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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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I finished Part I of The Skeptical Environmentalist last night (total of 42 pages of two-column text). Part I—entitled The Litany—is divided into two chapters: “Things are getting better” and “Why do we hear so much bad news?”

This section is devoted to what Lomborg calls “the Litany,” the environmental dogma accepted implicitly by most of the participants in the environmental debate. This Litany, in Lomborg’s view, is the theory of an ever deteriorating environment. It is taught to children, implicit in scientific papers, and accepted uncritically in countless news reports.

The first chapter—“Things are getting better”—lays out the Litany as it exists today and cites statistics to show that, in general, things are improving. He carefully makes the point that things aren’t necessarily good, but that they’re getting better. The remainder of the chapter is spent summarily reviewing the tenets of the Litany as represented by prominent environmental organizations, particularly Lester Brown’s Worldwatch Institute, and then as summarily refuting them with statistics.

This first chapter is qualitatively mixed. Lomborg’s presentation and rebuttal of the environmental organizations’ alarmist proclamations is unnecessary, a fact which he implicitly recognizes by pointing out which future chapter or graph will provide support for his contentions. It leaves the impression that this chapter is a summary of what follows except that it is clear from the table of contents and prefatory remarks that there is much omitted.

Throughout the chapter, though, are epistemological explanations that offer an interesting survey of the statisical methods employed by the book. We learn, for example, that Lomborg intends to focus on important trends on a global scale over the long term. He notes that “important” means important to people, to humankind. He also indicates that he will rely on international, government sources for his data. He does so not because they are any more authoritative than academic or scientific sources, but because they are the same figures that the environmental organizations use to make their alarmist claims. In so doing, he will also illustrate that divergent conclusions can be reached from the same starting point…or that the environmental organizations are completely fabricating their conclusions—he, being more charitable than me, would take the former approach.

The second chapter—“Why do we hear so much bad news?”—examines the reason why, despite the outlandishness of their claims, the environmental organizations’ voices are the only ones heard in the debate. Lomborg’s theory is that the environmental organizations have a vested interest in a deteriorating environment and that the media publishes their press releases because they fit the news model. The media needs news reports that involve something easily understandable in a short period, shock the reader/viewer into paying attention, contain recent news, and portrays conflict. Environmental catastrophe fits into this profile whereas environmental stability meets none of them.

The next part is 44 pages long and covers “Human Welfare,” so expect another review within a week—life willing.