The Heretical Environmentalist

New Zealand Herald, February 20, 2003

Denis Dutton


It's often said that religion is in decline in New Zealand, as in Britain and Europe. Perhaps, but evidence such as low church attendance does not mean that a deep-seated human religious sensibility is dying. It's just finding new outlets.

In Godzone, it appears the environmental movement is set to supplant Anglicanism as the major religion. Green ideology gives believers what they need in religion:

* A misty, sentimental sense of the spiritual oneness of all creation (Gaia-worshipping pantheism).

* The certainty of faith and an easy disregard for reason and evidence when it does not take the believer toward cherished emotional goals.

* Original sin (pollution and the despoliation of nature caused by civilised human life - just to be breathing, eating, defecating homo sapiens is sin enough for Green fanatics).

* Saints and visionaries, authors of the sacred scripture (sermonising broadcaster the Rev David Suzuki or Saint Rachel Carson, author of The Silent Spring).

* Dietary restrictions (requiring we avoid unclean, artificial or genetically modified foods).

* Prophets of doom (environmental fanatic Paul Ehrlich predicted hundreds of millions would starve by the 1990s, with half of all species extinct by 2000; Kyoto doomsayers prophesy that after being fried alive, we will be swallowed by the seas).

* Promise of salvation in a new political millennium (Green Party rule).

But religions often have one more feature: heretics, along with inquisitions and witch trials to suppress them. Green religion has its first important heretic, the Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg.

Lomborg, a former Greenpeace member, is now a smart, rigorous, number-crunching statistician at the University of Aarhus. In 1997, he read an article by economist Julian Simon claiming that the litany of doom promulgated by the Greens was false: species were not going extinct by the minute, overpopulation was not leading to environmental disaster, the world was not running out of oil, metals, or other natural resources and the quality of life over the globe was steadily improving, with more food and increased longevity everywhere, including the Third World.

Lomborg thought Simon's conclusions must be simple American right-wing propaganda, and decided to do the background research that would prove Simon wrong.

What Lomborg discovered was that on every point Simon's analysis was accurate.

Lomborg eventually drew his findings together in a book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, which was published in 2001 by the Cambridge University Press. (See my Washington Post review.)

The effect was electrifying. In more than 500 pages, including nearly 300 footnotes and 182 tables and diagrams which rely on the Greens' own sources, such as United Nations studies, Lomborg revealed the distortions, exaggerations, and prevarication that support persistently gloomy Green ideology. It turns out that the world is not sliding toward a polluted hell, but getting better. Pesticides and chemicals are not killing us, but improving the quality of life and extending its length worldwide.

Some of the urban legends of the Greens, such as the oft-repeated fairy tale that 40,000 species go extinct every year, are guesses that have morphed into established fact.

Caloric intake in the Third World has increased by 38 per cent since 1961, and infant mortality is declining. Raw materials for manufacture and housing, rather than decreasing in availability, are increasing.

Lomborg also analysed trade-offs that have to be faced in dealing with environmental problems. Suppose, for example, that pesticides hypothetically cause a handful of cancers in countries the size of the United States or Britain every year. If, as many Greens advocate, we ban pesticides, we will inevitably drive up the price of the fruits and vegetables that have the property of warding off cancer.

This, in turn, will cause a decrease in consumption, especially among the less well-off, and hence force a corresponding rise in cancer incidence. In fact, banning pesticides may end up causing perhaps a thousand times more cancer than it cures.

Since Lomborg's book was published, the Greens have been doing a slow burn, and just last month were, so they hoped, able to destroy Bjorn Lomborg.

The Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty, mostly non-scientists headed by a judge, evaluated complaints by Greens against Lomborg and concluded he was, indeed, guilty of the logically odd crime of being dishonest in his book without intending to be.

The committee assessed no factual charges against Lomborg, rightly viewing itself as incompetent to do so. Instead, it relied on year-old Scientific American articles, refusing to consider Lomborg's detailed and effective refutation of them.

One small example of a charge levelled against him: Lomborg, says the committee, overlooks the fact it is large-scale subsidies to farmers, particularly in the developed countries, that keep prices artificially low. But, of course, as every New Zealand exporting farmer knows, European and American farm price supports are designed precisely to keep prices high and to keep local, inefficient farmers in business. So much for Lomborg's "dishonesty".

The Danish committee's incoherent judgment has been ridiculed by such sources as The Australian, The Economist, New Scientist, and the International Herald Tribune (the committee's whole decision, along with press and magazine reactions, can be read on the Arts & Letters Daily website. A letter defending Lomborg has been signed by a large number of Danish academics.

The Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty has by now made a world-wide laughing stock of itself, and, incidentally, caused the already huge sales of The Skeptical Environmentalist to spurt again.

If Lomborg thought debate over environmental policy was about the reasoned use of scientific fact, he has learned better. Unable to refute him, the Greens declared him anathema and brought him before an inquisition on trumped-up charges. If they could, they would burn him at the stake.

Were Lomborg a spokesman for the oil industry or farming interests, the Greens could ignore him. But he is a former believer turned apostate - the kind of heretic Green religion does not want. But The Skeptical Environmentalist is exactly the book the rest of the world needs.