I don't think I was resubscribed to Enviroethics (or pen-l) when I posted
my review of Lomborg's Julian Simon regurgitation to the TWS and ECOLOG
listservers. As published in Conservation Biology a few months ago
(under the title "Julian Simon Redux"):
Lomborg, B. (2001) The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real
State of the World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. xxiii +
515pp., figs, index. Paperback: Price US$27.95. 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 to 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 (http://www.urban75.com/Action/news138.html). I appreciate
these largely empirical efforts, for they free me to focus on glaring
theoretical shortcomings. Lomborg prefaced, "I am not myself an expert
as regards environmental problems " (xx), yet 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, for 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, etc. 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? ?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 in his
grasp of logic, such a logical last resort is but one more indication of
Lomborg disregards the trophic structure of the human economy, the
foundation of which is agriculture and the extractive sectors (logging,
mining, ranching, etc.), 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, etc.), 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 to explain his cure-all
prescription of generating more money to throw at more problems. He
fails to recognize that agricultural surplus is what frees the 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 type of 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
Simon, J. L. 1996. The ultimate resource 2. Princeton University
Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
Czech, B. 2000a. Shoveling fuel for a runaway train: errant economists,
shameful spenders, and a plan to stop them all. University of California
Press, Berkeley, California.
Czech, B. 2000b. Economic growth as the limiting factor for wildlife
conservation. Wildlife Society Bulletin 28(1):4-14.