mar it . . .  This is the secret of creation.  What you think, you create . . .  We are one.  Therefore, all that appeared impossible in the past is no longer so.  Everything is possible” (p. 150). 

                In view of all this, Coffman opposes environmentalism.  To be good stewards of creation is both a Christian calling and a reasonable way to care for the earth.  Such can be done without accepting the environmentalist agenda. 

                Michael Cromartie’s Creation at Risk?  Religion, Science, and Environmentalism (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans, c. 1994), presents the papers and discussions of ten thinkers concerned with the state of the world.  Positions are clearly presented.  Disagreements are sharply expressed.  Conclusions are left up to the reader!

                Charles T. Rubin, author of The Green Crusade, argues that environmentalism, like Marxism, is primarily an ideology, a philosophical commitment “that arises out of utopian and totalitarian political programs for the complete reformation of human life on earth” (p. 3).  He particularly stresses the “totalitarian” aspects of much environmentalism, most evident in radical groups like Earth First!  Intent on setting a new course for man on earth, true believers accept no compromises, brook no dissent.  The noted ecologist Rene Dubos experienced this when he dared air some “second thoughts” and question some widely-held environmental dogmas. 

                Gregg Easterbrook, author of A Moment on the Earth:  The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, argues that the planet is faring quite well, thank you!  Unlike the dismal doomsdays portrayed by radical environmentalists, in their efforts to generate funds and attain political power, things are actually improving.  Naysayers like Carol Browner (Clinton’s EPA head) the air, water, forests and land are fine.  In “The Challenge of Biocentrism,” Thomas Derr, a professor at Smith College, warns against the pantheism implicit in much environmental thought.  Despite their many failures, Christians have, in fact, treated nature quite well.  To embrace “biocentrism,” as have theologians like Carol Christ, will deeply compromise the Christian tradition. 

                Patrick J. Michaels, associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, the Virginia state climatologist, considered “The Climate-Change Debacle:  The Perils of Politicizing Science.”  Soberly evaluating the greenhouse effect and global warming, he explains why much that’s said is inconclusive.  The data simply don’t justify grand projections!  Computer simulations basically spit out what they’re programmed to–pessimism in, pessimism out!  He carefully considers the treaty signed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.  President Clinton, in 1993, pledged to implement its “Climate Change Action Plan.”  Under careful scrutiny, however, Michaels finds the proposal seriously flawed.  “We have entered into a treaty designed to prevent a ‘dangerous’ climate change that is predicted by models that aren’t working, and we have produced a policy that cannot succeed” (p. 50).  In the fifth, and final essay, “Can Markets of Government Do More for the Environment,” Peter J. Hill, a professor of economics at Wheaton College, sides with the former.  Clearly the markets can’t do everything.  But to assume government can is a fatal assumption!  Wherever the government controls given resources, the record is hardly admirable!  In part this is because the bureaucracies entrusted to implement laws rarely accomplish the laws’ intent.  Free markets are more efficient, more response to truly human needs, and ultimately better for the environment.


                Much that the more scholarly publications assert are summed up in Facts Not Fear:  A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment (Washington:  Regnery Publishing Inc., c. 1996) by Michael Sanera and Jane S. Shaw.  “The goal of this book is twofold:  To alert you to what your children are learning, and to offer you a more balanced view of the many environmental issues they encounter” (p. 3).  Thus they document, on the basis of perusing some 100 texts used in public schools, the many inaccuracies and exaggerations designed to recruit children for the environmental crusade.  And they further demonstrate, by examining the major environmental “crises,” how scientific truths discount the hysteria so rampant in many circles.  They also provide names of the “academic and scientific advisory panel,” experts who read specific chapters, to indicate how seriously they sought to ascertain the truth concerning the book’s contents.

                Addressing the various issues, the consider “Will Billions Starve.”  In fact:  no!  More food is available than ever.  Where hunger exists, it’s because of political, not ecological factors.  Are natural resources disappearing?  No!  More and more are, in fact available, and new resources (such as fiber optics) make irrelevant former concerns for vanishing raw materials.  Are our forests dying?  No!  Forests are actually expanding, and even the rain forests are doing fine.  “American Wildlife–On the Edge?”  No!  Though the passenger pigeons have disappeared, most wildlife (bison; beaver) have revived.  Are species going extinct in alarming numbers?  No!  No one knows how many species there are, so assertions concerning the percentage of earth’s species disappearing lack meaning!  The air is generally improving, the planet may be slowly warming but not enough to prompt panic, ozone depletion is uncertain and greatly exaggerated, acid rain has been proven minimally deleterious.  There’s plenty of water for the planet.  Pesticides pose no great threat to health–and their banning often makes life far more fragile for millions of people.  We have plenty of space for trash disposal, and worth of recycling is basically a myth.

                On the basis of their analysis, the authors provide suggestions for parents:  try to make sure your children learn true science, not environmentalism.  Add to that some understanding of economics.  Know what’s taught in your children’s schools, and try to make a positive imput into the schools’ curricula.  All in all this is a most useful work.  It’s simple but accurate.  It provides plenty of information and clues to solid resources.  For folks without much background, it’s probably the best place to start.


                In a response to another essay, businessman Fred Smith noted:  “The people who want to save the environment have greatly misunderstood what happened historically in America.  American common law’s remedies against pollution were sabotaged by the same progressive movement that led to collectivism in other areas.  Property rights were ignored when they might block economic progress.   We need to revisit those progressive policies and recognize that markets didn’t fail, property rights didn’t fail, so much as they were sabotaged.  This history is relatively unknown.  Progressive-era policies also blocked the evolution of institutional arrangements that would have allowed private parties to advance environmental values.  We force one-third of the United States in political ownership.  We banned private ownership of wildlife.  We advance the silly concept that trees should have standing, rather than seeking creative alternative ways of ensuring that individuals could act as stewards, standing behind trees, whales, and all the other things we care about” (p. 35).