The Skeptical Environmentalist Measuring the Real State of the World Bjørn Lomborg

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Page 1: The Skeptical Environmentalist - The Library of Congresscatdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam031/00068915.pdfThe Skeptical Environmentalist Measuring the Real State of the World Bj¿rn

The Skeptical EnvironmentalistMeasuring the Real State of the World

Bjørn Lomborg

Page 2: The Skeptical Environmentalist - The Library of Congresscatdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam031/00068915.pdfThe Skeptical Environmentalist Measuring the Real State of the World Bj¿rn

published by the press syndicate of the university of cambridgeThe Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom

cambridge university pressThe Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011–4211, USA10 Stamford Road, Oakleigh, VIC 3166, AustraliaRuiz de Alarcón 13, 28014 Madrid, SpainDock House, The Waterfront, Cape Town 8001, South Africa


Originally published in Danish as Verdens Sande Tilstand 1998and © Bjørn Lomborg 1998

This revised and updated version, partially translated by Hugh Matthewsfirst published in English byCambridge University Press 2001as The Skeptical Environmentalist

© Bjørn Lomborg 2001

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exceptionand to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,no reproduction of any part may take place withoutthe written permission of Cambridge University Press.

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

Typeface Swift 9/12 pt System QuarkXPress™ [se ]

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data

Lomborg, Bjørn, 1965–The skeptical environmentalist: measuring the real state of the world / Bjørn Lomborg.

p. cm.Originally published in Danish as Verdens sande tilstand, 1998.This revised and updated version first published in English by Cambridge University

Press, 2001–T.p. verso.Includes bibliographical references and index.ISBN 0 521 80447 7 – ISBN 0 521 01068 3 (pb.)1. Global environmental change. 2. Pollution. 3. Human ecology. I. Title.GE149 .L65 2001363.7–dc21 00-068915

ISBN 0 521 80447 7 hardbackISBN 0 521 01068 3 paperback

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List of figures page xiiList of tables xviiiPreface xviiLanguage and measures xixAcknowledgements xxiiPermissions xxiv

Part I: The Litany

1 Things are getting better 3The Litany 3Things are better – but not necessarily good 4Exaggeration and good management 5Fundamentals: trends 5Fundamentals: global trends 6Fundamentals: long-term trends 8Fundamentals: how is it important? 9Fundamentals: people 11Reality versus myths 12Reality: Worldwatch Institute 13Reality: World Wide Fund for Nature 16Reality: Greenpeace 17Reality: wrong bad statistics and economics 18Reality: water problems 19Reality: Pimentel and global health I 21Reality: Pimentel and global health II 24Reality versus rhetoric and poor predictions 27Reality 30Reality and morality 32

2 Why do we hear so much bad news? 34Research 35

The file drawer and data massage 36Organizations 37The media 39Lopsided reality: sporadic but predictable 39Lopsided reality: bad news 40Lopsided reality: conflict and guilt 41The consequences 41

Part II: Human welfare

3 Measuring human welfare 45How many people on earth? 45The changing demographics 47Overpopulation 48

4 Life expectancy and health 50Life expectancy 50Life expectancy in the developing world 51Infant mortality 53Illness 55Conclusion 58

5 Food and hunger 60Malthus and everlasting hunger 60More food than ever 61Lower prices than ever 62The Green Revolution 62

Relative or absolute improvement? 64Regional distribution: Africa 65Regional distribution: China 66Conclusion 67

Is inflation-adjusted GDP a reasonable measure of wealth? 68

6 Prosperity 70Poverty and distribution 71Ever greater inequality? 73Poorer still? 75More consumer goods 78More education 81More leisure time 82More safety and security 84Fewer catastrophes and accidents 85

7 Conclusion to Part II: unprecedentedhuman prosperity 87



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Part III: Can human prosperitycontinue?

8 Are we living on borrowed time? 91Resources – the foundation for welfare 91

9 Will we have enough food? 93At least grain per capita is declining 93Declining productivity 95Limits to yields? 96

Biomass 99What about ordinary peasants? 100Do we still need the high growth? 100Grain stocks are dropping! 101What about China? 102Should we worry about erosion? 104What about fish? 106Conclusion 108

10 Forests – are we losing them? 110Forests and history 112Deforestation: a general view 112Deforestation: how much? 114How much forest? 115Conclusion 117

11 Energy 118We are a civilization built on energy 118Do we have enough energy to go on? 119The oil crisis 120How much oil left? 121Optimists and pessimists arguing 124Ever more oil available 125Other fossil energy sources 126Nuclear energy 128Renewable energy 129Solar energy 133Wind energy 134Storage and mobile consumption 135Conclusion 135

12 Non-energy resources 137The pessimists bet on resources running out –

and lost 137Falling prices 137Cement 138Aluminum 138Iron 140Copper 143Gold and silver 144Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium 145Zinc 145

Other resources 146Why do we have ever more resources? 147Conclusion 148

13 Water 149How much water in the world? 149The three central problems 151Not enough water? 152Will it get worse in the future? 154Will we see increased conflict? 156Conclusion 157

14 Conclusion to Part III: continuedprosperity 159

Part IV: Pollution: does it undercuthuman prosperity?

15 Air pollution 163Air pollution in times past 163What is dangerous? 165Particles 167Lead 170SO2 172Ozone 173NOx 174CO 175And the developing world? Both growth and

environment 175Conclusion 177

16 Acid rain and forest death 178

17 Indoor air pollution 182Indoor air pollution in the developing world 182Indoor air pollution in the developed world 183

18 Allergies and asthma 185

19 Water pollution 189Oil pollution in the oceans 189Oil in the Gulf 191Exxon Valdez: still a catastrophe? 192Pollution in coastal waters 194Suffocation in coastal waters 195Health effects from fertilizer 201Pollution in rivers 202

20 Waste: running out of space? 206

21 Conclusion to Part IV: the pollutionburden has diminished 210

x Contents

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Contents xi

Part V: Tomorrow’s problems

22 Our chemical fears 215Cancer: death 217Cancer: incidence 222

1-in-8 and other lifetime risks 223The fear of pesticides 226

Establishing thresholds through risk analysis 226

Pesticides and cancer 228Cancer in animal experiments 231Natural and synthetic pesticides 232Synthetic estrogens 236Synthetic estrogens: a fall in sperm quality 238

Organic farmers 240Synthetic estrogens: the “cocktail” effect 241Synthetic estrogens: breast cancer 242Synthetic estrogens: should we worry? 244Conclusion: should we use pesticides? 245

23 Biodiversity 249How many species are there? 249Is biodiversity important? 250How many go extinct? 251The claim of 40,000 species 252A model backup 252What do we lose? 253Models and reality 253The biologists’ reaction 254Check the data 254The biologists’ response 256Conclusion: what are the consequences of

seriously overstating the extinctions? 257

24 Global warming 258The basic greenhouse effect 259The long-term development of the climate 260The climate, 1856-2100 263How much does CO2 affect the temperature? 265How much does CO2 affect the temperature?

Particles 266How much does CO2 affect the temperature?

Water vapor 269

How much does CO2 affect the temperature? Clouds 270The ozone hole 273

Are there other causes? 276Are the scenarios realistic? 278Are the scenarios realistic? The 40 new scenarios 280Consequences: agriculture 287Consequences: sea level rise 289Consequences: human health 291Consequences: extreme weather 292Consequences: present and future weather 297The cost of warming 300The cost of cutting CO2 302Then what should we do? 305

The double dividend: improve the environment and make money? 308

Objections: cut CO2 and make money 312Objections: the price of the future 313Objections: the fear of catastrophe 315

Summing up 317More than meets the eye 318Conclusion: scares and sound policy 322

Part VI: The Real State of the World

25 Predicament or progress? 327The Great Fable of the Litany 327The Real State of the World 328Yet we worry ever more 330Setting priorities and risks 333Weighing risks 336The costs of the Litany 338

Genetically modified foods – the encapsulation of the Litany 342

Caution when invoking the principle 348Continued progress 350

Notes 353Bibliography 435Index 506

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1. World exports of goods and services, 1950–2000. page 8

2. Grain yields for the world, thedeveloping world and the USSR area, 1961–2000. 9

3. Fertilizer use, kg per person for theworld (1950–99) and for the developing world (1962–99). 11

4. Two attempts at showing thedevelopment of access to clean water and sanitation. 20

5. Percentage of people in the Third World with access to drinking waterand sanitation, 1970–2000. 22

6. Number and rate of tuberculosis cases in the US, 1945–99. 23

7. People undernourished in numbers and percentage, 1949–2030. 24

8. Infectious disease death rates,1970–2020. 26

9. The connection for 117 nations between GDP per capita and the 2001 Environmental SustainabilityIndex. 33

10. Percentage of respondents who evaluate the environmental quality of their local community, their nation and the world as very or fairly bad. 35

11. World population 1750–2200, the the UN’s medium variant forecast 2000. 46

12. The demographic transition showing birth and death rates in Sweden and Sri Lanka. 46

13. Increase in the Earth’s population in absolute figures and as a percentage, 1950–2050. 47

14. Percentage of urban population indeveloping and deveoped countries and the world, 1950–2030. 49

15. Life expectancy at birth in Britain,1200–1998. 51

16. Life expectancy for industrializedcountries, developing countries, sub-Saharan Africa, and the entire world1950–2050. 52

