How did a lanky Danish vegetarian who wears T shirts to important meetings and votes only for left-wing politicians become the great Satan of environmentalism? By telling everyone he is an environmentalist but sounding like the opposite. "We are not running out of energy or natural resources," writes Bjorn Lomborg, 37, an associate professor of statistics at Denmark's University of Aarhus and a former member of Greenpeace, in his 1998 book The Skeptical Environmentalist. "Air and water around us are becoming less and less polluted. Mankind's lot has actually improved in terms of practically every measurable indicator."
The book, which was published in English last year, became a best seller, and conservatives worldwide use its ideas to justify inaction on such issues as deforestation and global warming. "We should do something that actually does good and not sounds good," he says of the expense of complying with the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. "For the cost of Kyoto for one year, we could give clean drinking water and sanitation to every human being on earth."
Some scientists say they initially hoped to ignore Lomborg but in the wake of his book's popularity have reacted with a fury rarely seen in academia. Peter Raven, chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, calls Lomborg "the prime example in our time of someone who distorts statistics and statements to meet his own political end." A dozen esteemed environmental scientists, including Raven and Harvard's Edward O. Wilson, are demanding that Lomborg's publisher cut him loose. "We are deeply disturbed that Cambridge University Press would publish and promote an error-filled, poorly referenced and non-peer-reviewed work," they write in a letter calling on Cambridge to transfer publishing rights to a popular, nonscholarly press.
The problem is, Lomborg gets many of his facts right--and provides 2,930 footnotes to make them easy to check. Some scientists and environmental advocates have made exaggerated claims about environmental doom, and it's not surprising that they have finally been catalogued. Yet Lomborg is as guilty of exaggeration and selective use of data as those he criticizes. He is right that air and water quality and agricultural productivity have improved in much of the world. But to look at the data on global warming, biological diversity, marine depletion and deforestation and still say things are generally getting better takes a willful blindness. That's why it's a shame so many of the attacks on Lomborg rely on name calling. All that does is avoid what could be a valuable debate on the substance of environmental policy--and, of course, help Lomborg sell books. "I'm making a fair amount of money from the book," says Lomborg. "A lot more than Cambridge thought." --By Andrew Goldstein. With reporting by Ulla Plon/Copenhagen and Charles P. Wallace/Berlin