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Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Bjorn Lomborg's wonderful world
Children in the DRC
Melting ice caps, deforestation, acid rain, mass extinction - statistician Bjorn Lomborg has done his sums and says it's all untrue or overblown.

In the last of a three-part series, BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby weighs up the claims made in Dr Lomborg's controversial new book.

Bjorn Lomborg, a former Greenpeace member, now calls himself a sceptical environmentalist.

He has written a book - 350 pages, and then almost 3,000 footnotes - to "challenge widely-held beliefs that the environmental situation is getting worse and worse".

Man walks across drought-scarred lakebed AP
Water shortage "is a management problem"
Far from getting worse, he says, everything can only get better.

"Mankind's lot has vastly improved in every significant measurable field and is likely to continue to do so."

What bliss it must be to be Bjorn Lomborg, and how eagerly he must skip from his bed every morning to greet the "beautiful world" he describes.

He provides a helpful and upbeat summary of "the very message of the book".

"Children born today - in both the industrialised world and developing countries - will live longer and be healthier, they will get more food, a better education, a higher standard of living, more leisure time and far more possibilities - without the global environment being destroyed."

I am concerned that the conclusions he reaches are sometimes disarmingly limp

It all sounds very far-fetched indeed after years of warnings about the coming crisis. But could Lomborg be right?

He is a statistician, an associate professor in the department of political science at the university of Aarhus, Denmark.

And he does a mean job in analysing other people's statistics and then producing completely different answers.

Whatever the subject, Professor Lomborg will run his slide rule over it and startle you rigid with reassurance.

Lomborg seems to imply that most scientists are nave
Life expectancy? We're living longer. Hunger? There's more food to go round. Are we losing the forests? Of course we aren't. When will the oil run out? It won't.

That is why Lomborg can declare so confidently: "The world is not without problems, but on almost all accounts, things are going better and they are likely to continue to do so into the future."

I am neither a statistician nor a scientist, and I lack the skill to judge Lomborg's reworkings of the statistics of conventional wisdom.

But I am worried that on virtually every topic he touches, he reaches conclusions radically different from almost everybody else.

Palestinians burning an Israeli flag
Any problem can be reduced to a "management problem"
That seems to suggest that most scientists are wrong, short-sighted, nave, interested only in securing research funds, or deliberately dancing to the campaigners' tune.

Most I know are honest, intelligent and competent. So it beggars belief to suppose that Professor Lomborg is the only one in step, every single time.

I am also concerned that the conclusions he reaches are sometimes disarmingly limp. On water, for example, he declares ringingly: "We have sufficient water, but we need to manage it better."

Missing the point

Well, yes, we do. But you can reduce almost any crisis you like to "a management problem", from the Middle East conflict to a potential asteroid impact.

That is exactly the point. And time after time, Professor Lomborg misses it.

Man with Christmas meal PA
Food "will not get scarce"
What really riles me about his book is that it is so damnably reasonable.

In the rational world that Bjorn Lomborg thinks we all inhabit, we would manage problems sensibly, one by one.

But the real world is messier, more unpredictable - and more impatient.

On climate change, for instance, Lomborg seems to think there is ample time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most climate scientists disagree.

Poverty the priority

His separate snapshots of the world may be accurate. Taken together, they make a dangerously misleading picture.

For all that, he deserves to be read for one reason above all - his insistence that "the major problems remain with hunger and poverty".

Poverty is probably the greatest environmental threat of all. Thank you for getting that right, Professor Lomborg.

Bjorn Lomborg fielded questions on Talking Point on Air, the phone-in programme of the BBC World Service and BBC News Online.
Add your comments here.

The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjorn Lomborg, is published by Cambridge University Press.

See also:

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