17. Percentage of humanity with their maximum life expectancy in 2000. 53

18. Infant mortality in Sweden, 1750–1998. 54

19. Infant mortality: world, industrial, developing and sub-Saharan Africannations. 55

20. The prevalence of infectious andnoninfectious diseases in the US1900–98. 56

21. The relationship between lifeexpectancy and percentage of yearsspent with disability. 58

22. Average height of adult men from 1775 to 1975. 59

23. Daily intake of calories per capita inindustrial and developing countries and world, 1961–98. 61

24. Proportion of starving in the developing world by region, for 1970, 1980, 1991, 1997 and estimates2010. 61

25. Wheat price index, England 1316–2000. 62

26. World Bank price index for foodstuffs, 1957–2000. 62

27. Yield in tons per hectare of rice, cornand wheat in developing countries,1960–2000. 65


List of figures

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28. Calories per capita per day for variousregions, 1961–98. 65

29. Estimated global GDP per capita 0–2000 CE. 70

30. UK (1756–2000) and US (1789–2000) GDP per capita. 70

31. GDP per capita 1985 US$ for regions of the world, 1820–1989. 71

32. GDP per capita for the developed anddeveloping word in 1985 PPP$, 1950–95. 71

33. Proportion of people in poverty,1950–98. 72

34. Relationship between the richest andpoorest 20 percent and 30 percent in the world in terms of per capita GDPin PPP$, 1960–97. 74

35. Ratio of per capita income in developed to developing world,1820–2100. 75

36. Per capita real local currency GDP in Brazil and Mexico, 1960–2001,per capita GDP in PPP$ for sub-Saharan Africa, 1950–92. 76

37. Percentage of households with various consumer goods in the USthroughout the twentieth century. 78

38. Rooms per person, 1900–98 for the UK, US, Denmark, France and Italy. 79

39. Welfare indicators for India, twentieth century. GPD per capita,number of radios, TVs and telephones per 1,000 inhabitants. 80

40. Welfare indicators for India, twentieth century: percent enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiaryeducation and percent literate. 80

41. Illiteracy in the developing worldaccording to year of birth, 1915–82, for men, women and total. 81

42. Index for average education per capita in developing countries; primary, secondary and higher education 1960–90. 81

43. Annual working hours per personemployed, selected countries1870–1992. 82

44. Proportion of useful time spent byBritish men on various activities,1856–1981. 83

45. Average trend in free time for 19countries (Europe, US and Canada) for men and women 1965–95. 84

46. Annual death rate from catastrophes, 1900–99, per decade, for naturaldisasters. 85

47. Accident death rate trends of thetwentieth century. 86

48. Lester Brown’s figure of world market price for wheat in 2000 US$ per bushel, 1950–96. 93

49. World market price for wheat in 2000 US$ per bushel, 1950–2000. 94

50. The grain production per capita for the world and the developing world,1961–2000. 94

51. Grain production, prediction from FAO 1989–2010, and actual 1961–2000. 95

52. Yields for 1860s–2000 of wheat from the US and rice from Japan. 96

53. Wheat yield for 1960–2000, for the US, the EU and the world. 97

54. Rice yield for 1960–2000, for Japan, South Korea and the world. 98

55. Grain carryover stocks, 1961–2000;number of days of consumption justbefore the next harvest. 101

56. China’s future grain import asestimated by different agencies and actual demand in 1999/2000. 103

57. Marine catch and fish farm production per capita and the totalmarine catch, 1950–99. 107

58. Daily intake of calories per capita in the industrial and developing countries and world, 1961–2030. 109

59. The WWF’s forests web homepage until April 1998. 110

60. Different UN global forest coverestimates, 1948–2000. 111

61. Remaining forest in the Amazon, 1978–99. 115

List of figures xiii

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62. The US energy consumption 1750–2000. 119

63. World energy production 1890–1999 distributed by fuel source. 122

64. Price per energy unit for oil, gas andcoal, and price of regular unleadedgasoline per gallon at the pump(excluding tax), 1950–2000. 123

65. Oil price 1871–2020 and world production 1882–2020. 123

66. World oil reserves compared to theannual production, 1920–2000. 124

67. The world’s known oil reserves andworld oil production, 1920–2000. 124

68. Energy efficiency for the US, 1800–1999 and the UK, 1880–1997. 126

69. World gas production, price and years of consumption, 1925–2000. 127

70. World coal production, price andyears of consumption, 1880–1999. 128

71. Share of global energy production bydifferent sources, 1998. 130

72. Price per kWh for different renewableenergy sources, 1975–2030. 131

73. Energy contents in the annual solarradiation, compared to the totalresources of non-renewables and the global, annual energy consumption. 133

74. The Economist’s industrial price index, 1845–2000 138

75. Price index for metals, 1957–2000. 13876. Price and production of aluminum,

1891–2000. 14077. Years of consumption of the four

most used metals, 1950–2000. 14178. Price and production of iron,

1916–2000. 14279. Price and production of copper,

1800–2000. 14380. Remaining years of consumption of

gold, 1950–2000. 14481. Price index of fertilizer, 1957–2000. 14582. Price and production of zinc,

1800–2000. 14683. Global, annual water withdrawal

and use, and percentage of accessible

runoff, 1900–95, and predictions for2025. 150

84. Global withdrawal of water foragriculture, industry and municipaluse, and total use per capita per day,1900–95. 151

85. Share of humanity with maximumwater availability in the years 2000,2025, and 2050. 155

86. Average concentrations of SO2 andsmoke in London, 1585–1994/5. 165

87. Average cost of PM10, lead, SO2 andozone pollutants at the measuredAmerican pollution level, 1977–99. 166

88. Particle concentration levels for the US (1957–99) and the UK (1962–97) and predictions for the urban UK(1995–2010). 168

89. Emission of vehicle PM10 in the US(1940–2010) and urban vehicle PM10 in the UK (1970–2010). 169

90. Lead concentration in the US (1977–99) and the UK (1980–96). 171

91. Emission of SO2 in Europe (1880–1995), the US (1900–2010) and the EU (1980–2010). 172

92. Annual average concentration of SO2

in the US (1962–99) and the UK(1962–97). 173

93. Ozone levels in the US (1975–99) and London, UK (1976–98). 174

94. Annual average NO2 concentrations in the US (1975–99) and in centralLondon, UK (1976–98). 174

95. Annual average CO concentrations in the US (1970–99) and in centralLondon, UK (1976–98). 175

96. The connection between GDP per capita and particle pollution, 1972 and 1986. 177

97. The connection between GDP per capita and SO2 pollution, 1972 and1986. 177

98. NAPAP experiment showing growth in diameter of 2- to 5-year-old seedlings exposed to various levels of simulated acid rain. 179

xiv List of figures

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99. Annual change in acidity of lakes in the 1980s and 1990s. 179

100. Estimated global annual deaths from indoor and outdoor pollution. 182

101. Changes in prevalence of asthma and wheeze, according to surveysconducted 1956–93. 185

102. Worldwide number of large oil spillsand total quantity of oil spilt, 1970–99. 190

103. Quantity of oil spilt in US waters,1970–98. 191

104. Percentage of beaches not complyingwith local or EU regulations for the UK (1980–2000), Denmark (1980–99) and an average of the EU(1992–9). 194

105. Concentrations of coastal pollutants in fish and shellfish, index for Denmark (1973–92) and the US(1986–95). 195

106. Global fertilizer use 1920–99, andgrowth in fertilizer use for the US,Western Europe and developingcountries 1961–99. 197

107. The in-stream contribution of nitrogen from various sources in thecoterminous US. 198

108. The cost and benefit and net benefit(negative) of the mixed policy option to reduce the nitrogen load inthe Gulf of Mexico. 200

109. Fecal coliform bacteria in rivers fordifferent levels of per capita income, in 1979 and 1986. 202

110. Oxygen levels in the Thames(1890–1974), the Rhine (1945–97), and New York Harbor (1910–97). 203

111. Proportion of low-quality UK and USrivers, 1970–97. 204

112. Levels of persistent pollutants in USfreshwater fish (1969–86) and in theUS/Canada Great Lakes herring gull eggs (1974–96), as indexed from firstyear. 205

113. Connection between income and waste production per capita. 206

114. Waste production in the US, nationaland per person, for landfill and forrecovery and combustion, 1960–2005. 207

115. The extent of the necessary landfill area to handle all waste from the USthroughout the entire twenty-firstcentury. 208

116. Concentration of total DDT in human milk and fat for variouscountries, 1963–97. 211

117. US cancer mortality 1950–98, expressed as total number of deaths,crude cancer death rate, age-adjusteddeath rate and death rate adjusted for age and smoking. 217

118. US leukemia mortality and incidence(onset of cancer), 1950–97, expressed as total number of deaths, crude cancer death rate, age-adjusted death rate and incidence. 219

119. US age-adjusted cancer death rates for men and women, 1930–98. 220

120. US cigarette consumption for all adult men and women, 1900–9, and lung and bronchus cancer, 1930–98, for men and women. 220

