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 Volume 1.19  This View’s Column June 17, 2002 

A Tale of Three Doctors

And What it Tells Us About the Environmental Movement

This is a “reprint” of a two-part column originally published in February and March.

Part One (February 25, 2002)

No, they’re not physicians, the three doctors of this Tale. They are the following:

  • Paul R. Ehrlich, Ph.D., Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University and president of its Center for Conservation Biology;
  • Julian L. Simon, Ph.D. (1932-1998), Professor of Business Administration at the University of Maryland and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute; and,
  • Bjorn Lomborg, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

Population studies? Business administration? Statistics? Yawn.

No... wait... these gentlemen, their ideas and their writings, are at the center of an international fracas.

No kidding.

Doctor One. Ehrlich appears first in this Tale, all the way back in 1968: in that year, his book The Population Bomb was published. It sold 3,000,000 copies, and got the author a guest spot on The Tonight Show.

In his book, Ehrlich proclaimed that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over.” And we lost that battle: “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate....”

Later, in 1974, he and his wife Anne published The End of Affluence. We were still facing an impending apocalypse: the book warned of a “nutritional disaster that seems likely to overtake humanity in the 1970s (or, at the latest, the 1980s). Due to a combination of ignorance, greed, and callousness, a situation has been created that could lead to a billion or more people starving to death....”

Ehrlich, of course, has not been able to say I told you so. And, fortunately, it does not seem that he will ever be able to do so.

Doctor Two. Simon comes into the Tale in 1980. Fed up after more than a decade of similar apocalyptic pronouncements, he published “Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News” in the June 17, 1980, issue of Science.

His article began with something of a manifesto, and has earned Simon the epithet The Doomslayer:

False bad news about population growth, natural resources, and the environment is published widely in the face of contrary evidence. For example, the world supply of arable land has actually been increasing, the scarcity of natural resources including food and energy has been decreasing, and basic measures of U.S. environmental quality show positive trends. The aggregate data show no long-run negative effect of population growth upon standard of living.

(“Arable” land is land capable of being cultivated for food production. And the strange double negative “scarcity... has been decreasing” — required, I surmise, by the terms in which his opponents had been framing the discussion — means that the known supply of natural resources has been increasing.)

Ehrlich wrote a letter to Science in response to Simon’s article. But they engaged their argument in quite a different way later that year. In response to a proclamation from Ehrlich — “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000” — Simon publicly proffered a real wager: he was willing to stake $10,000 “that the cost of non-government-controlled raw materials (including grain and oil) will not rise in the long run”.

Ehrlich and two colleagues took the bet. (They thought, it is said, that it would be easy money.) The raw materials they chose were chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten: they expected all of these materials to become scarcer and, thus, to rise in price over the following ten years.

They were wrong, and Simon won the bet, as detailed in a remarkable article by Ed Regis in Wired, Feb. 1997:

Between 1980 and 1990, the world’s population grew by more than 800 million, the largest increase in one decade in all of history. But by September 1990, without a single exception, the price of each of Ehrlich’s selected metals had fallen, and in some cases had dropped through the floor. Chrome, which had sold for $3.90 a pound in 1980, was down to $3.70 in 1990. Tin, which was $8.72 a pound in 1980, was down to $3.88 a decade later.

Now, Ehrlich has been wrong, over and over and over again, for decades, yet he has won world-wide acclaim for being some kind of prophet. He should be a gambler: he loses every hand, but somehow manages to win the game.

Simon, having merely the available facts and demonstrable history to back up his contrary opinions, lived somewhat in the shadow of his acclaimed opponent. He published quite a few books, which only won him opprobrium for daring to say, in effect, that The Good News is That the Bad News is Wrong. As Regis put it in his Wired article:

Naturally, he received a fair amount of bad press for all this heresy, particularly for his pet claim that what the world needs most is lots of additional human beings. They’re not just mouths to feed, he argued. Newborn babes grow up to be creative adults; they turn into individuals who contribute and achieve, who give back far more than they ever take.... “Resources come out of people’s minds more than out of the ground or air,” says Simon. “Minds matter economically as much as or more than hands or mouths. Human beings create more than they use, on average. It had to be so, or we would be an extinct species.”

Yes, Simon received — “naturally”? — bad press for his good news. This is a theme to which we must return. Now let’s bring this Tale closer to our own time.

