Greens undecided if sky is falling

SAN FRANCISCO _ The greens are feeling rather blue these days. Sept. 11 depreciated the claim that the ruin of the environment is the single most urgent threat facing civilization, and it deprived them of their favorite whipping boy _ the Bush administration.

A few days after 9/11, the Sierra Club posted a remarkable announcement on its Web site declaring that the club had “removed any material from the Web that people could perceive as anti-Bush”. Because President Bush is off-limits for the time being, environmentalists are directing their invective instead toward Bjorn Lomborg, a hitherto unknown Danish statistician who burst on the scene last fall with a blockbuster book titled “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the True State of the Planet” (Cambridge University Press).

Lomborg’s story has captured the media’s attention because he describes himself as an “old left-wing Greenpeace member” who changed his mind about the environmental prospects for planet Earth.

Lomborg’s optimism challenges the pervasive gloom of environmentalists, which he describes as “The Litany”: We are running out of resources; pollution and global warming are increasing; species are dying off at massive rates; and prospects for the planet are grim.

Environmentalists have reacted with the kind of fury the medieval church reserved for heretics, setting up anti-Lomborg Web sites and raising a ruckus in the media.

First, it is argued that Lomborg either has his facts wrong, or misinterprets the facts. Some prominent environmentalists describe Lomborg’s book as a “scam,” and go as far as to say the book should not have been published.

The second argument against Lomborg exposes the fissures among environmentalists. Lomborg’s Litany, they say, is a caricature of what environmentalists really think.

“I absolutely agree that the end of the world is not nigh,” said David Sandalow of the World Wildlife Fund in a recent forum with Lomborg in Washington, “and I absolutely agree that many trends are getting better in the world.”

Polls repeatedly show that large majorities of Americans think environmental quality in the United States is getting worse. The most startling is perhaps a Roper poll in 1998 that found that 57 percent of Americans agree with the statement that “the next 10 years will be the last decade when humans will have a chance to save the earth from environmental catastrophe.”

The World Resources Institute’s Alan Hammond may have started doing so in a small way. Hammond dismissed one of the leading figures of modern environmentalism, who is one of Lomborg’s main targets _ the Worldwatch Institute’s Lester Brown. Hammond said that “I would not

regard (Brown) in fact as a significant figure in advancing environmental concerns.”

This is akin to a conservative saying that Milton Friedman isn’t a significant figure within free-market ideology. Yet it is a healthy first indication that serious environmentalists are beginning to mature, to recognize and celebrate human creativity in solving real problems, and that it is not necessary to scare the daylights out of the public to achieve progress.

Steven Hayward is director of the Center for Environmental Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, and is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, released each year on Earth Day.

© 2002, Pacific Research Institute