121. Risk factors for breast cancer, 1960–98. 221

122. Age-adjusted incidence risks of top sites, 1973–97. Female breast cancer,female genital cancer, male prostatecancer, lung and bronchus cancer, and colon and rectum cancer. 223

123. Age-adjusted incidence and death rates for childhood cancers, 0–14 years old, 1973–97. 225

124. The amount of pesticides from food and water, even if one drinks two liters of water a day containingpesticides at EU limit values. 227

125. Proportions of cancer attributed todifferent causes in the US. 228

126. Rat study of carcinogenity of ethylene thiourea. 232

127. Comparison of relative cancer risk of the average American daily intake

List of figures xv

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xvi List of figures

of various foods and syntheticpesticides. 234

128. Number of deaths from cancer related to foodstuffs in the US,according to cause. 236

129. Average sperm count in 61 studies from 1938 to 1990. 238

130. Number of families of marine animals, insects and four-leggedvertebrates, and species of land plants, from 600 million years ago to the present. 249

131. Estimate of extinction rates from 1600 to 1974, plus Myers’ estimate for 1980. 253

132. Relative influence of the manmadegreenhouse gases on temperaturechange. 259

133. Annual, global emissions of carbonfrom fossil fuels and cementproduction, 1850–1999, andconcentration of CO2 in theatmosphere, 1850–2000. 260

134. Temperature over the past millennium for the NorthernHemisphere. 261

135. Global temperature, 1856–2000. 263136. The six new CO2 emission scenarios,

1990–2100. 264137. The predicted temperature and

total sea level increase, 1990–2100. 265138. Global average temperature

simulations from the Hadley CentreGCM, for just greenhouse gases and for greenhouse gases plus sulfateaerosols with standard IPCCassumptions. 267

139. Global mean radiative forcing anduncertainties due to a number ofagents. 268

140. Temperature deviations of theNASA/Goddard AOCGM for the surfaceand the troposphere, 1950–2099. 270

141. Temperature deviation in thetroposphere, measured by weatherballoons (1978–99) and satellites(1979–2001). 271

142. Temperature, 1990–2100, from 9AOGCMs running the scenarios A2 and B2. 272

143. The annual global production ofCFC gases, 1950–96. 274

144. Concentration of ozone-depletingstratospheric chlorine/bromine,1950–2100, without a protocol, with the Montreal (1987), London(1990), Copenhagen (1992), Vienna(1995) and Montreal (1997) protocols, assuming full compliance. 274

145. Average annual UV-B radiation with clouds and aerosols, depending on latitude. 275

146. The correlation between sunspot period and Northern Hemisphereaverage temperature change,1865–1995. 277

147. The relationship between the change in global low-level cloud cover and the change of incomingcosmic radiation. 277

148. Growth per year in greenhousegases, 1851–1998, measured in CO2

equivalent growth rate. 279149. IPCC scenarios 1990–2100.

Population, sulfur emissions, andincome per capita for developing and developed countries. 281

150. IPCC scenarios, 1990–2100. Forest area, energy efficiency, energyproduction and percent renewableenergy. 283

151. Global carbon emission andtemperature change, 1995–2395, with four scenarios. 285

152. The mean annual maximum sustained wind speed for Atlantic basin cyclones, 1945–96. 295

153. Economic losses from weather-related natural disasters, 1960–2000. 295

154. US hurricane damage, 1900–95. 296155. Seasonal trends from 1950 to 1993

of maximum and minimum

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temperatures for the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. 298

156. Simulated increase in biomass and Net Primary Production for increasing temperature and CO2,1850–2100. 300

157. The expected increase in temperaturewith business-as-usual and with the Kyoto restrictions extended forever. 302

158. The cost of the Kyoto Protocol in 2010 for the US, EU, Japan andCanada/Australia/New Zealand under four different tradingassumptions. 303

159. Projected global CO2 emissions if theAnnex I countries stabilize theiremissions slightly below the 1990 level. 304

160. The cost of the last ton of carbonemitted for various levels of carbonreduction in 1995. 306

161. Reduction of CO2 emissions, andtemperature change for differentscenarios 1995–2105. 307

162. Environmental damage andenvironmental tax. 309

163. The total, present-value cost of business-as-usual (just global warming); the optimal reduction; global stabilization of emissions at1990-level; limiting the temperatureincrease to 2.5 and 1.5°C. 310

164. The present value from a business-as-usual baseline of a

number of scenarios: the optimalreduction; achieving the sametemperature decrease as Kyoto;implementing Kyoto with global trade; Annex I trade; trade only within OECD and no trade. 311

165. Total future consumption, for business-as-usual, five scenarios and the value if global warming was not happening. 323

166. The total value of income in the twenty-first century for the four main IPCC scenarios. 324

167. The percentage of respondents who say that environmental problems affect their health “a great deal” or “a fair amount”. 332

168. Trends in public opinion about theimportance of the environment,1968–2001. 333

169. Expenditure on the US environment,1962–99. 334

170. The WHO estimate of the distribution of Years of Life Lost caused by ten important risk factors, for the world, the developing countries, the former socialist countries and the OECD. 335

171. Median cost per life-year saved fordifferent sectors of society. 341

172. Median cost per life-year saved fordifferent government sectors. 341

173. Distribution of cost per life-year saved for medicine and toxin control. 342

List of figures xvii

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1. Trends in work, personal and free time, US 1965-95. page 83

2. The 24 raw materials, making up more than 95 percent of the global raw material turnover. 139

3. The development of 11 elements withpotentially insufficient measuredreserves. 147

4. Countries with chronic water scarcity in 2000, 2025 and 2050, compared toa number of other countries. 152

5. Lifetime risks of selected incidences and deaths in percent. 224

6. Number of species and documentedextinctions from the year 1600 to thepresent day. 250

7. Change in percentage of cereal production in the event of an equilibrium doubling of CO2 in 2060compared to a world without warming. 288

8. Actions which increase the risk of dying by 0.000001, and their cause. 337

9. Cost efficiency in saving life for selected interventions. 340


List of tables

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What kind of state is the world really in?Optimists proclaim the end of history with

the best of all possible worlds at hand,whereas pessimists see a world in decline andfind doomsday lurking around the corner.Getting the state of the world right is impor-tant because it defines humanity’s problemsand shows us where our actions are mostneeded. At the same time, it is also a scorecardfor our civilization – have we done well withour abilities, and is this a world we want toleave for our children?

This book is the work of a skeptical environ-mentalist. Environmentalist, because I – likemost others – care for our Earth and care forthe future health and wellbeing of its succeed-ing generations. Skeptical, because I careenough to want us not just to act on the mythsof both optimists and pessimists. Instead, weneed to use the best available information tojoin others in the common goal of making abetter tomorrow.

Thus, this book attempts to measure thereal state of the world. Of course, it is not pos-sible to write a book (or even lots and lots ofbooks for that matter) which measures theentire state of the world. Nor is this my inten-tion. Instead, I wish to gauge the most impor-tant characteristics of our state of the world –the fundamentals. And these should be assessednot on myths but on the best available facts.Hence, the real state of the world.

The Litany

The subtitle of my book is a play on the world’sbest-known book on the environment, The

State of the World. This has been publishedevery year since 1984 by the WorldwatchInstitute and its leader Lester Brown,4 and ithas sold more than a million copies. The seriesattempts to identify the world’s most signifi-cant challenges professionally and vera-ciously. Unfortunately, as we shall see, it is fre-quently unable to live up to its objectives. Inmany ways, though, The State of the World is oneof the best-researched and academically mostambitious environmental policy publications,and therefore it is also an essential participantin the discussion on the State of the World.5

On a higher level this book plays to ourgeneral understanding of the environment:the Litany of our ever deteriorating environ-ment. This is the view of the environment thatis shaped by the images and messages thatconfront us each day on television, in thenewspapers, in political statements and inconversations at work and at the kitchentable. This is why Time magazine can start offan article in 2000, stating as entirely obvioushow “everyone knows the planet is in badshape.”6

Even children are told the Litany, here fromOxford University Press’ Young Oxford Books:“The balance of nature is delicate but essentialfor life. Humans have upset that balance,stripping the land of its green cover, chokingthe air, and poisoning the seas.”7

Equally, another Time article tells us how“for more than 40 years, earth has been send-ing out distress signals” but while “we’vestaged a procession of Earth Days . . . thedecline of Earth’s ecosystems has continuedunabated.8 The April 2001 Global EnvironmentSupplement from New Scientist talks about the

1 Things are getting betterP A R T


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impending “catastrophe” and how we risk con-signing “humanity to the dustbin of evolution-ary history.” Our impact is summarized withthe headline “Self-destruct”:

We humans are about as subtle as the asteroidthat wiped out the dinosaurs . . . The damage wedo is increasing. In the next 20 years, the popula-tion will increase by 1.5 billion. These people willneed food, water and electricity, but already oursoils are vanishing, fisheries are being killed off,wells are drying up, and the burning of fossilfuels is endangering the lives of millions. We areheading for cataclysm.9

This understanding of the environment isall pervasive. We are all familiar with theLitany:10 the environment is in poor shapehere on Earth.11 Our resources are runningout. The population is ever growing, leavingless and less to eat. The air and the water arebecoming ever more polluted. The planet’sspecies are becoming extinct is vast numbers –we kill off more than 40,000 each year. Theforests are disappearing, fish stocks are col-lapsing and the coral reefs are dying.