Doctor Three. Lomborg is a late comer to the Tale with the publication of his book The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001.

What’s the connection between Lomborg, on the one hand, and Ehrlich and Simon on the other? The connection is the very article on Simon by Ed Regis that I have quoted: Lomborg read it and was aghast that Simon had the impudence to say that all the doomsayers were wrong, and that facts and historical trends show them to be wrong. Lomborg believed the doomsaying and, being a statistician — naturally keen on facts and historical trends — he took Simon’s effrontery as something of a professional challenge.

So, Lomborg and some of his associates set out to prove Simon wrong. Instead, they discovered that the facts do, indeed, tend to prove that Simon, The Doomslayer, is largely right, and the doomsayers, like Ehrlich, are largely wrong.

I have not read The Skeptical Environmentalist. But Lomborg wrote a series of three articles, published the first week of September 2001, in The National Post, a Canadian publication. In them, he lays out the case in brief that he lays out at length in his book, also published that month. (These articles are no longer available at the URLs I have for them.)

In the first article, Sep. 1, Lomborg sets forth what he (following Simon’s lead) calls The Litany:

We are defiling our Earth, we are told. Our resources are running out. The population is ever-growing, leaving less and less to eat. Our air and water is more and more polluted. The planet’s species are becoming extinct in vast numbers — we kill off more than 40,000 each year. Forests are disappearing, fish stocks are collapsing, the coral reefs are dying. The fertile topsoil is vanishing. We are paving over nature, destroying the wilderness, decimating the biosphere and will end up killing ourselves in the process. The world’s ecosystem is breaking down. We are fast approaching the absolute limit of viability.

He wastes no time in setting the record straight about The Litany:

It does not seem to be backed up by the available evidence. We are not running out of energy or natural resources. There is ever more food, 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.

He proceeds to dispute almost every aspect of the doomsayers’ scenario:

  • agricultural production, and food consumption, in developing countries have actually increased in the past 30 years;
  • in the last 200 years, food prices have decreased by 90%;
  • the rate of population growth increase has been declining for 40 years;
  • air and water are becoming less and less polluted with every passing year;
  • species are not becoming extinct at a rapid rate; and,
  • widely held forecasts of global warming are overly pessimistic.

In his second article in the series, Sep. 3, Lomborg takes a closer look at our resources, and oil in particular — our dependence on it, and our fears of running out of it.

It seems that we have been running out of oil as long as anybody can remember:

In 1914, the U.S. Bureau of Mines estimated that supplies would last only 10 more years. In 1939, the U.S. department of the interior predicted oil would last only 13 more years. In 1951, it made the same projection: oil had only 13 more years. As Professor Frank Notestein of Princeton said in his later years: “We’ve been running out of oil ever since I was a boy.”

Though consumption has, of course, increased dramatically, we now have more known reserves of oil than ever before. This is the case, too, with other natural resources: though we use more and more of them, we have more left over for the future. Why? Because we discover more and more of them and learn ways to use them more efficiently.

In the last article in the series, Sep. 5, Lomborg basically accepts the premises of a 2001 report sponsored by an agency of the United Nations, but thinks that many conclusions drawn from the data are outlandish: he says we have to sort reality out from the hyperbole. And he argues that some of the proposed “cures” for global warming could be worse than the problem itself:

Despite our intuition that we need to do something drastic about global warming, we are in danger of implementing a cure that is more costly than the original affliction: economic analyses clearly show that it will be far more expensive to cut carbon dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures.

Indeed, the Kyoto Protocol would require that the developed world spend astronomical fortunes to produce only a minuscule effect on the environment by the end of this century, money that Lomborg argues would be much better spent improving conditions in the developing world.

A spate of articles preceded and accompanied the publication of The Skeptical Environmentalist. But Lomborg has been in the news again lately — and that will be the subject of the rest of this column, which will continue in the next issue of The View.

Part Two (March 4, 2002)

A spate of articles, as I mentioned last time, preceded and accompanied the publication of Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist, September 2001 . And Lomborg has been in the news again lately. (Which, by the way, is why I have been writing this two-part column.)

