In This Corner. . .

November 23, 2001

By Michael Jessen

It has all the elements of a world championship boxing match -- with the fate of the planet resting on the outcome.

"In this corner," the ring announcer bellows, "is Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and now a special UN envoy on HIV-Aids in Africa."

Lewis enters the arena to thunderous applause and the strains of the Beatles' tune "Think For Yourself." The words "You're telling all those lies/ About the good things we can have/ If we close our eyes" are repeated over and over.

"And in this corner," the announcer continues, "is the challenger -- Bjorn Lomborg, associate professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus in Denmark."

There are scattered boos as Lomborg steps in the ring. His theme music is also by the Beatles -- the tune is "Getting Better" and the words "I've got to admit it's getting better,/ A little better all the time" are emphasized.

This is, of course, an imaginary bout. While Lewis and Lomborg have never met, let alone debated, each stands squarely behind their belief.

Lewis visited Nelson two weeks ago and enthralled a West Kootenay audience of more than 500 with eloquence and passion about the state of the planet. His diagnosis coincided with comments in the UN Population Fund's recently-released annual report for 2001.

A former Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the 64-year-old Lewis repeated some facts from the report: Unclean water and poor sanitation kill over 12 million people each year; air pollution kills nearly 3 million. 24,000 people die from hunger every day, or one life lost every 3.6 seconds. Three-fourths of the deaths are children under the age of five. 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day, and most of them do not have access to basic sanitation or clean water. At the end of 1999, AIDS had caused 11.2 million children to be orphaned, as a result of losing their mothers before turning 15.

Lomborg is less well known although he does have his own web site at www.lomborg.com. He is the author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World" and currently on a world tour debunking what he sees as the major environmental myths of today. (You can view a sample chapter at http://uk.cambridge.org/economics/lomborg/).

A self-described left-winger, vegetarian, and former Greenpeace member, the 36-year-old Lomborg claims environmentalists have been crying wolf. They repeat a litany of resources running out, population ever growing --leaving less and less to eat, air and water ever more polluted, and species becoming extinct in vast numbers that Lomborg says is simply not true.

His book grew out of a project by students in his university statistics class to refute the writings of Julian Simon, a University of Maryland economist who challenged the views of environmentalists in the 1980s and 1990s, while earning the praise of big C conservatives.

As Lomborg and his students researched various data, they found Simon was mostly correct. "Doomsday is not neigh," says Lomborg. "Thus we don't need to act in desperation."

Lomborg's views are not falling on deaf ears. He is now the darling of right-wing groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, and America's Future Foundation. In Canada, the Fraser Institute has welcomed his views. After printing some excerpts from his book in September, the National Post's book reviewer Richard Lubbock concluded, "After Lomborg, the environmental movement will begin to wither."

Unqualified praise has not been the only response. Globe and Mail reviewer Andrew Nikiforuk called the book "dangerously inaccurate." Global Horizons columnist Edward Flattau says Lomborg "leaves us with a narrow simplistic picture of an extremely complex world." Professors at Lomborg's own university have set up a web site at www.au.dk/~cesamat/debate.html to dispute his views.

Two weeks ago, Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute, took the unprecedented step of writing a letter to the Society of Environmental Journalists urging them to "exercise caution in reporting on Bjorn Lomborg's new book."

"He exaggerates, makes sweeping generalizations, presents false choices, is highly selective in his use of data and quotations and, frequently, is simply wrong," writes Lash. The WRI media kit "Debunking Pseudo-Scholarship" is available at www.wri.org/wri/press/mk_lomborg.html.

Canadian scientist David Suzuki says Lomborg ignores "overwhelming evidence" of environmental problems. In his weekly Science Matters column (http://www.davidsuzuki.org/Dr_David_Suzuki/Article_Archives/weekly11160101.asp), Suzuki writes "Lomborg's take on the state of the planet is very similar to the positions of some large industry-funded institutes and groups, such as the Global Climate Coalition. These groups wage big budget campaigns to confuse the public about issues like air pollution and global warming."

A review of the book in the November 8th issue of the journal Nature (www.nature.com) describes The Skeptical Environmentalist as "a mass of poorly digested material, deeply flawed in its selection of examples and analysis." The review goes on to say that Lomborg's "bias towards non peer-reviewed material over internationally reputable journals is sometimes incredible...At other times it seems fictional."

After listening to Lewis and Lomborg (you can hear an interview with Lomborg at www.greenwave.com/radio/interviews), this commentator will declare Lewis the winner by a technical knockout. It is appealing to believe Lomborg's "everything's all right with the world" attitude, but it is Lewis' impassioned rhetoric that will motivate us to fix what's still wrong in the world.

ONE SMALL STEP - Generating enough electricity to power the world's computers requires the equivalent of 23 million tons of coal every year. Shut off your computer and monitor when you plan to leave for more than an hour. Don't turn on printers, modems, tape units, or CD-ROM drives until you plan to use them.

RESOURCES - The web site www.anti-lomborg.com/ contains the text of the articles Lomborg published in the Guardian newspaper in August. There is also a rebuttal by Tom Burke of the Green Alliance entitled "Ten Pinches of Salt". The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Earthbeat program carried a debate between Lomborg, Burke, climatologist Stephen Schneider, and Griffith University professor Ian Lowe. It is available at www.abc.net.au/rn/science/earth/stories/s394496.htm. Grist magazine took a skeptical look at The Skeptical Environmentalist in its December 12th issue. You'll find rebuttals of Lomborg by E.O. Wilson, Lester Brown, Allen Hammond, and Devra Davis -- among others -- in the online issue at www.gristmagazine.com/grist/books/lomborg121201.asp.


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