We are defiling our Earth, the fertile topsoilis disappearing, we are paving over nature,destroying the wilderness, decimating the bio-sphere, and will end up killing ourselves inthe process. The world’s ecosystem is breakingdown. We are fast approaching the absolutelimit of viability, and the limits of growth arebecoming apparent.12

We know the Litany and have heard it sooften that yet another repetition is, well,almost reassuring. There is just one problem:it does not seem to be backed up by the avail-able evidence.

Things are better – but not necessarilygood

I will attempt over the course of this book todescribe the principal areas which stake outhumankind’s potentials, challenges and prob-lems – in the past, the present and the future.

These areas are selected either because it isimmediately obvious that they are important(e.g. the number of people on earth), becausemodels show they will have a decisive influ-ence on human development (air pollution,global warming) or because they are fre-quently mentioned in the discussion on thestate of the world (chemical fears, e.g. pesti-cides).13

In presenting this description I will need tochallenge our usual conception of the collapseof ecosystems, because this conception issimply not in keeping with reality.

We are not running out of energy or naturalresources.14 There will be more and more foodper head of the world’s population. Fewer andfewer people are starving. In 1900 we lived foran average of 30 years; today we live for 67.According to the UN we have reduced povertymore in the last 50 years than we did in thepreceding 500, and it has been reduced inpractically every country.

Global warming, though its size and futureprojections are rather unrealistically pessimis-tic, is almost certainly taking place, but thetypical cure of early and radical fossil fuel cut-backs is way worse than the original affliction,and moreover its total impact will not pose adevastating problem for our future. Nor willwe lose 25–50 percent of all species in our life-time – in fact we are losing probably 0.7 per-cent. Acid rain does not kill the forests, andthe air and water around us are becoming lessand less polluted.

Mankind’s lot has actually improved interms of practically every measurable indica-tor.

But note carefully what I am saying here:that by far the majority of indicators showthat mankind’s lot has vastly improved. Thisdoes not, however, mean that everything isgood enough. The first statement refers to whatthe world looks like whereas the second refersto what it ought to look like.15

While on lecture tours I have discoveredhow vital it is to emphasize this distinction.Many people believe they can prove me wrong,

4 Part I: The Litany

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for example by pointing out that a lot ofpeople are still starving: “How can you say thatthings are continuing to improve when 18 per-cent of all people in the developing world arestill starving?”

The point is that ever fewer people in theworld are starving. In 1970, 35 percent of allpeople in developing countries were starving.In 1996 the figure was 18 percent and the UNexpects that the figure will have fallen to 12percent by 2010.16 This is remarkable progress:237 million fewer people starving. Till today,more than 2000 million more people are get-ting enough to eat.

The food situation has vastly improved, butin 2010 there will still be 680 million peoplestarving, which is obviously not good enough.

The distinction is essential; when things arenot going well enough we can sketch out avision: fewer people must starve. This is ourpolitical aim.

But when things are improving we know weare on the right track. Although perhaps notat the right speed. Maybe we can do even moreto improve the food situation, but the basicapproach is not wrong. We are actually savinglives and can look forward to fewer peoplestarving in future.

Exaggeration and good management

The constant repetition of the Litany and theoften heard environmental exaggerations hasserious consequences. It makes us scared andit makes us more likely to spend our resourcesand attention solving phantom problemswhile ignoring real and pressing (possiblynon-environmental) issues. This is why it isimportant to know the real state of the world.We need to get the facts and the best possibleinformation to make the best possible deci-sions. As the lead author of the environmentalreport Our Common Future, Gro HarlemBrundtland, put it in the top scientific maga-zine Science: “Politics that disregard scienceand knowledge will not stand the test of time.

Indeed, there is no other basis for sound polit-ical decisions than the best available scientificevidence. This is especially true in the fields ofresource management and environmentalprotection.”17

However, pointing out that our most publi-cized fears are incorrect does not mean thatwe should make no effort towards improvingthe environment. Far from it. It will oftenmake good sense to make some efforttowards managing our resources and tack-ling our problems in areas like forest andwater management, air pollution, and globalwarming. The point here is to give us the bestevidence to allow us to make the mostinformed decision as to where we need toplace most of our efforts. What I will showthroughout the book is that our problems areoften getting smaller and not bigger, and thatfrequently the offered solutions are grosslyinefficient. What this information should tellus is not to abandon action entirely, but tofocus our attention on the most importantproblems and only to the extent warrantedby the facts.

Fundamentals: trends

If we are to understand the real state of theworld, we need to focus on the fundamentalsand we need to look at realities, not myths. Letus take a look at both of these requirements,starting with the fundamentals.

When we are to assess the state of the world,we need to do so through a comparison.18

Legend has it that when someone remarked toVoltaire, “life is hard,” he retorted, “comparedto what?”19 Basically, the choice of compari-son is crucial. It is my argument that the com-parison should be with how it was before. Suchcomparison shows us the extent of ourprogress – are we better or worse off now thanpreviously? This means that we should focuson trends.

When the water supply and sanitation ser-vices were improved in cities throughout the

Things are getting better 5

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developed world in the nineteenth century,health and life expectancy improved dramati-cally.20 Likewise, the broadening of educationfrom the early nineteenth century till today’suniversal school enrolment has brought liter-acy and democratic competence to the devel-oped world.21 These trends have been repli-cated in the developing world in thetwentieth century. Whereas 75 percent of theyoung people in the developing world bornaround 1915 were illiterate, this is true foronly 16 percent of today’s youth (see Figure41, p. 81). And while only 30 percent of thepeople in the developing world had access toclean drinking water in 1970, today about 80percent have (see Figure 5, p. 22). These devel-opments represent great strides forward inhuman welfare; they are huge improvementsin the state of the world – because the trendshave been upwards in life expectancy andliteracy.

In line with the argument above, it is a vastimprovement that people both in the developedand in the developing world have dramati-cally increased their access to clean drinkingwater. Nevertheless, this does not mean thateverything is good enough. There are still morethan a billion people in the Third World whodo not have access to clean drinking water. Ifwe compare the world to this ideal situation, itis obvious that there are still improvements tobe made. Moreover, such a comparison withan ideal situation sets a constructive, politicalambition by showing us that if access hasbecome universal in the developed world, it isalso an achievable goal for the developingworld.

But it is important to realize that such acomparison constitutes a political judgment.Of course, when asked, we would probably allwant the Third World to have better access toclean drinking water, but then again, weprobably all want the Third World to havegood schooling, better health care, more foodsecurity, etc. Likewise, in the developed worldwe also want better retirement homes forour elders, better kindergartens, higher local

environmental investments, better infra-structure, etc. The problem is that it all costsmoney. If we want to improve one thing, suchas Third World access to clean drinkingwater, we need to take the resources fromother areas where we would also like to makethings better. Naturally, this is the essence ofpolitics – we have to prioritize resources andchoose some projects over many others. Butif we make the state of the world to be acomparison with an ideal situation we areimplicitly making a political judgment asto what projects in the world we should beprioritizing.

Thus, with this assessment of the state ofthe world I wish to leave to the individualreader the political judgment as to where weshould focus our efforts. Instead, it is myintention to provide the best possible informa-tion about how things have progressed andare likely to develop in the future, so that thedemocratic process is assured the soundestbasis for decisions.

And this means focusing on trends.

Fundamentals: global trends

The Global Environmental Outlook Report 2000tells us much about the plight of Africa.22

Now, there is no doubt that Africa, and espe-cially Africa below the Sahara, has done lesswell than other continents, an issue to whichwe will return (p. 65ff). Sub-Saharan Africa hasby far the greatest numbers of starving people– almost 33 percent were starving in 1996,although this was down from 38 percent in1970 and is expected to fall even further to 30percent in 2010.23

In the most staggering prediction of prob-lems ahead, Global Environmental Outlook Report2000 tells us that soil erosion is a pervasiveproblem, especially in Africa. Indeed, “in acontinent where too many people are alreadymalnourished, crop yields could be cut by halfwithin 40 years if the degradation of culti-vated lands were to continue at present

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rates.”24 This, of course, would represent atragedy of enormous proportions, causingmassive starvation on the African continent.However, the background for this stunningprediction stems from a single, unpublishedstudy from 1989, based on agricultural plotstudies only in South Africa.25 And it is in starkopposition to the estimates of the major foodproduction models from the UN (FAO) andIFPRI, expecting an annual 1.7 percent yieldincrease over the next 20–25 years.26 Althoughthe growth in yield in the 1990s was small butpositive, the absolute grain productionincreased more than 20 percent.27

In many ways this is reminiscent of one ofthe most cited European soil erosion esti-mates of 17 tons per hectare.28 This estimateturned out – through a string of articles, eachslightly inaccurately referring to its predeces-sor – to stem from a single study of a 0.11 hec-tare sloping plot of Belgian farmland, fromwhich the author himself warns against gen-eralization.29 In both examples, sweepingstatements are made with just a single exam-ple. Unfortunately, such problematic argu-mentation is pervasive, and we will see moreexamples below. The problem arises becausein today’s global environment, with massiveamounts of information at our fingertips, aninfinite number of stories can be told, goodones and bad.