He has become, in certain respects, Julian Simon Redivivus: his message — The Good News is That The Bad News is Wrong — has not exactly been well-received among environmentalists. Unlike Simon — who, as far as I can tell, was widely ignored and, thus, easily dismissed — Lomborg has been getting a great deal of attention. And much of it has been very bad attention, as reported in an article in the London Sunday Times, Jan. 13:

The scientist who dared to challenge the establishment view on climate change has been subjected to a campaign of personal abuse, professional vilification and threats to his safety.... The book has provoked scientists and environmental groups into producing articles, websites and pamphlets rubbishing its author and his work.... He has been physically attacked and has had to employ bodyguards.

Huh? Good news — backed up with facts and statistics and history —is greeted with... vilification and violence? Perhaps somebody can explain that to me; in the meantime, I’ll try my own explanation.

How about an analogy? A family has (as they say) fallen on hard times: Dad has been laid off, with little real prospect of similar employment; Mom has been able to find only a low-paying part-time job. They watch their small savings dwindle with every bill they have to pay. The wolf is at the door (as they used to say) and the future that Dad and Mom imagine is inevitably worse than their past.

One afternoon, though, Mom makes a discovery. Shuffling through the household papers, scanning for anything they might have overlooked, she suddenly realizes that her husband’s life insurance policy has built up a pretty good cash value: they can withdraw enough money to see them through a couple of months, when the situation (as we say) might pick up.

Mom is overjoyed to have, finally, some good news for Dad. She hurries to him and announces her discovery: We have some money that we had forgotten about; we can breathe easier, at least for a little while.

Dad says that cannot be true. So Mom shows him the policy and the latest statement: The cash value is a bit more than $5,000, and we can withdraw almost all of it.

Dad says she must be — she must be — wrong. But Mom points here and there, to figures and facts, to the history of premiums paid and to the projection of cash values and death benefits, and she tells Dad the good news again: We can withdraw, $5,000 — and it will be tax-free because we have already paid more than $5,000 in premiums!

And Dad slaps her right across the mouth.

Bjorn Lomborg is Mom, so to speak, and Environmentalists are Dad.

Now, while the wisdom of my analogy is sinking in, allow me to move to a broader topic for a minute: what the heck is an Environmentalist? There must be lots of them: I see this or that person, on TV or the radio, or I read about this or that person in a newspaper or magazine or on the Internet — and this or that person is identified as an Environmentalist.

For instance, I was looking at a TV news story, and the reporter was interviewing different folks: some were identified as Farmers, others as Ranchers, and yet others as... Environmentalists.

The distinction that was being drawn implicitly — between Farmers and Ranchers on the one hand, and Environmentalists on the other — is pretty much lost on me. Especially since I’d be willing to bet money I don’t have that the Farmers and Ranchers are much closer to the environment than the Environmentalists are.

Now, I pretty much know what a Farmer, or a Rancher, is. What do they do for a living? Basically, they grow crops and raise livestock. Where does their money come from? Basically, from selling their crops and livestock. Where does their money go? Basically, back into the farm or the ranch, most likely. These are things I know, and I think pretty much anybody knows them, without having to ask about them.

But I do not know what an Environmentalist is. What do they do for a living? I don’t know. Where does their money come from? I don’t know. And where does their money go? I don’t know.

Do you?

Back to the Mom and Dad of our analogy. The only real explanation for Dad’s reaction to Mom’s good news is that — to put it politely — Dad’s mental health has deteriorated while contemplating the family’s bad state of affairs. In the case of Lomborg and the Environmentalists, that explanation just won’t do. (Okay, I could be wrong about that. But I shall proceed as if Environmentalists — whatever they happen to be — are sane. I hope you do not think this too unlikely.)

Now, allow me to recall a quotation from last time, from Ed Regis’ 1997 article on Julian Simon’s attempts to spread good news about the enivronment:

Naturally, he received a fair amount of bad press for all this heresy....

“Naturally”? I ask again. Good news about the environment “naturally” gets bad press?

Well, yes. But not because it’s good news. Rather, because good news about the environment is heresy: it is contrary to the received orthodoxy that the Earth is going (as they say) to hell in a handbasket, and that drastic curtailment of human activities — and only drastic curtailment of human activities — will keep the Earth from going there.

