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You Have to Admit It's Getting Better
From Economic Prosperity to Environmental Quality
By Terry L. Anderson
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The Skeptical Environmentalist
Bjørn Lomborg is an associate professor of statistics in the department of political science, University of Aarhus, Denmark.
IN THE SAME WAY that one can only be for peace and freedom and against hunger and destruction, it is impossible to be anything but for the environment. But this has given the environment debate a peculiar status. Over the past few decades, there has been an increasing fusion of truth and good intentions in the environmental debate (Poulsen 1998). Not only are we familiar with the Litany — that the environment is in poor shape and getting ever worse — we know that the Litany is true and that anyone who claims anything else must have disturbingly evil intentions.
That is why I felt it was important to write a book like The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001). My motives for writing this book were neither evil nor covert. My understanding, in all simplicity, is that democracy functions better if everyone has access to the best possible information. It cannot be in the best interest of our society for debate about such a vital issue as the environment to be based more on myth than on truth.
In the course of this chapter, I summarize two major points of my book. One of the most important aspects of the book was to confront the environmental myths and the Litany with the reality expressed in empirical data and statistics. The first part of this chapter is centered around this same exercise. Many predictions and claims made by environmental organizations are dismissed, and I hope to give an impression of the argument in my book — that things are indeed getting better.
The second part of this chapter is a condensed version of the explanation provided in my book as to why the myths and the Litany have been able to grow so strong. In the last part of the chapter, I present and respond to some of the criticisms my book has received.
Environmental Reality and Myths
I attempted over the course of The Skeptical Environmentalistto describe the principal areas that stake out humankind's potentials, challenges, and problems in the past, the present, and the future. I challenged the usual conception of the collapse of ecosystems because this conception is simply not in keeping with reality.
I found that 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 thirty years: today, we live for sixty-seven years. According to the United Nations, we reduced poverty more in the last fifty years than we did in the preceding 500 years, and it has been reduced in almost every country.
Although its size and future projections are rather unrealistically pessimistic, global warming is probably taking place — but the touted cure of early and radical fossil fuel cutbacks is way worse than the original affliction. Moreover, the total impact of global warming will not pose a devastating problem for our future. Nor will we lose 25 to 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 almost every measurable indicator. But note carefully what I am saying here: that by far the majority of indicators show that mankind's lot has vastly improved. This does not mean, however, that everything is good enough. The first statement refers to what the world looks like, whereas the second refers to what it ought to look like.
While on lecture tours, I have discovered how vital it is to emphasize this distinction. Many people believe they can prove me wrong, for example, by pointing out that a lot of people are still starving: "How can you say that things are continuing to improve when 18 percent of all people in the developing world are still starving?" The point is that ever fewer people in the world are starving. In 1970, 35 percent of the people in developing countries were starving. In 1996, the figure was 18 percent, and the United Nations expects that the figure will have fallen to 12 percent by 2010 (FAO 1996: I, Table 3; FAO 1999b, 29). This is remarkable progress: 237 million fewer people starving. Two billion more people are getting enough to eat today than in 1970.
The food situation has vastly improved, but in 2010, there will still be 680 million people starving, which is obviously not good enough. The distinction is essential — when things are not going well enough, we can sketch out a vision. And in this case, the vision is that fewer people must starve. This is our political aim. But if things are at least improving, then we know we are on the right track, although perhaps not at the right speed.
What Reality? The Use of References
Matter-of-fact discussion of the environment can be very difficult because everybody has such strong feelings on the issue. But at the same time, even as environmentalists, it is absolutely vital for us to be able to prioritize our efforts in many different fields — for example, health, education, infrastructure and defense — as well as the environment.
Over the course of the last few decades, we have developed a clear impression that the Litany is an adequate and true description of the world. We know that the environment is not in good shape. This is also why it has been possible for people to make erroneous claims, such as those mentioned in the previous pages, without needing to provide the evidence to authenticate them. For that reason, we also tend to be extremely skeptical toward anyone who says that the environment is not in such a bad state. To me, this indicates a natural and healthy reaction. And it's why I went to great lengths to document my claims.
I therefore included an unusually large number of notes in my book. In addition, I tried to source as much of the information from the Internet as possible. Thus, readers can go on to the Internet and download the relevant text to see from where I have retrieved my data and how I interpret that information. Of course, there will always be books and articles central to the relevant literature that are not available on the Internet.