Should you be so inclined, you could easilywrite a book full of awful examples and con-clude that the world is in a terrible state. Oryou could write a book full of sunshine storiesof how the environment is doing ever so well.Both approaches could be using examples thatare absolutely true, and yet both approacheswould be expressions of equally useless formsof argumentation. They resemble the classicfallacy that “my granddad smoked cigars allhis life and was healthy until he died at theage of 97, so smoking isn’t dangerous.” Such afallacy is clearly not rectified by accumulatinglots of examples – we could easily find manygrandfathers who had smoked heavily andlived into their late nineties, but still this is no

argument for smoking not being dangerous.The argument fails because it systematicallyneglects all the men who smoked and died oflung cancer in their late forties, before theyeven got to be grandfathers.30 So if we are todemonstrate the problems of smoking, weneed to use comprehensive figures. Do smok-ers get lung cancer more or less often com-pared with non-smokers?31

In the same way we can only elucidateglobal problems with global figures. If we hearabout Burundi losing 21 percent in its dailyper capita caloric intake over the past tenyears,32 this is shocking information and mayseem to reaffirm our belief of food troubles inthe developing world. But we might equallywell hear about Chad gaining 26 percent, per-haps changing our opinion the other way.33 Ofcourse, the pessimist can then tell us aboutIraq loosing 28 percent and Cuba 19 percent,the optimist citing Ghana with an increase of34 percent and Nigeria of 33 percent. With 120more countries to go, the battle of intuitionwill be lost in the information overload.34 Onaverage, however, the developing countrieshave increased their food intake from 2,463 to2,663 calories per person per day over the lastten years, an increase of 8 percent.35

The point is that global figures summarizeall the good stories as well as all the ugly ones,allowing us to evaluate how serious the over-all situation is. Global figures will register theproblems in Burundi but also the gains inNigeria. Of course, a food bonanza in Nigeriadoes not alleviate food scarcity in Burundi, sowhen presenting averages we also have to becareful only to include comparable countrieslike those in the developing world. However, ifBurundi with 6.5 million people eats muchworse whereas Nigeria with 108 million eatsmuch better, it really means 17 Nigerianseating better versus 1 Burundi eating worse –that all in all mankind is better fed. The pointhere is that global figures can answer thequestion as to whether there have been moregood stories to tell and fewer bad ones overthe years or vice versa.

Things are getting better 7

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This is why in the following chapters Ishall always attempt to present the most com-prehensive figures in order to describe thedevelopment of the entire world or the rele-vant regions. What we need is global trends.

Fundamentals: long-term trends

In the environmental debate you often heargeneral discussion based on extremely short-term trends. This is dangerous – a lone swal-low does not mean that summer has arrived.

Food prices have fallen dramatically duringthe last centuries (see Figure 25, p. 62).However, Lester Brown said in early 1998 thathe could detect the beginnings of a historicincrease in the price of wheat. From 1994 to1996 wheat got more expensive and now wewere headed for the abyss. In Figure 49 (p. 94)you will see that he was wrong. The wheatprice in 2000 was lower than ever before.

Unfortunately, looking at short-term coun-ter-trends was already firmly established in thefirst Worldwatch State of the World publicationin 1984. Here, they worried about an interna-tional trade setback. “Nor is future growth ininternational trade likely to be rapid.According to the International Monetary Fund,the value of world exports peaked at $1,868 bil-lion in 1980 and fell to roughly $1,650 billionin 1983, a decline of nearly 12 percent.”36 Thisclaim can be evaluated in Figure 1. The 12 per-cent trade setback occurred mainly because ofthe second oil crisis, and it hit trade in goodsbut not services. However, WorldwatchInstitute measures only goods and only pre-sents figures that are not corrected for infla-tion – actually the alleged trade setback forinflation-adjusted trade in both goods and ser-vices is almost non-existent. Since 1983, inter-national trade has more than doubled from$3.1 trillion to $7.5 trillion in 1997. And yes,the years 1980–83 show the only multi-year set-back since data start in 1950.37

Equally, Lester Brown wants to tell us howgrain yields are no longer growing as fast or

have perhaps even stopped completely,because increasingly we are reaching thephysiological limits of the plants39 (we willlook more at this line of argument in chapter9). Trying to discredit the World Bank grainpredictions, he points out that “from 1990 to1993, the first three years in the Bank’s 20-yearprojection period, worldwide grain yields perhectare actually declined.”40 This claim is doc-umented in Figure 2. Here it is evident thatwhile Brown’s claim is technically true (thegrain yield did decline from 2.51 t/ha to 2.49t/ha), it neglects and misrepresents the long-term growth. Moreover, it ignores the fact thatthis decline did not take place in the more vul-nerable developing countries, where yieldshave steadily grown. Actually, the reasonBrown finds grain yield declines in the early1990s is primarily due to the breakup of theSoviet Union, causing grain yields there toplummet, but this is hardly an indication ofphysiological limits of the plants.

Isaac Asimov, worrying about more hurri-canes from global warming (something wewill look into in Part V), cites some seeminglyworrying statistics: “The twenty-three years

8 Part I: The Litany

Figure 1 World exports of goods in current US$1950–2000, in 1998 US$ 1950–98, and goods andservices 1960–97. Worldwatch Institute’s worry ofdeclining trade from 1980 to 1983 is marked out.Source: WTO 2000:27, IMF 2000d:226, 2000e, WI2000b:75, 2000c, World Bank 2000c.38









1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000



, tril




GoodsCurrent US$

Goods1998 US$

Goods & services1995 US$

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from 1947 to 1969 averaged about 8.5 days ofvery violent Atlantic hurricanes, while in theperiod from 1970 to 1987 that dropped bythree-quarters, to only 2.1 days per year . . . andin 1988–1989 rose again to 9.4 days a year.”41

This seems threatening. Now the hurricanerate is higher than ever. But notice the time-spans: 23 years, 17 years and then just twoyears at the end. Maybe the two years havebeen singled out just because they can bemade spectacular? Well, at least the two yearsimmediately preceding have 0 and 0.6 violentAtlantic hurricane days. And yes, the twoyears just after had only 1 and 1.2 days.42

Documenting these trends, the originalresearcher points out that Atlantic violenthurricane days “show a substantial decreasein activity with time.”43 Since then, only hurri-cane days have been documented, and theytoo show a decline of 1.63 days/decade.44

In 1996 the World Wide Fund for Naturetold us that the rate of forest loss in theAmazon rainforest had increased by 34 per-cent since 1992 to 1,489,600 hectares a year.45

What they did not tell us was that the 1994/5year had been a peak year of deforestation, at

an estimated 0.81 percent, higher than anyother year since 1977.46 The year 1998/9 is esti-mated at 0.47 percent or nearly half of the toprate in 1994/5.

In a highly interconnected world, statisticalshort-term reversals are bound to occur inlong-term trends. If we allow environmentalarguments – however well-meaning – to bebacked merely by purported trends of two orthree carefully selected years, we invariablyopen the floodgates to any and every argu-ment. Thus, if we are to appraise substantialdevelopments we must investigate long peri-ods of time. Not the two or five years usuallyused, but as far back as figures exist. Of course,we must be aware that a new tendency may bedeveloping, and we must also be extra carefulto include and analyze the latest available fig-ures. But insisting on long-term trends pro-tects us against false arguments from back-ground noise and lone swallows.

In the chapters that follow, I will endeavoralways to show the longest and the newesttime trends.

Fundamentals: how is it important?

When we are told that something is a problemwe need to ask how important it is in relationto other problems. We are forced constantly toprioritize our resources, and there will alwaysbe good projects we have to reject. The onlyscarce good is money with which to solve prob-lems. But when the Litany is recited, it is oftensufficient to point out that indeed there is aproblem. Then you have won.

We all hear about pesticides getting into thegroundwater. Since pesticides can causecancer, we have a problem. Thus, they must bebanned. Not many other fields would be ableto sustain that sort of argument. “TheDepartment of Defense has uncovered thatState X has developed so-called Y6 missiles,which is a problem. We will therefore have todevelop and set up a missile defense system.”Most of us would probably ask how probable it

Things are getting better 9

Figure 2 Grain yields for the world, the developingworld and the USSR area, 1961–2000. Brown’s proofof declining grain yields from 1990 to 1993 is markedout. Source: FAO 2001a.








1960 1970 1980 1990 2000


ld, t

on p

er h



WorldDeveloping countriesUSSR area

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was that State X would attack, how muchdamage a Y6 missile could do and how muchthe necessary defense system would cost. Asregards pesticides, we should also ask howmuch damage they actually do and how muchit would cost to avoid their use. Recentresearch suggests that pesticides cause verylittle cancer. Moreover, scrapping pesticideswould actually result in more cases of cancerbecause fruits and vegetables help to preventcancer, and without pesticides fruits and vege-tables would get more expensive, so thatpeople would eat less of them.

