Top critical review
Half of the truth
on June 18, 2003
In "The Skeptical Environmentalist-Measuring the Real State of the World," Lomborg makes a valiant attempt to be objective. He does a good job of exposing more easily debunked myths such the one that 40,000 species go extinct every year. He falls short however when addressing more complex issues. His major shortcoming in this regard is that he is a statistician, not a scientist with the expertise to explore extremely complex scientific issues that too often seem paradoxical to all but the specialists who spend years studying them. In his chapter on global warming, Lomborg details his argument that the phenomenon is real, but hardly the threat that most climatologists claim it is. This is a little like a dentist explaining that a rare new type of cancer is not as bad as oncologists say it is.
Although, as a professor of statistics, Lomborg does a commendable job of documenting his figures, the figures don't always tell the whole story. One of the more glaring examples is his argument that the world has plenty of water. In his chapter on water, Lomborg goes to great lengths to show that there is enough surface water to support human life on earth, but only superficially delves into the subject of ground water, and barely mentions the fact that aquifers are sinking all over the world from overpumping. He completely ignores the subject of how much water is required to
support freshwater aquatic life (fish, etc.) or any of the natural systems that depend on fresh water to exist. He seems to be unaware of "subsidence"- a phenomenon that results from too much extraction of groundwater. Subsidence is causing a number of areas of the world to sink and the substrata to harden so that it cannot reabsorb as much water. Lomborg seems equally oblivious of salinization of coastal river deltas when their flow levels decrease, or of any other water problem not directly demonstrable by numbers to affect humans.
A major weakness of this book is that statistics can't support every argument. More abstract, but vital, aspects of the state of the world, such as beauty, justice, the human spirit and the value of animals are conveniently sidestepped. Lomborg often uses one criterion-- the length of human lives / how many deaths result from x, y or z--as the paramount measurement of our success or failure.
A magician tricks our senses by his skill at hiding vital parts of unfolding events. Similarly, when Lomborg fails to reveal vital parts of environmental issues, he presents a deceptively convincing case to the uninformed. Because it contains so much information and is so thoroughly referenced, "The Skeptical Environmentalist" should be read by anyone seeking the truth about environmental issues, but it should be balanced by such books as Paul and Anne Ehrlich's "Betrayal of Science and Reason."
The central point of Lomborg's book is very valid-that we need to make rationally prioritize our problems based upon facts instead of upon myths. But his incomplete approach leaves too many "myths" still in question.