Book Review – The Skeptical Environmentalist

However, we have to realize that investing in an ever better environment is only one of the many ways we can invest in a better world, and that we must prioritize the environment against better education, more health care, and better infrastructure as well as improving conditions in the Third World.

The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjorn Lomborg

This book is practically a college textbook. It looks like a textbook, it certainly weighs as much as one. It doesn’t, however, read like one. Which is good…I hate reading textbooks.

To get to the meat of the issue already…I really liked this book. Lomborg has written a very well-researched (almost 3,000 footnotes, with about half of them sources), easily read, thought-provoking book. He takes everything we’ve ever been told (things that most of us, including myself, never questioned) and looks at it critically. Very critically. And since Lomborg is a statistician, there are tons of graphs, clear explanations of exactly how the data were collected and interpreted, etc, etc. He leaves no stone unturned and certainly impressed me. Whether or not impressing me impresses you is something else entirely, however.

He makes a lot of arguments that I had previously not considered. Indoor air pollution? He points out that as we insulate our homes more and more in order to cut heating and cooling costs, we make this problem worse. He also argues that the increased cost of hurricane damage is not because hurricanes are getting worse, but rather because there are more of us living in hurricane-prone areas and we have more “stuff” to be damaged. Global warming? Possibly beneficial to developed countries, but detrimental to developing countries. And, by the way, it’s not as big a deal as it’s made out to be. Hell, the whole section on global warming was absolutely great and should be required reading for anyone wanting to discuss climate change.

A great example is his discussion on limiting carbon emissions. He finds that the more cost-effective route is not to limit emissions, but rather to fund R&D for alternative power. The argument is that by limiting emissions, we will be implementing costly programs that will have little impact while depriving ourselves unnecessarily. Increased funding for alternative power, however, will give us much greater gains while costing much less.

One of the most interesting sections, for me personally, is the one on pesticides and conventional agriculture. Lomborg argues that by limiting or eliminating pesticides and herbicides (which, he finds later, are very unlikely to cause health problems) we would in fact be decreasing the amount of forest cover…because we would require more land to grow food as the percent yield goes down.

All those are simplifications, of course, and I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in environmental issues to read this book, if for no other reason than to consider his arguments. I found them, as I said, to be very compelling.

Here’s a nice quote from the book, which sums up a few of his findings very nicely:

“We will not lose our forests; we will not run out of energy, raw materials or water. We have reduced atmospheric pollution in the cities of the developed world and have good reason to believe that this will also be achieved in the developing world. Our oceans have not been defiled, our rivers have become cleaner and support more life, and although the nutrient influx has increased in many coastal waters like the Gulf of Mexico, this does not constitute a major problem – in fact, benefits generally outweigh costs. Nor is waste a particularly big problem…

“Acid rain did not kill off our forests, our species are not dying out as many have claimed, with half of them disappearing over the next 50 years – the figure is likely to be about 0.7 percent. The problem of the ozone layer has been more or less solved. The current outlook on global warming does not indicate a catastrophe – rather, there is good reason to believe that our energy consumption will change toward renewable energy sources way before the end of the century.”

Keep in mind, though, he doesn’t advocate the view that we have “solved” our environmental problems. In fact, he states several times that while it’s better, it’s still not good enough. All in all, a very sound way to look at it.

Of course, if this person is to be believed, we should give up on the environment altogether, as it’s “…crippled our economy, our lives, our budgets and worse our children’s lives.”


3 Responses to “Book Review – The Skeptical Environmentalist”

  1. Followed your link over to here. In my defense, you did not accurately represent my position. In that post I was talking about the extreme results of allowing bureaucrats use laws and rules to control your personal actions without regard to common sense or justice. “Just because” isn’t good enough, even if you are a nerdy left wing tree hugger. Prove it with untainted science and I’ll be the first to jump on board, within reason.

    Here are a couple of issues the left has demonized beyond reason-
    1. Nuclear power. It is safe, environmentally friendly and if done right can be cheaper than other systems (ask France).
    2. “Wetlands” which can be anything from a muddle to a hundred mile long marshland. At some point you have to admit the puddle doesn’t qualify, right?
    3. Global cooling…er global… climate change…er.. an agenda to control every aspect of your life and tax you blind, using science that has been compromised by politics and greed. Yeh, that’s it.
    4. Endangered species. I absolutely think we need to be good stewards of the earth both land, sea, animal and plant. But within reason. We have to accept that man when expanding his influence is going to run into conflicts. However, you don’t starve a man to save a guppy. You don’t kill off a child or have a home burn to the ground over a toad or a lizard or an ant. First off I’ve seen far too many “They only exist here” arguments that have been proven false over and over. Frankly, to say “they only exist here” is a sign of supreme arrogance. How do you know? Did you scour every square in of the planet first? Then you are lying. period. Now you can say, “Let’s find a balance between houses falling off a cliff and a bug living in the same area. Or not. It’s a bug after all. A bug.”

    I’m an outdoorsman, hunter, fisherman and sportsman. I’ve taught both my children to harvest ONLY what they intend to eat or to take life only if it is a threat. At the same time, I do not expect them to sacrifice themselves for an animal or a plant or a bug. That is just silly and destroys any credibility the tree huggers have. (For example we are going to lightbulbs that are made with chemicals dangerous to US to save what? Really, how much energy vs. the entire usage? This is where you lose your support from people with common sense.)

    It is always about balance. Finding a way to harvest whales but not stress their population. Finding a way to harvest deer without threatening their herd. Finding a way to have a lightbulb that is more efficient without poisoning our kids.


    • I’d love to see the sources that back up your claim that green living has “…crippled our economy, our lives, our budgets and worse our children’s lives.”

      You didn’t address the actual statement.Yes, I do believe we should find a balance. But I don’t think your statement there is about “balance.”

      I wasn’t trying to represent the opinion of your entire post on the topic, I was pointing out the inanity of that particular statement. I intend on posting later in regards to the green movement’s reaction to the Audi commercials (I found both the commercial itself and the reactions to be absolutely hilarious).

      In regards to your other statements:

      I don’t really have an opinion on nuclear power. I don’t know enough to form one.

      The puddle may be more important than a wetland to a breeding population of Houston toads. So in some cases, it does qualify. Whether or not the puddle (and the toads) should be saved is another discussion entirely.

      I don’t give two shits about climate change for the most part, but I do agree with you there…the green movement should not be using fear mongering to change people’s lives and attitudes. I don’t think they’re quite to the point of controlling our lives or taxing us blind yet, though.

      The fact that insisting we prove that there are not populations of endangered species living elsewhere shows a very severe lack of knowledge in the fields of wildlife and evolutionary biology. A natural population (ie, a population existing in a place of its own accord, not one that was moved or influenced to move by anthropogenic forces) would, by the theory of speciation, eventually cease to become that species. So unless the population is relatively new to the area, it is highly unlikely that it will be regarded as the same species. A sub-species is more likely and those are handled separately when considering endangered or threatened status.

      Yes, it is always about balance. But balance also means that WE, as a species, have to occasionally give in to the demands of the world we live in. If it does not hurt us terribly to let the Houston toads have their puddle, then we should let them. It’s not going to make or break our economy to have those areas less densely settled.

      I have comment threads ending after the third, so while you will be able to reply to this, I will be unable to respond in turn to that. My email is on the sidebar of the main page, however.

  2. […] though. He makes some strong logical arguments, which are refuted with equal logical strength by The Skeptical Environmentalist. Believe what side you will. He also states that none of the alternative energy sources we’re […]

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