Likewise, when the World Wide Fund forNature told us about the Amazon rainforestloss increasing to 1,489,600 hectares a year,we also have to ask, how much is that?47 Is it alot? One can naturally calculate the classicalrate of “football pitches per hour.” But havewe any idea how many football pitches theAmazon can actually accommodate?48 Andperhaps a more important piece of informa-tion is that the total forest loss in the Amazonsince the arrival of man has only amounted to14 percent.49

The magazine Environment told us in May2000 how we can buy a recyclable toothbrushto “take a bite out of landfill use.”50 At $17.50for four toothbrushes, each comes with a post-age-paid recycling mailer, such that the entiretoothbrush can be recycled into plastic lumberto make outdoor furniture. The president ofthe company producing the toothbrush tellsus how he “simply cannot throw plastic in thegarbage. My hand freezes with guilt . . . Theimage of all that plastic sitting in a landfillgiving off toxic gases puts me over the top.”51

Never mind that traditional plastics do notdecompose and give off gases.52 The moreimportant question is: how important will thistoothbrush effort be in reducing landfill?

If everyone in the US replaced their tooth-brush four times a year as the dentists recom-mend (they don’t – the average is 1.7),Environment estimates the total waste reduc-tion at 45,400 tons – what the company thinkswould “make a pretty significant impact on

landfills.”53 Since the municipal waste gener-ated in the US last year was 220 million tons,54

the total change (if everyone brushed their teethwith new brushes four times a year and every-one bought the new recyclable toothbrush) is areduction of 0.02 percent, at an annual cost ofmore than $4 billion. Equivalently, of the dailygenerated 4.44 pounds of waste per person,recycling one’s toothbrush would cut 0.001pound of waste a day (a sixtieth of an ounce),down to 4.439 pounds of daily waste.55 Noteven considering the added environmentaleffects of the postal system handling anotherbillion packages a year, the cost is huge, whilethe benefit seems slight at best. Moreover, aswe shall see in the section on waste, we are notrunning out of storage space – the entire wastegenerated in the US throughout the rest of thetwenty-first century will fit within a squarelandfill less than 18 miles on the side (seeFigure 115, p. 208).

In the following example WorldwatchInstitute combines the problems of looking atshort-term counter-trends and not askingwhat is important. In 1995 they pointed outhow fertilizer use was declining. In their ownwords: “The era of substituting fertilizer forland came to a halt in 1990. If future foodoutput gains cannot come from using largeadditional amounts of fertilizer, where willthey come from? The graph of fertilizer useand grainland area per person may capturethe human dilemma as the twenty-first cen-tury approaches more clearly than any otherpicture could.”56 (We will deal with the ques-tion of grainland area below.) The graph theyshowed us is the world fertilizer consumption(upper line) in Figure 3.

First, if we worry about food production, weshould focus not on the world average, but onthe average of where the potential food prob-lem is – the developing world. And here we seethat the fertilizer use per person has beenalmost continuously increasing, hitting an all-time high at 17.7 kg/person in 1999. WhenWorldwatch Institute finds a trend to worryabout, it is mainly because they neglect to ask

10 Part I: The Litany

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what information is important. Second, this“human dilemma” is also a product of lookingat short-term trends. With their data naturallystopping in 1994, Worldwatch Institute findsa clear reversal of trends – but why? Mainlybecause of the breakdown of the Soviet Union,which the Worldwatch Institute also acknowl-edges elsewhere.57

Another neat example is the way many com-mentators merely regard one environmentalsolution as the beginning of another prob-lem.58 Isaac Asimov informs us that “what hashappened to the problem of air pollution isonly what happens to most of the world’s envi-ronmental problems. The problems don’t getsolved. They simply get pushed aside, becausethey are swamped with unexpected newer andeven worse ones.”59

Of course, such a sweeping statementshould at least have a good foundation in itsexample. Here, Asimov tells us how the Britishtried to solve London’s air pollution by build-ing “very tall smokestacks so that the particu-late pollution rose high into the air and onlyfell to earth as soot hundreds of miles away.Like most technological fixes, that one didn’treally fix the problem, it only removed it to adifferent place. In the final analysis, all

London had done was to export its smog, inthe form of acid rain, to the lakes and forestsof Scandinavia.”60 Former vice president AlGore tells us the exact same story: “Some ofwhat Londoners used to curse as smog nowburns the leaves of Scandinavian trees.”61 Andsince Britain and most other developednations have begun removing the sulfur fromthe smokestack emissions, environmentalistsnow point out that depositing the removedsulfur slurry constitutes a major healthhazard.62

In essence, first we had one problem (bad airin London), then we had another (acid rain inScandinavia), and then came a third (slurrywaste). But we still had a problem. So thingsare not getting better. Or, in the judgment ofAsimov, the problem has apparently becomeeven worse. But such argument entirely avoidsasking the question “how important?” Urbanair pollution in London has decreased by morethan 90 percent since 1930.63 The formerurban air pollution probably killed at least64,000 extra people each year in the UK.64

Depositing slurry waste causes far less thanone cancer death every fifty years.65 Thus, todescribe the transition from one problem toanother as simply exchanging one problemfor another is to miss the point entirely: thatmore than 63,999 people now live longer –every year.

Without asking the essential question of“how important” we cannot prioritize and useour resources where they make the mostimpact.

Fundamentals: people

Counting lives lost from different problemsalso emphasizes a central assumption in myargument: that the needs and desires ofhumankind represent the crux of our assess-ment of the state of the world. This does notmean that plants and animals do not also haverights but that the focus will always be on thehuman evaluation.66

Things are getting better 11

Figure 3 Fertilizer use, kg per person for the world(1950–99) and for the developing world (1962–99).Source: IFA 2000, WI 1999b.








1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000



er c









Developing countries

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This describes both my ethical conceptionof the world – and on that account the readercan naturally disagree with me – but also arealistic conception of the world: peopledebate and participate in decision-makingprocesses, whereas penguins and pine trees donot.67 So the extent to which penguins andpine trees are considered depends in the finalinstance on some (in democracies more thanhalf of all) individuals being prepared to acton their behalf. When we are to evaluate a pro-ject, therefore, it depends on the assessmentby people. And while some of these people willdefinitely choose to value animals and plantsvery highly, these plants and animals cannotto any great extent be given particularrights.68

This is naturally an approach that is basi-cally selfish on the part of human beings. Butin addition to being the most realistic descrip-tion of the present form of decision-making itseems to me to be the only defensible one.Because what alternative do we have? Shouldpenguins have the right to vote? If not, whoshould be allowed to speak on their behalf?(And how should these representatives beselected?)

It is also important to point out that thishuman-centered view does not automaticallyresult in the neglect or elimination of manynon-human life forms. Man is in so many andso obvious ways dependent on other lifeforms, and for this reason alone they will bepreserved and their welfare appreciated. Inmany places man actually shares commoninterests with animals and plants, for exam-ple in their desire for clean air. But it is alsoobvious that a choice frequently has to bemade between what is good for humans andwhat is good for animals and plants. If wechoose to allow a forest to stand untouchedthis will be a great advantage to many animalsbut a lost opportunity for man to cultivatetimber and grow food.69 Whether we want anuntouched forest or a cultivated field dependson man’s preferences with regard to food andundisturbed nature.

The conclusion is that we have no optionbut to use humans as a point of reference.How can we otherwise avoid an ethicaldilemma? When Americans argue for cuttingnitrogen emissions to the northern Gulf ofMexico to save the bottom-dwelling animalsfrom asphyxiation, this is a statement of ahuman desire or preference for living sea-floorfauna. It is not that such a cut is in itself man-dated to save the sea-bed dwellers – notbecause they have inalienable rights in someway. If we were to use the inalienable rightsargument we could not explain why wechoose to save some animals at the bottom ofthe sea while at the same time we slaughtercattle for beef. Why then should these cattlenot have the same right to survive as the faunaat the bottom of the Gulf?

Reality versus myths

It is crucial to the discussion about the state ofthe world that we consider the fundamentals.This requires us to refer to long-term andglobal trends, considering their importanceespecially with regard to human welfare.

But it is also crucial that we cite figures andtrends which are true.

This demand may seem glaringly obvious,but the public environment debate has unfor-tunately been characterized by an unpleasanttendency towards rather rash treatment of thetruth. This is an expression of the fact that theLitany has pervaded the debate so deeply andfor so long that blatantly false claims can bemade again and again, without any refer-ences, and yet still be believed.

Take notice, this is not due to primaryresearch in the environmental field; this gen-erally appears to be professionally competentand well balanced.70 It is due, however, to thecommunication of environmental knowledge,which taps deeply into our doomsday beliefs.Such propaganda is presented by many envi-ronmental organizations, such as theWorldwatch Institute, Greenpeace and the

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World Wide Fund for Nature, and by manyindividual commentators, and it is readilypicked up by the media.

The number of examples are so overwhelm-ing that they could fill a book of their own. Iwill consider many of them in the course ofthis book, and we will look specifically at theirconnection to the media in the next chapter.However, let us here look at some of the moreoutstanding examples of environmentalmythmaking.

