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Book Review:
The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World
Review in Context


The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjørn Lomborg. Cambridge University Press (2001). ISBN 0 521 80447 7(hardback) or 0 521 01068 3 (paperback). 515 p.

John P. Bluemle

Bjørn Lomborg begins his book with the comment that he “is not a rocket scientist.” Even so, his new book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, is causing a lot of fireworks and considerable anguish from many in the environmental community.
Lomborg’s book was controversial when it was published in 1998 in Danish. The English translation, released in 2001, is now causing controversy in England and the United States.

The Skeptical Environmentalist is the result of four years of rigorous statistical examination of the main environmental concerns of the past 30 years. From his research, Lomborg concludes that the state of things on Earth is getting better on almost every count. Lomborg says he considers himself an environmentalist because he “cares for the earth and the future health and well-being of its succeeding generations.” But his analysis of environmental facts leaves him at odds with many environmentalists, as his analysis has clearly left him with a favorable impression of human beings and their achievements. “We now have more leisure time, greater security and fewer accidents, more education, more amenities, higher incomes, fewer starving, more food, and a longer and healthier life,” he writes.

Lomborg’s book has drawn considerable attention. Although it may cause some problems for the more militant and political environmentalists, it should be welcomed by anyone genuinely concerned about the environment.

I read about a dozen reviews of this book on the Internet. Two were favorable and the others critical (a couple were nearly apoplectic). Some reviewers trash Lomborg’s credentials (“He is not even knowledgeable about the environment and certainly not qualified to write such a book”). Others accuse him of being a right-wing nut. The World Resources Institute, has posted a Web site to “help environmental educators” deal with Lomborg’s “distorted quotations, inaccurate or misleading citations, misuse of data, interpretations that contradict well-established scientific work and many other errors.” In my reading, I saw none of these faults.

Lomborg is a political scientist, economist and statistician. He uses long-term statistical trends to make comparisons. I believe his is a valid approach, perhaps the best method possible for “measuring the real state of the world” (the subtitle of the book). His 515-page book tackles this assertion in six parts, with names such as “The Litany” to “Can Human Prosperity Continue?” to “Pollution: Does it Undercut Human Prosperity?” Each part is divided into chapters, with a total of 25 chapters. “Tomorrow’s Problems,” for example, contains the chapters called “Our Chemical Fears,” “Biodiversity” and “Global Warming.” The 65-page chapter on global warming is the longest in the book.

Lomborg begins by reciting what he calls the “Litany” of our ever-deteriorating environment, the view shaped by the images and messages that confront us every day on television, in the newspapers, in political statements, and in conversations at work and at the kitchen table.

We hear constantly that the environment is deteriorating: Our resources are running out. The population is growing, leaving less to eat. The air and water are becoming more polluted. The planet’s species are becoming extinct in vast numbers. Our forests are disappearing, fish stocks are collapsing, and coral reefs are dying. We are paving over nature, destroying the wilderness, decimating the biosphere, and will end up killing ourselves in the process. We are causing global warming by burning fossil fuels. The list of disasters that global warming will cause is frightening and nearly endless. The world’s ecosystem is breaking down. In short, we are fast approaching the absolute limit of viability.

Lomborg believes that available evidence can back up few, if any, of these contentions. He points out, for example, that in 1900 we lived an average of 30 years; today we live for 67. United Nations statistics show that we have reduced poverty more in the last 50 years than we did in the preceding 500, and this reduction has happened in practically every country. Furthermore, fewer people are starving. Lomborg believes that global warming is real, but that its size and future projections are unrealistically pessimistic. He adds that the commonly proposed cure of early and radical fossil fuel cutbacks is worse than the affliction, and that at any rate, total impact of continued global warming, even if it is anthropogenic, would not pose a devastating problem for our future.

When we assess the state of the world, we need to do so through comparison. Legend has it that when someone remarked to Voltaire, “Life is hard,” he retorted, “Compared to what?” Basically, the choice of comparison is crucial. Lomborg argues that the comparison should be with how it was before. Such comparison shows us the extent of our progress — are we better off or worse off now than previously? Lomborg asserts that we need to focus on trends. Compared to the past, conditions have improved for humans.

We should cite figures and trends that are true. This demand may seem glaringly obvious, but the public environmental debate has been characterized by a tendency toward rash treatment of the truth. The Litany has pervaded the debate so deeply and for so long that blatantly false claims can be made again and again, without references, and yet still be believed because, as Time magazine said in 2000, “Everyone knows the planet is in bad shape.”

Lomborg does not suggest that primary research in the environmental field has been inadequate. He believes that environmental scientists are competent and well balanced. Lomborg blames miscommunication: The faulty communication of environmental knowledge taps deeply into our doomsday beliefs and causes widespread misunderstanding. Many environmental organizations promote misinformation that the media constantly repeats.

The constant repetition of the Litany has serious consequences. It makes us scared and more likely to spend our resources and attention solving phantom problems while ignoring real and pressing — and possibly non-environmental — issues. It is important to know the real state of the world. We need to get the facts and the best possible information to make correct decisions.