I’m not the only one who sees that good environmental news is heresy to the Environmentalists. Regis used the term years ago. The London Sunday Times article quoted above is entitled “Eco-heretic beset by hate campaign”. And a London Telegraph article, Jan. 20, takes the language even further:

But to the nabobs of the international environmental movement — the researchers, bureaucrats, politicians and protesters whose most passionate beliefs and professional livelihoods are staked on the near-religious conviction that the world is confronting imminent environmental catastrophe — Lomborg is the anti-Christ.

The article is entitled “Anti-Christ of the green religion”, and I think that the writer, David Thomas, has hit the nail (as they say) on the head: Environmentalists’ passionate beliefs and professional livelihoods are being challenged. That being the case, good news for the Earth is bad news for them, for their worldview, for their reputations, for their livelihooods, and for their influence.

But it remains good news for everybody else.

Of course, Lomborg is in the minority among published authors on environmental topics. And some of his opponents seem to think that fact tells very heavily against him and his arguments: why is he virtually the only one saying what he is saying?

One answer is this: because he is a pioneer. Lomborg is looking further and deeper into the evidence, and discovering that it does not really lead us to where it has been supposed to lead us.

And he is not so lonely as Environmentalists and mainstream media would have us think. The BBC ran an article, Feb. 25, about scientists disputing the generally received opinion about global climate change, which has recently become the linchpin of the Environmentalists’ relig... er... worldview:

A group of scientists in the US and the UK says the accepted wisdom on climate change remains unproved.... They claim it is “a media myth” to suppose that only a few scientists share their scepticism.

The article goes on to quote Philip Stott, professor emeritus of biogeology at the University of London:

The authors challenge the key contradiction at the heart of the Kyoto Protocol, the global climate agreement — that climate is one of the most complex systems known, yet that we can manage it by trying to control a small set of factors, namely greenhouse gas emissions. Scientifically, this is not mere uncertainty: it is a lie.

And science author John Gillot, in a spiked-science article, May 22, 2001, explains how an apparent scientific consensus is rigged through a media compliant to Environmentalists’ extremism:

European politicians, environmentalists and the media are unable to resist the temptation to link contemporary extremes of weather to global warming, even though there is little or no evidence for this. And they know it. A greater awareness of the range of variables influencing climate change and the potential impact on humans is making for a more interesting and realistic scientific debate. But this is rarely reflected in the public discussion. Instead, worst-case scenarios are commonly presented as fact. A rapid warming, of 3.5 degrees centigrade or more within the next century, would threaten significant changes. But would a more modest warming pose such a threat? There is a sound scientific basis, in both theoretical modelling and the study of past climates, for the view that a warmer world might be a better place for humans.

Sometimes, scientists have felt obliged to go on the public record about how mainstream media has distorted their findings. Even such a prestigious body as the USA’s National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is not immune from having its reports distorted. For instance, Richard Lindzen, MIT meteorology professor and member of the NAS panel on climate change, published an article in the Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2001:

Our primary conclusion was that despite some knowledge and agreement, the science is by no means settled. We are quite confident (1) that global mean temperature is about 0.5 degrees Celsius higher than it was a century ago; (2) that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen over the past two centuries; and (3) that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas whose increase is likely to warm the earth (one of many, the most important being water vapor and clouds).

But — and I cannot stress this enough — we are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in the future. That is to say, contrary to media impressions, agreement with the three basic statements tells us almost nothing relevant to policy discussions.

Lomborg himself recognizes that his position is perceived to be in the minority; in an article I quoted from last time, he gives four reasons why this is so:

  • “Lopsidedness” is built into scientific research: research is not conducted in an area if there are not actual problems already, or if there are not thought to be potential problems for the future. Lomborg says that this will “create an impression that many more potential problems exist than is the case.” I say that it also creates an incentive to magnify the number and impact of potential problems, to prop up researchers’ reputations and funding, which provides their livelihood, and perhaps to support some larger political purpose. (To say that scientific researchers are not subject to, or do not succumb to, temptations like that is tantamount to saying that they are not human beings.)
  • Environmentalists’ groups are lobbying groups: they need to get the media’s attention, and want to influence governing bodies, corporations, and the general public. While asserting that these groups are run by “selfless folks”, Lomborg does acknowledge that they “need to keep the money that sustains them rolling in. The temptation to exaggerate is surely there, and sometimes, indulged in.”
  • Bad news sells better than good news does, and the media gives the public what it wants. Lomborg notices that this is a fault of the media; I will add that, though the media may be faulted for giving the public what it wants in preference to more realistic viewpoints, the general public is partly to blame, too, for desiring bad news more than true news.
  • Poor individual perception causes us to be dependent on views shaped by the media, which suffer because of the reasons already explained.