Reality: Worldwatch Institute

Often the expressions of the Litany can betraced – either directly or indirectly – to LesterBrown and his Worldwatch Institute. Its publi-cations are almost overflowing with state-ments such as: “The key environmental indica-tors are increasingly negative. Forests areshrinking, water tables are falling, soils areeroding, wetlands are disappearing, fisheriesare collapsing, range-lands are deteriorating,rivers are running dry, temperatures arerising, coral reefs are dying, and plant andanimal species are disappearing.”71 Powerfulreading – stated entirely without references.72

Discussing forests, Worldwatch Institutecategorically states that “the world’s forestestate has declined significantly in both areaand quality in recent decades.”73 As we shallsee in the section on forests, the longest dataseries from the UN’s FAO show that globalforest cover has increased from 30.04 percent ofthe global land area in 1950 to 30.89 percentin 1994, an increase of 0.85 percentage pointsover the last 44 years (see Figure 60, p. 111).74

Such global figures are not referred to, how-ever; we are only told that “each year another16 million hectares of forests disappear”75 – afigure which is 40 percent higher than thelatest UN figure.76 Nor is reference made to fig-ures regarding the forests’ quality – simplybecause no such global figures exist.

Blatant errors are also made with unfortu-nate frequency. Worldwatch Institute claims

that “the soaring demand for paper is contrib-uting to deforestation, particularly in thenorthern temperate zone. Canada is losingsome 200,000 hectares of forest a year.”77

Reference is made to the FAO’s State of theWorld’s Forests 1997, but if you refer to thesource you will see that in fact Canada grew174,600 more hectares of forest each year.78

In their 2000 overview, WorldwatchInstitute lists the problems staked out in theirvery first State of the World publication from1984. Here is the complete list: “Record rates ofpopulation growth, soaring oil prices, debili-tating levels of international debt, and exten-sive damage to forests from the new phenome-non of acid rain.”79 Naturally, assessing thislist at the turn of the millennium could be agood place to take stock of the importantissues, asking ourselves if we have overcomeearlier problems. However, WorldwatchInstitute immediately tells us that we have notsolved these problems: “Far from it. As we com-plete this seventeenth State of the World report,we are about to enter a new century havingsolved few of these problems, and facing evenmore profound challenges to the future of theglobal economy. The bright promise of a newmillennium is now clouded by unprecedentedthreats to humanity’s future.”80

Worldwatch Institute does not return tolook at the list but merely tells us that theproblems have not been solved and that wehave added even more problems since then.But does the Litany stand up, if we check thedata? The level of international debt may bethe only place where we have not seen signifi-cant improvement: although the level of debtdeclined steadily throughout the 1990s, itdeclined only slightly, from 144 percent ofexports in 1984 to 137 percent in 1999.81

However, and as we shall see, acid rainwhile harming lakes did very little if anydamage to forests. Moreover, the sulfur emis-sions responsible for acid rain have declinedin both Europe and the US – in the EU, emis-sions have been cut by a full 60 percent since1984 (as you can also see in Figure 91, p. 172).82

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The soaring oil prices which cost the world adecade of slow growth from the 1970s into themid-1980s declined throughout the 1990s to aprice comparable to or lower than the onebefore the oil crisis (as can be seen in Figure64, p. 123). Even though oil prices have dou-bled since the all-time low in mid-1998, theprice in the first quarter of 2001 is on par withthe price in 1990, and the barrel price of $25 inMarch 2001 is still way below the top price of$60 in the early 1980s.83 Moreover, most con-sider this spike is a short-term occurrence,where the US Energy Information Agencyexpects an almost steady oil price over thenext 20 years at about $22 a barrel.84

Finally, speaking of record rates of popula-tion growth is merely wrong, since the recordwas set back in 1964 at 2.17 percent per year,as you can see in Figure 13, p. 47.85 Since thatrecord, the rate has been steadily declining,standing at 1.26 percent in 2000, and expectedto drop below 1 percent in 2016. Even the abso-lute number of people added to the worldreached its peak in 1990 with 87 million, drop-ping to 76 million in 2000 and still decreasing.

Thus, in its shorthand appraisal of the stateof the world since 1984, Worldwatch Institutesets out a list of problems, all of which haveimproved since then, and all but one of whichhave improved immensely, and one of whichis just plain wrong. Not a great score for 16years that have supposedly been meticulouslycovered by the Worldwatch reports. The prob-lem, of course, is not lack of data –Worldwatch Institute publishes fine data col-lections, which are also used in this book – butmerely a carelessness that comes with theingrained belief in the Litany.

Such belief is also visible in the futurevisions of the Worldwatch Institute. After all,in their 2000 quote above, they promise usthat we will face “even more profound chal-lenges” and “unprecedented threats,” cloud-ing humanity’s future.86 These threats areoften summarized in a connection that hasalmost become a trademark of theWorldwatch Institute, namely that the ever

expanding economy will eventually under-mine the planet’s natural systems. In the 2000edition it proclaims: “As the global economyexpands, local ecosystems are collapsing at anaccelerating pace.”87 Of course, we should liketo see such an accelerating pace being docu-mented. But Worldwatch Institute immedi-ately continues:

Even as the Dow Jones climbed to new highsduring the 1990s, ecologists were noting thatever growing human demands would eventuallylead to local breakdowns, a situation where dete-rioration would replace progress. No one knewwhat form this would take, whether it would bewater shortages, food shortages, disease, inter-nal ethnic conflict, or external political con-flict.88

Notice, we are not being offered any documen-tation as to these breakdowns. Moreover, the(unnamed) ecologists are sure that they willcome, but apparently “no one” knows whatform this breakdown will take. And finally,creating a list as broad as above, includingeven internal ethnic conflicts, seems likehedging your bets, while they have an entirelyunexplicated and undocumented connectionto ecological breakdown.

But right after this, Worldwatch Institutegives us its main example of the breakdown,caused by an ever expanding economy crush-ing the local ecosystems: “The first regionwhere decline is replacing progress is sub-Saharan Africa. In this region of 800 millionpeople, life expectancy – a sentinel indicatorof progress – is falling precipitously as govern-ments overwhelmed by rapid populationgrowth have failed to curb the spread of thevirus that leads to AIDS.”89 To make the impli-cation perfectly clear, Worldwatch Institutepoints out that this AIDS infection “suggeststhat some countries may already have crosseda deterioration/decline threshold.”90

This prime example of an ecosystem col-lapse is surprising, to say the least. It is truethat HIV/AIDS has decreased and is decreasinglife expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa, and

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within some states has caused shockinglygreat declines (this we will look at in Part II).However, is this caused by an ever increasingeconomy crushing the ecosystem? In one ofthe newest reviews of AIDS in Africa, the maincause is staked out fairly clearly:

The high levels of AIDS arise from the failure ofAfrican political and religious leaders to recog-nize social and sexual reality. The means for con-taining and conquering the epidemic are alreadyknown, and could prove effective if the leader-ship could be induced to adopt them. The lack ofindividual behavioral change and of the imple-mentation of effective government policy hasroots in attitudes to death and a silence aboutthe epidemic arising from beliefs about itsnature and the timing of death.91

Equally, in a review in The Lancet, it is arguedthat:

two principal factors are to blame [for the AIDSepidemic in the developing countries]: first, thereluctance of national governments to takeresponsibility for preventing HIV infection; andsecond, a failure by both national governmentsand international agencies to set realistic prior-ities that can have an effect on the overall epi-demic in countries with scarce resources andweak implementation capacity.92

To put it differently, the rapid spread of AIDSin Africa is primarily caused by political andsocial factors. The tragedy is obvious anddemands the attention and efforts of thedeveloped world, but it is not an indication ofan ecological collapse brought on by an everexpanding economy. Moreover, the World-watch Institute’s obsession with pointing outhow they have finally found an example ofconcrete decline replacing progress seems illplaced and unfounded.93

But Worldwatch Institute also gives usanother concrete example of ecological col-lapse, when pointing out the dangers of com-plex interactions. Let us quote the entire para-graph to see the extraordinary transition fromgeneral claims to concrete examples:

The risk in a world adding nearly 80 millionpeople annually is that so many sustainableyield thresholds will be crossed in such a shortperiod of time that the consequences willbecome unmanageable. Historically, when earlycivilizations lived largely in isolation, the conse-quences of threshold crossings were strictlylocal. Today, in the age of global economic inte-gration, a threshold crossing in one major coun-try can put additional pressure on resources inother countries. When Beijing banned loggingin the upper reaches of the Yangtze River basinin 1998, for example, the increased demand forforest products from neighboring countries inSoutheast Asia intensified the pressure on theregion’s remaining forests.94

Thus, the best example that WorldwatchInstitute can give us of the world’s unmanage-able collapses is a change in timber produc-tion of an undocumented size, which by mosteconomists would be described exactly as anefficient production decision: essentially theChinese government has discovered that pro-ducing trees in the upper reaches of theYangtze is all in all a bad deal, because thetrees are better used to moderate flooding.Ironically, Worldwatch Institute actuallyclaims that this logging ban is a proof that“the principles of ecology are replacing basiceconomics in the management of nationalforests.”95 The reason is that the Beijing view-point “now is that trees standing are worththree times as much as those cut, simplybecause of the water storage and flood controlcapacity of forests.”96 Of course, this is justplain and simple (and probably sound) socialcost-benefit analysis – good economics, andnot ecology.