Politics that disregard science and knowledge will not stand the test of time. Indeed, no better basis for sound political decisions exists than the best available scientific evidence, especially in the fields of resource management and environmental protection.

Lomborg’s book sheds needed light on the real state of the world. I recommend it to anyone interested in our global environment. Some of the media seem to have embraced Lomborg’s book. Their favorable reaction may reflect the fact that the book is a credible attempt at refuting many of the more outrageous environmentalist claims — a point of view that is seldom heard.

The Skeptical Environmentalist is the most valuable book available in many years on public policy in general, not only environmental policy in particular. It should be required reading for all legislators, government bureaucrats and corporate executives who preside over the ever-increasing array of environmental regulations and policies.

Bluemle is the state geologist of North Dakota. His training is mainly in geomorphology and glacial geology, but he has recently been involved in several papers dealing with climate change. He considers himself an environmentalist.
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Review in context

This month’s book review offers one perspective on a book that has sparked lively and often contentious debate over its methods and conclusions.

In its November 2001 issue, Nature ran a review disagreeing with the book’s assertions. The January 2002 Scientific American ran a series of highly critical reviews by climate researchers and biologists.

Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, established a Web site to counter some of these reviews: In return, some of his critics in England set up a counter site,
The Union of Concerned Scientists has also registered its disagreement.

Other reviews have been more favorable, such as one published in the Feb. 2 issue of The Economist.

This March, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Denmark’s newly elected center-right prime minister who is also an economist, appointed Lomborg to run the country’s new Institute for Environmental Assessment. Lomborg is charged with “watching state agencies to ensure that cash for cutting pollution goes where the return is greatest,” The Economist reported in its March 2 issue. “The government’s aim in setting up the new institute is to help it trim heavy public spending,” it added.
The new Denmark government, elected in November, has already begun making some changes in environmental policy, including eliminating plans for three offshore wind-power parks and making plans to build houses in state forests.

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U.S. Geological Survey

MF-2352. NEW MEXICO. Geologic map of the Tetilla Peak quadrangle, Santa Fe and Sandoval Counties, New Mexico by D.A. Sawyer, R.R. Shroba, S.A. Minor and R.A. Thompson. 2002. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet accompanied by 25 pages of text. Available free

MF-2355. NEBRASKA and IOWA. Surficial geologic map of the Greater Omaha area, Nebraska and Iowa by R.R. Shroba, T.R. Brandt, and J.C. Blossom. Prepared in cooperation with the Conservation and Survey Division, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 2001. Scale 1:100,000. One color sheet. Available free, or for $20 as print-on-demand.

MF-2360. CALIFORNIA. Surface fractures formed in the Potrero Canyon, Tapo Canyon, and McBean Parkway areas in association with the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake by M.J. Rymer, J.A. Treiman, T.J. Powers, T.E. Fumal, D.P. Schwartz, J.C. Hamilton, and F.R. Cinti. 2001. Scale 1:4,000; 1:6,000; 1:12,000. One color sheet. Available free

MF-2363. COLORADO. Geologic map of the Grand Junction quadrangle, Mesa County, Colorado by R.B. Scott, P.E. Carrara, W.C. Hood, and K.E. Murray. 2002. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet accompanied by 21 pages of text. Available free

MF-2380. ARMENIA. Geologic map of the Nor Arevik coal site, southern Armenia by E.A. Johnson, Artur Martirosyan, B.S. Pierce, Gourgen Malkhassian, and M.E. Brownfield. 2002. Scale 1:1,000. One color sheet. Available free

MF-2383. SOUTHWEST UNITED STATES. Regional stratigraphic cross-sections of Cretaceous rocks from east-central Arizona to the Oklahoma Panhandle by C.M. Molenaar, W.A. Cobban, E.A. Merewether, C.L. Pilmore, D.G. Wolfe, J.M. Holbrook. 2002. Three color sheets. Available free, or for $20 as print-on-demand.

MF-2386. CALIFORNIA. Logs and data from trenches across the Hayward fault at Tyson’s Lagoon (Tule Pond), Fremont, Alameda County, California by J.J. Lienkaemper, T.E. Dawson, S.F. Personius, G.G. Seitz, L.M. Reidy, and D.P. Schwartz. 2002. Two color sheets accompanied by 12 pages of text. Available free, or for $40 as print-on-demand.

MF-2356. ARKANSAS. Geologic map of the Jasper quadrangle, Newton and Boone Counties, Arkansas by M.R. Hudson, K.E. Murray, and Deborah Pezzutti. 2001. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet. Available free, or for $20 as print-on-demand.

I-2745. COLORADO. Historic trail map of the Trinidad 1o x 2o quadrangle, southern Colorado by G.R. Scott. Prepared in cooperation with the Denver Public Library, Western History and Genealogy Department. 2001. Scale 1:250,000. One color sheet. $7.

To order USGS maps: contact USGS Information Services, P.O. Box 25286, Denver, Colo. 80225. Phone: 1-888-ASK-USGS (1-888-275-8747). Maps identified as print-on-demand maps may be downloaded from the Internet, but if you prefer the USGS to run off a copy for you there is a charge as noted above.

Peter Lyttle compiles the maps section and is director of the USGS National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program.

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