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.
In the preface Lomborg acknowledges his intellectual debt to the last round of the Malthusian debate—an interview with Julian Simon in Wired magazine. Simon argued that population growth has led to improving material and environmental indicators: a theme in his work ever since his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource—admired by Hayek. Lomborg’s intellectual history bears an uncanny resemblance to Simon’s. A sixties’ marketing and management guru with Malthusian views on the dangers of population growth, Simon was shaken out of his beliefs—and, he claims, his long-run depression—by a study of the available data. Subsequent attacks led him to defend his environmentalist credentials in the second edition: ‘I don’t like to kill spiders and cockroaches, and I’d prefer to shoo flies out of the house than kill them’. Lomborg’s background is as a statistician. After researching Simon’s conclusions—which he at first took as just ‘right-wing propaganda’—he too reversed his views about the deteriorating state of the environment. Lomborg, however, is keen to avoid Simon’s perceived mistake of being pigeonholed according to political creed, and gets his defence in early: as a self-confessed vegetarian, and previously a ‘left-wing Greenpeace member’, readers are instructed not to dismiss this factual work on merely political grounds.
Simon and Lomborg both bemoan the media’s obsession with bad news and disaster scenarios, but the latter’s Damascene conversion seems to have provided a vital journalistic hook: from Politiken and the Guardian to the Economist, via the Washington Post, Lomborg’s relentlessly statistical ‘good news’ has been given maximum publicity. Environmentalists and scientists have now hit back. Reviews were commissioned from a range of his targets, with one notable quartet published in the Scientific American—a subsequent row about Lomborg’s right to reply and reprint quickly became ill-tempered, spilling onto other pages and websites. Lomborg’s site,
The Sceptical Environmentalist has the look, feel and bureaucratic prose-style of an economics or social-science textbook (‘we must take care of the problems, prioritize reasonably, but not worry unduly’). Tables, graphs and inset boxes illustrate each step of the argument. Every chapter begins with a recitation of ‘The Litany’—classic environmentalist works, activist pamphlets and the mass media, prophesying impending crisis. Lomborg then deploys a range of sources—typically UN, US and EU research bodies—with the aim of disproving the wilder claims, and setting the remainder within the cheering context of a cost-benefit analysis. Like Simon, he successfully dismantles parts of Erlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and Meadows’s Limits to Growth (1972)—predictions of rising prices and global famine have not been borne out by the facts.
Lomborg plays his cards in order of strength, beginning with rising average human welfare and the global availability of resources. A population that has expanded from less than three billion to more than six billion in fifty years has continued to enjoy increases in life expectancy and decreases in infectious disease—even, Lomborg is at pains to show, in the developing world. Resilient strains of major crops and increased use of fertilizers and pesticides have confounded Malthusian predictions about our food supply. Agricultural production has consistently outstripped population growth, leading to a 23 per cent rise in food per capita since 1961—in developing countries, output per capita is up 52 per cent. On its radically unequal distribution, he argues that both the percentage and absolute number of people starving in the developing world has fallen since 1970. Sub-Saharan Africa, where a tiny decline in the ratio of starving to non-starving is overshadowed by a large rise in the absolute number, is whisked away behind a simplified Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’. Given a choice between living in a country where 500,000 people out of a population of 1 million are starving, and one in which 499,999 people out of 500,000 starve, we would choose the former—so only the relative number carries moral weight.