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October 3, 2001

Environmentalist Myths

Second Thoughts From A One-time Believer

The economist Julian Simon, who passed away in 1998, was a personal friend of mine who liked the positive view of the human race and its future that I present in many of my books, particularly with regard to resources becoming more plentiful, not scarcer, and life in general getting better, not worse. This was hardly surprising, since my views on such matters were influenced to some considerable degree by Julian's work in the first place. Essentially, he delighted in confounding the fashionable doom-gloom teachings that pervade so much of today's thinking by compiling voluminous data showing that just about every commodity you can name from energy to metal ores, food supplies to transportation, have fallen steadily in real cost over the longer term -- an indicator of greater abundance, not imminent exhaustion - and that growing human populations are a sign of improving wealth and conditions, not impoverishment. His works are described at www.rhsmith.umd.edu/faculty/JSimon/

Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, held what he calls "left-wing Greenpeace views," subscribing to the Environmentalist litany that we've been hearing for years to the effect that:

  • Natural resources are running out.
  • The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat
  • Species are becoming extinct in vast numbers: forests are disappearing and fish stocks are collapsing.
  • The planet's air and water are becoming ever more polluted
  • Human activity is thus defiling the earth, and humanity may end up killing itself in the process
After reading about and taking exception to Simon's claims in an article in Wired www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.02/ffsimon_pr.html he embarked on a research project to debunk them. After three months, however, his group reached the conclusion that the hard evidence not only failed to support the doomsday picture that "everyone knows" and the media love to revel in, but indicated the precise opposite - which was what Julian Simon had been saying all along. It's so refreshing to come across someone capable of reconsidering fundamental beliefs, particularly ones with such heavy ideological associations, when the facts seem to warrant it -- which in my submission is one of the first essentials of real science.

Lomborg's story is the subject of an article "The Truth About The Environment" in The Economist, August 14, 2001, pp. 63-65. Also at www.economist.com/science/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=718860

His book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, has been published in English by Cambridge University Press.

My thanks to Rob Racansky and Dave Schilling for supplying the above URLs and to Eleanor Wood for sending the Economist article.

Julian Simon gained fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view) some years ago when he took a $10,000 bet with neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich that for any 5 commodities Ehrlich cared to name, the price in real terms would fall significantly over the next 10 years, indicating increasing availability and abundance, not scarcity and depletion. Simon won spectacularly.

 
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