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Some Realism About Environmental Skepticism: The Implications of Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist for Environmental Law and Policy, 30 Ecol. L. Q. 223 (2003)

Abstract

I have now spent considerable time wading through The Skeptical Environmentalist and its prolific footnotes and I am prepared to offer an assessment. In brief, Lomborg's study is neither as riotously good as his champions claim it to be, nor as scathingly bad as his critics portray it. Rather, it is simply the latest salvo in a debate that will continue to rage until the keg unequivocally runs dry or, alternatively, until humanity finally eases into a giddy, self-congratulatory stupor. To be sure, Lomborg provides a valuable service by reminding us that we are not entirely the nest-fouling ne'er-do-wells that we appear to be in the screeds of the most ardent environmentalists. Rather, over the last century in particular, we have made enormous gains in life expectancy, literacy rates, poverty reduction, access to food and water, and other undeniably significant areas of social welfare. As Lomborg rightly points out, these are extraordinary achievements that should not be denigrated as part of an effort to chastise humanity into compliance with environmental goals.

Nevertheless, Lomborg's more fundamental claim concerns our prospects for continuing such successes in the future and here, despite appearances, The Skeptical Environmentalist turns out to be much less about knowledge than it is about uncertainty. Ultimately, what Lomborg and other environmental optimists fail to acknowledge is that Ehrlich and Simon both may be correct in their observations: given imperfect market information, natural resources may become available to more people at less cost even as they are running out. Put differently, with its tap at the bottom, a keg simultaneously can be flowing steadily and nearing empty. Lomborg's approach to environmental policy, which focuses upon measuring flows of material inputs to drive production, may not perceive an end to the total stock of such inputs nor, consequently, an end to the economic party. The environmentalist pessimist's contention in contrast is that nature, like a keg, has a finite capacity that constrains human development in ways both far more varied and more subtle than revealed by Lomborg's study.

Date of Authorship for this Version

2003

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