The Skeptical Environmentalist and the Ultimate Resource

Bjorn Lomborg (www.lomborg.com), an accomplished young university professor, caused an uproar when he published “The Skeptical Environmentalist” in 1998. The first page—I have the 2001 English paperback with updated research—tells why:

[It] challenges widely held beliefs that the environmental situation is getting worse and worse. The author, a former member of Greenpeace, is critical of the way in which many environmental organizations make selective and misleading use of the scientific evidence.
Five hundred pages of documented numbers and clear discussion later, readers are able to make up their own minds about the world’s warming, waste, water, woods, wealth, health, hunger, air, fuel, plants, and critters. His own take is in the book’s epigraph, drawn from the great Julian Simon:

This is my long-run forecast in brief: The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today’s Western living standards. I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse.

Simon’s first best-seller, “The Ultimate Resource” (1981), had thrown a monkey wrench into the Armageddon motor mouths that had been running on for twenty years. He showed that almost all measures of human welfare had greatly improved, worldwide, over the past century. His data and logic gave the lie to the hype that the resources supporting prosperity would sooner or later disappear. Worried? Ever take the trouble to figure out how much stuff is in the earth’s crust or how much energy is on the surface of the sun? Simon gave the data: mind-boggling amounts of stuff and energy, enough to support the earth’s population for thousands of years … forever, since we’ll eventually colonize other planets. The challenge is to figure out how to capture those resources. But, we’re running out of copper! Simon said, “What exactly do you mean by that? If you pay me enough, I’ll find you copper. Anyway, so what? Ever hear of fiber optic cable?” The ultimate resource is the human mind, which—when free to operate—has a wonderful track record for making the world a better place … at least the material world.

When it appeared in 1998, Lomborg’s excellent book deserved praise for its new data and analysis. That it created a stir was owing to emotional people who could not do ciphers nor match arguments with Simon, who died that same year.

In coming weeks we’ll discuss Julian Simon’s famous bet with a nameless neo-Malthusian, we’ll outline Lomborg’s analysis of global warming, and we’ll explore the Copenhagen Consensus on development that he inspired and guided.

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