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HOW A GREENPEACE ACTIVIST CHANGED HIS MIND

 

Bjorn Lomborg was the kind of environmental activist that Greenpeace was proud to have as a member. He was a 32 year-old associate professor of Statistics at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

 

In 1997 Lomborg was browsing through a bookstore in Los Angeles when he read an interview with the American economist Julian Simon. In this interview Simon maintained that the popular doomsday assessments on the rapidly deteriorating state of the environment were based on preconceptions and myths that were easily disproved by facts that were readily available to anybody. Rather than getting worse, Simon said that the real data proved that the world’s air, water, forests and supply of resources including food, energy and essential minerals was improving and would continue to improve. Moreover, he claimed that the conditions of human life throughout the world in general would continue to make gains in terms of longevity, health, infant mortality, hunger, poverty and general well-being. The thing that especially gained the attention of the young professor of Statistics was Simon’s claim that he only used official statistics which everyone has access to and can use to check his claims.

 

Since Lomborg taught statistics, he concluded it would be an easy matter for him to check Simon’s sources and prove him to be wrong.  He enlisted the aid of a study group of ten of his sharpest students to examine Simon thoroughly. “Honestly,” confessed Lomborg, “we expected to show that most of Simon’s talk was simple, American right-wing propaganda.” But after a year of research, the group was led to the surprising conclusion that a large amount of Simon’s claims had stood up to scrutiny.

 

Lomborg had to ask himself why he had previously been so definitely convinced that the environmental situation is bad and ever deteriorating. He encountered the same pessimistic environmental assumptions among his friends. He wondered why these doomsday-visions were so firmly anchored within the culture in the absence of solid data to support them.

 

 Simon’s challenge to look at the actual statistics consumed the next four years of Bjorn Lomberg’s life. In 200l, his 500-page report was published under the title of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. The world-renowned author of Genome, Matt Ridley, said that Lomberg’s “brilliant and powerful book”  “should be read by every environmentalist so that the appalling errors of fact the environmental movement has made in the past are not repeated.”

 

The publication of Lomberg’s book has been a watershed event in the environmental debate. Some doomsday myths have been so thoroughly exposed as contrary to fact that we are unlikely to hear much about these phoney myths again. Like Simon before him, Lomberg has been greeted with derision and downright hostility by true believers who remain impervious to the facts. A pie was thrown into his face at one conference. He was featured on our own 60 Minutes program where he calmly debated a shrilly Peter Garret, winning a 70% plus support in an audience survey. The tide continues to turn against the miasma of an endemic environmental pessimism.