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16 November 2001


Paul Ehrlich on Philip Stott's favourite reading. See also


The Brownlash Rides Again

The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World
by Bjorn Lomborg
Reviewed by Paul R. Ehrlich
This article will also appear in Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
Posted November 9, 2001 · Issue 114

The Skeptical Environmentalist (TSE) is basically a rehash of the old "brownlash" literature, which was authored by Julian Simon, Charles Mann, Gregg Easterbrook, and others [1]. Indeed, Lomborg, a statistician, is inspired by Simon. Who isn't? Simon asserted that the human population could grow for another seven billion years! If Lomborg had done some arithmetic, he could have evaluated Simon's science and spared us a book as thick as a brick and almost as intelligent.

TSE is packed with nonsense, old and new.
* Extinctions don't follow deforestation, because the eastern USA once had only 1-2% forest cover and yet lost only one forest bird. This is typical of Lomborg's "facts" on extinction; forest cover only fell to ~50% in the 1870s and 15% of the species endemic to the region became extinct as a consequence. None of the key papers on the subject by Stuart Pimm and his colleagues [2] are cited.
* Global warming climate models are undependable but economic models are sound. This is why economists forecast market trends so accurately.
* We have unprecedented prosperity because the proportion of "starving" people has dropped. That will be great consolation to the world's poverty-stricken. There are more of them now than there were people living in 1930.

The book is full of distortions, and demolitions of straw men, often "documented" by repeated references to dubious secondary sources. Ed Wilson and I are "enthusiastic supporters of an ambitious plan, the Wildlands Project, to move the entire population of the U.S. so as to recreate a natural wilderness in most of the North American continent." We do not support such a "plan"; it does not exist. By failing to go to the original source, Lomborg misrepresents an estimate that Anne Ehrlich and I discussed (along with a complete statement of assumptions) of possible losses of rainforest biodiversity as a loss of total diversity [3]; a partial quote allows him to utterly distort our point that habitat destruction is a good indicator of extinctions [1]. On climate change, he supplies selective quotes from a tiny fraction of the literature that he likes and there is no balanced discussion of the wide range of available studies.

TSE can also be judged by what it omits (e.g., ecosystem services). Lomborg apparently has not seen Gretchen Daily's Nature's Services [4], one of the most cited environmental volumes of the 1990s. TSE contains nothing on the negative impacts of climate change on biodiversity (but lots on CO2 fertilization of crops), or on the deterioration of freshwater ecosystems. There is no discussion of the degradation of coral reef habitats in the last 20 years, degradation that is a graphic example of a major anthropogenic transformation of a marine ecosystem that is sweeping large parts of the world.

Cambridge University Press (CUP) obviously undertook no serious scientific review of the TSE manuscript and printed a decomposers' dream that it claims explodes "the widely propagated [sic] myth that the state of the environment continues to spiral downwards beyond our control." CUP should be ashamed of abandoning academic standards and should be worried about whether competent scientists will now publish with them. It is supporting powerful economic interests that are anxious to convince us that business as usual is not wrecking human life-support systems. TSE might help to boost their short-term profits - and make the "myth" reality.

In response, environmental scientists must redouble efforts to inform the public about crucial issues, such as the decay of ecosystem services, and of the epidemiological environment and expansion of key drivers, such as population size and overconsumption. Debate should not be suppressed - I have learned much from it and have tried to correct errors. Yes, environmental scientists make mistakes, and Lomborg reports some of them. But useful debate occurs only among those who have demonstrated that they understand the situations about which they are writing.


1. Ehrlich, P.R. and Ehrlich, A.H. 1996. Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future, Island Press.
2. Pimm, S.L. and Askins, R.A. 1995. Forest losses predict bird extinctions in eastern North America. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 92:9343-9347.
3. Ehrlich, P.R. and Ehrlich, A.H. 1981. Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species. Random House.
4. Daily, G., ed. 1997. Nature's Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. Island Press.

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