Julian Simon Redux


The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Lomborg, B. 2001 . Cambridge University Press , Cambridge, United Kingdom . 538 pp (xxiii + 515). $27.95 (paperback) . ISBN 0-521-01068-3 .

Bjorn Lomborg tells us The Skeptical Environmentalist was inspired by the late Julian Simon. It shows, and it is a dubious distinction. Julian Simon's capstone, Ultimate Resource 2 (Simon 1996) was so fallacious and shoddily documented that I devoted a full chapter to refuting it in Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train (Czech 2000a).

The best that can be said for The Skeptical Environmentalist is that it contains a lot of statistical information about the environment, most of which is documented better than Ultimate Resource 2. Lomborg also did a fairly convincing job of revealing statistical liberties taken by some environmental organizations and authors, probably enough to keep them on their toes in future endeavors. On the other hand, one wonders how many pages could be filled with liberties taken by anti-environmentalists in pursuit of profit. Lomborg documented virtually none of these, suggesting perhaps the taking of a different kind of liberty.

Numerous others have identified problems with Lomborg's statistical analyses (see http://www.urban75.com/action/news138.html). I appreciate these largely empirical efforts because they free me to focus here on glaring theoretical shortcomings. Lomborg prefaced his book by saying that, “I am not myself an expert as regards environmental problems,” yet he proceeded to interpret his copious time-series data with the self assurance of Ross Perot interpreting the macroeconomic implications of housing starts. Lomborg's thesis is identical to Simon's self-christened “grand theory,” which simplistically states that as limits to economic growth are approached, human ingenuity prevails and we find a way to increase economic carrying capacity. Therefore, why worry about limits?

Such a thesis is circular at best and hypocritical at worst. The kind of ingenuity that helps us protect the environment (and therefore the economy) is largely motivated by worries about carrying capacity. Lomborg must sense the weakness of this thesis, because in his conclusion he quibbles that worry is not the same as productive concern.

Lomborg covers most of the major environmental issues: forests, energy, minerals, water, pollution, global warming. Conservation biologists will find it interesting that one of the shortest and weakest chapters is on biodiversity. For example, Lomborg refers to the theory of island biogeography as “appealingly intuitive,” yet discredits the application of the theory to larger land masses. His rationale is that “If islands get smaller, there is nowhere to escape. If, on the other hand, one tract of rainforest is cut down, many animals and plants can go on living in the surrounding areas.” For a statistician who clearly prides himself on his grasp of logic, such a logical last resort is one more indication of Lomborg's bias.

Lomborg disregards the trophic structure of the human economy, the foundation of which is agriculture and the extractive sectors ( logging, mining, ranching), upon which are perched the manufacturing and services sectors. He thinks the entire economic enterprise can expand without concomitant liquidation of natural capital (timber, minerals, grasses), in violation of the thermodynamic underpinnings of trophic theory. He seems oblivious to the fact that, due to the tremendous breadth of the human niche, the human economy grows at the competitive exclusion of wildlife in the aggregate. The absence of ecological savvy explains his poor performance with the biodiversity chapter and strongly suggests that conservation biologists have a unique role to play in refuting the ecologically ignorant implications of neoclassical economic growth theory (Czech 2000b).

Lomborg's disregard of trophic levels helps explain his cure-all prescription of generating more money to throw at more problems. He fails to recognize that agricultural surplus is what frees hands for the division of labor, thus making money a meaningful concept (Czech 2000a). It's as if he thinks money grows on trees, whether you chop them down or not.

Lomborg appears equally as naive about the political economy of environmental protection. Nowhere does he acknowledge the iron triangle of corporations, politicians beholden to corporations, and neoclassical economists (whose research is funded largely by the corporations and who advise the politicians) that girds the economic policy arena. This oversight is bound to produce skepticism, even cynicism, among conservation biologists, because this iron triangle is virtually all that is necessary to explain why Lomborg will take the place of Simon as the darling of economic-growth advocates.

For those who have read Ultimate Resource 2, I recommend skipping The Skeptical Environmentalist because you've heard it all before. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Simon-Lomborg argument, I wouldn't invest the time in it unless you plan to debate Lomborg onstage, in which case you should also watch out for poorly thrown pies ( http://www.urban75.com/Action/news138. html).