I cannot overemphasize how important it is to me that there be no doubt about the credibility of my sources. For this reason, most of the statistics I used came from official sources that are widely accepted by the majority of people involved in the environment debate. Among these sources are agencies and programs of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Furthermore, I used figures published by international organizations such as World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which primarily collate economic indicators.
Just because figures come from official international and national organizations does not, of course, mean that they are free from error — these figures often come from other publications that are less "official" in nature. It is therefore still possible to be critical of the sources of these data, but one does not need to worry to the same degree as one would were less-established sources used about the extent to which I simply present some selected results that are extremely debatable and that deviate from generally accepted knowledge. Focusing on official sources also means that I avoid one of the big problems of the Internet — that on this highly decentralized network you can find practically anything.
It is important to remember that the statistical material I presented in my book was usually identical to that used by the WWF, Greenpeace, and the Worldwatch Institute. People often ask where the "other" figures are, the ones these other organizations use, but there are no other figures. The figures I used are the official figures everybody uses.
When Lester Brown and I met in a television debate on the state of the world, one of the things we discussed was whether overall forest cover had increased or decreased since 1950. Brown's first reaction was that we should get hold of the FAO's Production Yearbook, which is the only work to include calculations of the area of forest cover from 1949 to 1994. This is the same book I had used as a reference, so we agreed on the standard. (In reality we were merely discussing who could look up a number correctly.)
Lester Brown believed there was less forest, whereas I thought there was more. I offered Lester Brown a bet, which he reluctantly declined and also which he would have lost. In 1950, the FAO estimated that the world had 40.24 million square kilometers of forest; in 1994, it estimated the world had 43.04 million square kilometers.
Confronting Myths with Reality
It is crucial to the discussion about the state of the world that we consider the fundamentals. This requires us to refer to long-term and global trends, considering their importance especially with regard to human welfare.
But it also is crucial that we cite figures and trends that are true. This demand may seem glaringly obvious, but unfortunately, the environment debate has been characterized by a tendency toward rather rash treatment of the truth. This is an expression of the fact that the Litany has pervaded the debate so deeply and for so long that blatantly false claims can be made again and again without any references and still be believed.
Take notice — this is not because of primary research in the environmental field which generally appears to be professionally competent and well balanced. It is because of the "knowledge" that is disseminated about the environment, which taps deeply into our doomsday beliefs. Such propaganda is presented by many environmental organizations — including the Worldwatch Institute, Greenpeace, and the WWF — and by many individual commentators, and it is readily picked up by the media. Let me stress that I am glad we have these organizations. They help point to problems that might otherwise be ignored. However, it should also be acknowledged that they represent certain interests, and as such, they present the public with one-sided information. My concern is the asymmetric flow of information that comes from trusting environmental organizations without the healthy critical angle one would normally put forward had the organizations been, for instance, business conglomerates.
Let us look at some of the more outstanding examples of environmental myth making.
Reality Check: Worldwatch Institute
Often the expressions of the Litany can be traced — either directly or indirectly — to the Worldwatch Institute. Its publications are almost overflowing with statements such as: "The key environmental indicators are increasingly negative. Forests are shrinking, water tables are falling, soils are eroding, wetlands are disappearing, fisheries are collapsing, rangelands are deteriorating, rivers are running dry, temperatures are rising, coral reefs are dying, and plant and animal species are disappearing" (Worldwatch Institute 1999a, 4). Powerful statements that make powerful reading — and they are made entirely without references.
Discussing forests, the Worldwatch Institute states categorically that "the world's forest estate has declined significantly in both area and quality in recent decades" (Worldwatch Institute 1998a, 22). As we previously saw, the decline in forests is simply not true. The longest data series from the FAO show that global forest cover has increased. Such global figures have not been referred to. Nor is reference made to figures regarding the forests' quality — simply because no such global figures exist.
Blatant errors are made with unfortunate frequency. Worldwatch Institute claims that "the soaring demand for paper is contributing to deforestation, particularly in the northern temperate zone. Canada is losing some 200,000 hectares of forest a year" (Worldwatch Institute 1998a, 9). Reference is made to the FAO's State of the World's Forests 1997, but if you refer to that source, you will see that in fact Canada added 174,600 hectares of forest each year (FAO 1997, 189).
