BOOKS: A Cool Head in the Hot Air ; after Decades of Ecological Gloom, a Fearless Dane Argues That the Green Emperors Have No Clothes. Should We Believe Him? Up to a Point, Says Michael McCarthy, but That's No Excuse for Complacency; the Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg Cambridge University Press, Pounds 17.95, 544pp

By McCarthy, Michael | The Independent (London, England), September 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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BOOKS: A Cool Head in the Hot Air ; after Decades of Ecological Gloom, a Fearless Dane Argues That the Green Emperors Have No Clothes. Should We Believe Him? Up to a Point, Says Michael McCarthy, but That's No Excuse for Complacency; the Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg Cambridge University Press, Pounds 17.95, 544pp


McCarthy, Michael, The Independent (London, England)


There is no doubt that one of the great attractions of environmentalism, or the environmental movement as it has emerged in the four decades since the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, is that it has answered the hunger for values and meaning many people increasingly feel in a post-Christian world.

If not formally a religion, environmentalism has many of the aspects of one: God might be gone, but here is a another Higher Power, the Earth, whom we reverence infinitely and before whom we realise our own arrogance and our own limitations. Environmentalism has light and darkness; it has simple right and simple wrong; it has a great community of fervent believers in many lands; it feels very much like a universal church.

And here comes its would-be Martin Luther. The green movement's version of the troublesome German friar is a Danish associate professor of statistics, Bjorn Lomborg, and his equivalent of the 95 theses nailed to the church door at Wittenberg is a 500-page, massively-referenced attack on all the ways in which he feels the greens have got it wrong: The Skeptical Environmentalist.

In recent weeks, previews of his work have provoked howls of outrage from the environmental movement to compare with those that came from Mother Church in 1517. Lomborg himself, for all his own professed concern for the health of the planet, has been denounced, as it were, as an agent of the devil.

This is understandable, maybe. Lomborg goes in hard. On the broadest of fronts, he attacks what he asserts is the core creed of the greens: the belief that the environment is ever deteriorating. The notion that the world is getting worse, that air, water and soil are ever more polluted and that hunger, poverty and disease are growing irresistibly is plain wrong, Lomborg says.

The figures, a plethora of them (which he gives), simply support the opposite conclusion. In much of the world, air and water have not been so clean since before the industrial revolution, and the earth has never been so productive of food. Hunger, poverty and disease are all on a downward trend. The condition of the world indeed is not yet good enough; but it is vastly better than it was.

Yet no recognition of this, says Lomborg, comes from the greens. Instead, they put out a constant concatenation of messages and images of doom, which he terms - tempted himself by religious metaphor - The Litany. That pesticides residues will give us cancer, that acid rain is destroying forests, that 40,000 species a year are disappearing: all these assertions are chanted daily by the faithful, he says, without - once you look really closely into them - any evidence in support.

Why is The Litany so ingrained?

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BOOKS: A Cool Head in the Hot Air ; after Decades of Ecological Gloom, a Fearless Dane Argues That the Green Emperors Have No Clothes. Should We Believe Him? Up to a Point, Says Michael McCarthy, but That's No Excuse for Complacency; the Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg Cambridge University Press, Pounds 17.95, 544pp
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