Is all this enough to explain the hostility which has greeted the good news from Julian Simon, first, and now from Bjorn Lomborg? In the 1960s, the public — especially the media — was spell-bound by horror stories of imminent global catastrophe. Never mind that they never came true, and that in fact the world situation has been, by and large, getting better and better for a very long time. The train (as they say) had left the station, and there was nothing to stop it. Bad news — some of it exaggerated, some of it mere speculation, some of it outright deception — has been continually trumpeted by the mass media and welcomed by the general public. Biases built into scientific research, and into the propagan... er... the publicity methods of Environmentalist groups, have lent support to the widely received impression that bad environmental news is the only true, or the only significant, environmental news.

Is all this enough to explain the hostility? I think so. But other explanations are available, and I do not think we can merely discount them. Columnist Diane Alden wrote recently about her research into fraud by employees of both the US federal government and the Washington state government — Fish and Wildlife Service agents whose salaries are paid by the taxpayers — concerning the presence of an endangered species of lynx in certain forest areas. She and others speculate that the individuals involved want to be able to declare the forests off-limits to human activity as part of a larger, long-term plan:

Trace the motive behind the fraud to an international agenda. An agenda adopted years ago when the U.N. and UNESCO were looking for ways to create a global economy and social structure – a collectivist utopian vision of the collective “good.”

That ultimate “good,” of course, is decided by the world’s elites, the “good” of the collective as opposed to the welfare and primacy of the individual. What would be created is a despotic utopian world where where our lives, property, economics, education, jobs and the environment are centrally planned.

The cover for the collectivist vision is the environment – and environmental policy.

I, for one, do not dismiss this out of hand. For it doesn’t take long to realize that Lomborgs critics aren’t always motivated merely by concern for the state of the environment. Rather, some of them seem to be motivated by more concern for the state than for the environment.

For instance, one of his most strident critics, Mark Lynas, has noted the following (as of today’s publication of The View) on a website devoted to debunking Lomborg:

Lomborg’s clearly on a political exercise, producing an anti-environment polemic not entirely different from the kinds of statements emanating from the current Bush White House — just with more footnotes.... Why not take the $60 billion from George Bush’s stupid Son of Star Wars program and use that cash to save lives in Ethiopia? Because in a world where political choices are not made democratically at a global level, but by a small number of rich countries and corporations, the poor and the environment are never going to be a priority.

Ah. Yes. I see.

But even if one is not willing to go so far as Alden does, we nonetheless have all the evidence we need to understand something about Environmentalist groups. Their assertions — whether they be apocalyptic forecasts of the future state of the environment, or even simple claims of the current global state of affairs —their assertions need to be scrutinized and criticized much more than they have been these past 30 or 40 years. And so do their motivations and their intentions.

Strange that I should have to say this, but I think a little more inquisitiveness on the part of reporters would go a long way towards helping the public to sort out fact from fiction about the environment.

It seems to me, for instance, that I must be supposed to know about Environmentalists, and what they do, and where their money comes from, and where it goes: you see, nobody has even attempted to explain these things to me. A reporter ought to get mighty strange looks for asking, say, Farmers or Ranchers what they do for a living and how they earn their money. But I think reporters ought to start getting strange looks for not asking Environmentalists what they do for a living, and why they do it, and how they earn their money.

Strange, having to tell reporters to be more inquistive, no?

P.S. According to a Reuters article, Feb. 27, Lomborg has been appointed to head a new Danish independent environmental organization, the Institute for Environmental Valuation. Though it seems to me that he would bring a needed balance to their activities, his appointment “has enraged local environmentalists and invited criticism from opponents abroad”.

P.P.S. Some of the articles cited in this column are already unavailable at the URLs I have for them.

ELC 2002


 Volume 1.19 This View’s Column June 17, 2002 

The View from the Core, and all original material, © E. L. Core 2002. All rights reserved.

Cor ad cor loquitur J. H. Newman — “Heart speaks to heart”