Environmental Optimists And Environmental Pessimists: What''s The Real State Of The World?

02 Jun 2003

The world is not facing imminent environmental catastrophe, but everything is far from rosy in terms of the world''s social and environmental conditions. Writing in the June 2003 issue of the Economic Journal, Dr Matthew Cole argues that Bjorn Lomborg''s recent controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, makes the same errors as the doomsayers whom it criticises. By claiming that all environmental and social problems are either improving or too insignificant to worry about, Lomborg significantly overstates his case.

The book is scholarly in appearance (515 pages long with 2930 endnotes) and hence Cole has to get to grips with the data in order to demonstrate that, while progress in tackling environmental and social problems has often been made, Lomborg''s analysis is simplistic and lacking in objectivity.

Malnutrition in developing countries
For example, when assessing malnutrition in developing countries, Lomborg claims that ''on practically every count, humankind is now better nourished. The Green Revolution has been victorious'' (page 67, original emphasis). But his argument rests heavily on highly aggregated data reporting the proportion of regional populations who are classed as undernourished.

Of course, if the population is growing rapidly, the proportion of undernourished people can fall while the absolute number rises. Cole shows that, over the last 20 years, the absolute number of undernourished people has grown rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa and has failed to fall in Latin America. The number of undernourished people has only actually fallen in Asia.

If we consider the developing world as a whole, then progress has been made. But since it is clear that levels of nutrition are actually worsening for hundreds of millions of people, Lomborg''s conclusion that ''humankind is better nourished'' on ''practically every count'' would appear to be somewhat misleading.

Tropical deforestation
Turning to tropical deforestation, Lomborg claims that deforestation rates are insignificant, concluding that ''basically… our forests are not under threat'' (page 117). His analysis rests on data which show that, globally, forest cover has fallen at an average annual rate of 0.2% during the 1990s. But by taking a global average, Lomborg is masking conflicting trends in tropical and nontropical regions and also confusing biodiversity-rich natural tropical forests with biodiversitypoor monoculture plantations. The global annual deforestation rate of 0.2% is relatively low because in Europe and North America, forest cover is actually increasing due to such plantations.
But during the 1990s alone, South America lost 4% of its forests, Africa lost 8%, Indonesia lost 12% and Myanmar lost 14%. Since this 10-year period is a mere blink of an eye in the lifetime of these forests, these losses do not seem insignificant, particularly given the richness of the biodiversity within them. Thus, by reporting only trends in global forest cover, Lomborg''s analysis can again be seen to be misleading.

Weaknesses in the environmental optimist''s arguments
Cole shows that Lomborg''s analysis of issues as diverse as climate change, global fish stocks and air pollution suffers from common weaknesses: Selective use of data: for example, global averages that mask a multitude of different regional trends. Asking the wrong questions: for example, ''are we running out of fossil fuels?'', a question to which we already know the answer, for the short term at least. More worrying is whether the atmosphere can assimilate the waste from fossil fuels. Lack of objectivity: Lomborg tackles the scientific consensus with relish yet accepts any opposing studies at face value. The irony is that these are the same mistakes that are made by the environmental pessimists to whom Lomborg is responding. The real state of the world would appear to be somewhere between these two extremes.

''Environmental Optimists, Environmental Pessimists and the Real State of the World: An Article Examining The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjorn Lomborg'' by Matthew Cole is published in the June 2003 issue of the Economic Journal. Dr Cole is in the Department of Economics at the University of Birmingham.

Matthew Cole

0121-414-6639 | m.a.cole.1@bham.ac.uk