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New Left Review 16, July-August 2002


Jacob Stevens on Bjørn Lomborg, The Sceptical Environmentalist. Cost-benefit analysis of land, air and oceans yields a panglossian ecological forecast for the century ahead.

JACOB STEVENS

MONETIZED ECOLOGY

When Thomas Malthus wrote ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’, positing a timeless clash between an exponentially increasing population and far slower growth in food production, he had a political agenda: to rule out any egalitarian plans for human society. William Hazlitt’s furious and eloquent response, in the name of ‘all knowledge, or virtue, or liberty’, set the pitch for a debate that has continued unabated. Today, the ideological content of the positions has been reversed: it is the left-liberal greens who warn about exhaustible resources; proponents of virtuous capitalist growth are more likely to be CEOs. Bjørn Lomborg, firmly on the latter side, sets out to undermine modern-day Malthusians and defuse all related environmentalist concerns. The inventiveness of human society and the dynamism of contemporary capitalism will overcome any limits to our food supplies. Doomsayers, from Malthus through to Al Gore and Greenpeace, are subjected to an extensive and withering polemic across 500 pages and 3,000 footnotes: they have misconstrued the facts. The range of the book—demographics, grain and fish stocks, fossil fuels, deforestation, air and water pollution, species extinctions, global warming—is as varied as the argumentative structure is monotonous: the economy is improving, pollution is under control, pesticides are almost harmless, biodiversity is unthreatened and, last but not least, the greenhouse effect presents no significant threat.

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