In their 2000 overview, Worldwatch Institute lists the problems staked out in their very first State of the World publication (1984). Here is the complete list: "Record rates of population growth, soaring oil prices, debilitating levels of international debt, and extensive damage to forests from the new phenomenon of acid rain" (Worldwatch Institute 2000, xvii). The turn of the millennium would seem to be the natural point at which to take stock of the important issues, assess this list, ask if earlier problems have been overcome. However, Worldwatch Institute immediately tells us that we have not solved these problems. "Far from it. As we complete this seventeenth State of the World report, we are about to enter a new century having solved few of these problems and facing even more profound challenges to the future of the global economy. The bright promise of a new millennium is now clouded by unprecedented threats to humanity's future" (Worldwatch Institute 2000, xvii).
Worldwatch Institute does not return to look at the list but merely tells us that the problems have not been solved and that we have added even more problems since then. But does the Litany stand up if we check the data? The level of international debt may be the only place where we have not seen significant improvement: Although the level of debt declined steadily, the decline was slight, from 144 percent of exports in 1984 to 137 percent in 1999 (World Bank 2000a, 2000b).
Acid rain, although it harmed lakes, did very little, if any, damage to forests. Moreover, the sulfur emissions responsible for acid rain have declined in both Europe and the United States — in the European Union, emissions have decreased by a full 60 percent since 1980 (European Environment Agency 2000).
The soaring oil prices that cost the world a decade of slow growth from the 1970s into the mid-1980s declined throughout the 1990s to a price comparable with or lower than the pre–oil crisis price. Even though oil prices have almost doubled since the all-time low in mid-1998, a barrel price of $21.55 in 2001 is still way below the top price of $63 in the early 1980s. Moreover, most consider this spike is a short-term occurrence. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects an almost steady oil price over the next twenty years at about $22–$24 a barrel (2002, 24–26).
Finally, speaking of record rates of population growth is just plain wrong — the record was set back in 1964 at 2.17 percent per year (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2000). Since that record, the population growth rate has been steadily declining, standing at 1.26 percent in 2000 and expected to drop below 1 percent in 2016. Even the absolute number of people added to the world peaked in 1990 with 87 million. The figure dropped to 76 million added in 2000 and is still decreasing.
Thus, in its shorthand appraisal of the state of the world since 1984, Worldwatch Institute sets out a list of problems, all of which have improved, all but one of which have improved immensely, and one of which is just plain wrong. Not a great score for sixteen years that have supposedly been meticulously covered by the Worldwatch reports. The problem, of course, is not lack of data — Worldwatch Institute publishes fine data collections, which are also used in my book — but merely a carelessness that comes with an ingrained belief in the Litany.
Reality Check: WWF
Toward the end of 1997, WWF focused on the Indonesian forest fires that were responsible for the thick clouds of smoke over much of Southeast Asia. There is no doubt that this was obnoxious for city dwellers, but WWF said the fires were a signal that the world's forests were "out of balance" — tidings that the Worldwatch Institute actually announced as one of the primary signs of ecological breakdown in 1997 (Worldwatch Institute 1998b, 15).
WWF proclaimed 1997 as "the year the world caught fire" because "in 1997, fire burned more forests than at any other time in history" (1997b, 1997c, 1998b). Summing up, WWF president Claude Martin stated unequivocally that "this is not just an emergency, it is a planetary disaster" (WWF 1997b). But on closer inspection, the figures do not substantiate this claim: 1997 was well below the record, and the only reason 1997 was the year when Indonesia's forest fires were noticed was because it was the first time they really irritated city dwellers. In all, Indonesia's forest fires affected approximately 1 percent of the nation's forests.
Also in 1997, WWF issued a press release entitled "Two-Thirds of the World's Forests Lost Forever" (1997d). In both this press release and its Global Annual Forest Report 1997 (1997a, 1997d), WWF explained how its "new research ... shows that almost two-thirds of the world's original forest cover has been lost." This seemed rather amazing to me, because most sources estimate about 20 percent. I therefore called WWF in England and spoke to Rachel Thackray and Alison Lucas, who had been responsible for the press release, and asked to see the WWF research report on which that statement was based. All they were able to tell me, however, was that no report had ever existed and that the WWF had been given the figures by Mark Aldrich of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Apparently, they had looked at some maximum figures and also, because of problems of definition, they had included the forests of the northern hemisphere in the original overview of forest cover, but not in the current one.
Excerpted from You Have to Admit It's Getting Better by Terry L. Anderson. Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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