Thus, the prominent and repeated state-ments of the Worldwatch Institute analyzedhere seem to indicate that the Litany’s claimsof ecological collapse are founded on veryfragile examples or merely offered on faith. (Itis also worth pointing out how these quotesunderline the danger of arguing from singleexamples and not global trends, as pointedout above.)

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Of course, while these quotes show some ofthe strongest arguments for the Litany in Stateof the World, Worldwatch Institute offers along list of other examples and analyseswithin different areas, and we shall commenton these as we go through the subjects in thisbook.

Reality: World Wide Fund for Nature

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) focusedtowards the end of 1997 on the Indonesianforest fires which were pouring out thickclouds of smoke over much of Southeast Asia.There is no doubt that these were obnoxiousfor city dwellers, but WWF stressed how theforest fires were a signal that the world’sforests were “out of balance” – tidings whichthe Worldwatch Institute actually announcedas one of the primary signs of ecological break-down in 1997.97

WWF proclaimed 1997 as “the year theworld caught fire,” because “in 1997, fireburned more forests than at any other time inhistory.”98 Summing up, the WWF presidentClaude Martin stated unequivocally that “thisis not just an emergency, it is a planetary dis-aster.”99 But on closer inspection, as can beseen in the forests section later in the book,the figures do not substantiate this claim:1997 was well below the record, and the onlyreason that 1997 was the year whenIndonesia’s forest fires were noticed was thatit was the first time they really irritated citydwellers.100 In all, Indonesia’s forest firesaffected approximately 1 percent of thenation’s forests.

Likewise, WWF in 1997 issued a pressrelease entitled “Two-thirds of the world’sforests lost forever.”101 Both here and in theirGlobal Annual Forest Report 1997, they explainedhow “new research by WWF shows that almosttwo-thirds of the world’s original forest coverhas been lost.”102 This seemed rather amazingto me, since most sources estimate about 20percent.103 I therefore called WWF in England

and spoke to Rachel Thackray and AlisonLucas, who had been responsible for the pressrelease, and asked to see WWF’s researchreport. All they were able to tell me, however,was that actually, no report had ever existed andthat WWF had been given the figures by MarkAldrich of the World Conservation MonitoringCentre. Apparently, they had looked at somemaximum figures, and because of problems ofdefinition had included the forests of thenorthern hemisphere in the original overviewof forest cover, but not in the current one.104

From this non-report, WWF tells us that:“now we have proof of the extent of forestalready lost . . . The frightening thing is thatthe pace of forest destruction has accelerateddramatically over the last 5 years and contin-ues to rise.”105 The UN, however, tells us thatthe rate of deforestation was 0.346 percent inthe 1980s and just 0.32 percent in the period1990–5 – not a dramatic increase in pace, but adecrease.106

WWF confides in us that nowhere isdeforestation more manifest than in Brazil,which “still has the highest annual rate offorest loss in the world.”107 In actual fact thedeforestation rate in Brazil is among thelowest as far as tropical forest goes; accordingto the UN the deforestation rate in Brazil is at0.5 percent per year compared to an average of0.7 percent per year.108

In more recent material, WWF has now low-ered their estimate of original cover from8,080 million hectares to 6,793 million hec-tares (some 16 percent), while they haveincreased their estimate of the current forestcover from 3,044 million hectares to 3,410 mil-lion (some 12 percent), although their currentestimate is still some 100 million hectareslower than the UN estimate.109 This meansthat WWF has lowered its estimates from 62.3percent to 49.8 percent of the earth’s forestthat have been lost.110

Still, this is much more than the 20 percentcommonly estimated. However, two indepen-dent researchers at the University of Londonand the University of Sussex111 have tried to

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assess the sources and data used by WWF, theWorld Conservation Monitoring Centre andothers in making such gloomy estimates ofvast forest reductions. Considering the enor-mous amount of data, they have focused onthe assessments of forest loss in West Africa, aplace where WWF/WCMC estimates a forestloss of 87 percent or some 48.6 million hec-tares.112 However, when looking at the docu-mentation, it turns out to be based mainly onproblematic bio-climatic forest zones, essen-tially comparing today’s forests with wherethere may have been forests earlier. In general,the researchers find that “the statistics forforest loss in general circulation today mas-sively exaggerate deforestation during thetwentieth century.”113 The result is that forWest Africa the actual deforestation is about9.5–10.5 million hectares, or about five times lessthan what is estimated by WWF/WCMC.114

Finally, WWF uses among other measuresthese forest estimates to make a so-calledLiving Planet Index, supposedly showing adecline over the past 25 years of 30 percent –“implying that the world has lost 30 per centof its natural wealth in the space of one gener-ation.”115 This index uses three measures: theextent of natural forests (without planta-tions), and two indices of changes in popula-tions of selected marine and freshwater verte-brate species. The index is very problematic.First, excluding plantations of course ensuresthat the forest cover index will fall (since plan-tations are increasing), but it is unclearwhether plantations are bad for nature over-all. Plantations produce much of our forestgoods, reducing pressure on other forests – inArgentina, 60 percent of all wood is producedin plantations which constitute just 2.2 per-cent of the total forest area, thus relieving theother 97.8 percent of the forests.116 WhileWWF states that plantations “make up largetracts of current forest area,”117 they in factconstitute only 3 percent of the world’s totalforest area.118

Second, when using 102 selected marineand 70 selected freshwater species there is nat-

urally no way of ensuring that these speciesare representative of the innumerable otherspecies. Actually, since research is often con-ducted on species that are known to be introuble (an issue we will return to in the nextchapter, but basically because troubled spe-cies are the ones on which we need informa-tion in order to act), it is likely that such esti-mates will be grossly biased towards decline.

Third, in order to assess the state of theworld, we need to look at many more andbetter measures. This is most clear when WWFactually quotes a new study that shows thetotal worth of the ecosystem to be $33 trillionannually (this problematic study estimatingthe ecosystem to be worth more than theglobal production at $31 trillion we will dis-cuss in Part V).119 According to WWF, it impliesthat when the Living Planet Index hasdropped 30 percent, that means that we nowget 30 percent less from the ecosystem eachyear – that we now lose some $11 trillion eachyear.120 Such a claim is almost nonsensical.121

Forest output has not decreased but actuallyincreased some 40 percent since 1970.122 Andthe overwhelming value of the ocean andcoastal areas are in nutrient recycling, whichthe Living Planet Index does not measure atall. Also, marine food production has almostdoubled since 1970 (see Figure 57, p. 107).Thus, by their own measures, we have notexperienced a fall in ecosystem services butactually an increase.

Reality: Greenpeace

In the Danish press I pointed out that we hadlong been hearing figures for the extinction ofthe world’s species which were far too high –that we would lose about half of all specieswithin a generation. The correct figure iscloser to 0.7 percent in 50 years. This led to theDanish chairman of Greenpeace, NielsBredsdorff, pointing out that Greenpeace hadlong accepted the figure of 0.7 percent.123

However, Greenpeace’s official biodiversity

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report stated that “it is expected that half theEarth’s species are likely to disappear withinthe next seventy-five years.”124 The chairmanhas never officially commented on this report,but he did manage to persuade GreenpeaceInternational to pull the report off the inter-net, because it did not contain one single sci-entific reference.

Norwegian television also confrontedGreenpeace in Norway with this report andrather forced them into a corner. Four dayslater they decided to hold a press conferencein which they raised all the general pointswhich I had mentioned and reevaluated theireffort. The Norwegian daily Verdens Gangreported:

We have had problems adapting the environ-ment movement to the new reality, says KalleHestvedt of Greenpeace. He believes the one-sided pessimism about the situation weakensthe environment organizations’ credibility.When most people do not feel that the world isabout to fall off its hinges at any moment, theyhave problems taking the environmental organ-izations seriously, Hestvedt maintains.125

By way of summary Greenpeace says in brief:“The truth is that many environmental issueswe fought for ten years back are as good assolved. Even so, the strategy continues to focuson the assumption that ‘everything is going tohell’.”126

Reality: wrong bad statistics andeconomics

There is an amazing amount of incorrect state-ments in many other sources. Let us just try tosummarize a few, and also display the oftenlax attitude to economic arguments.

One of the new anxieties, about syntheticchemicals mimicking human and animal hor-mones, has received a great boost with thepublication of the popular scientific book OurStolen Future.127 We will look at the argumentsin Part V, but here we can state that the book

hinges a large part of its argument on a pur-ported connection between synthetic hor-mones and breast cancer. It states, that “by farthe most alarming health trend for women isthe rising rate of breast cancer, the mostcommon female cancer.”128 The link? “Since1940, when the chemical age was dawning,breast cancer deaths have risen steadily by onepercent per year in the United States, and sim-ilar increases have been reported in otherindustrial countries. Such incidence rates areadjusted for age, so they reflect genuinetrends rather than demographic changes suchas a growing elderly population.”129 A 1 per-cent increase since 1940 would mean a 75 per-cent increase in breast cancer deaths by publi-cation in 1996.130 However, this claim is plainwrong, as you can also see in Figure 119, p.220. At the time of writing Our Stolen Future,the age-adjusted death rate had dropped some9 percent since 1940; the latest figures for1998 indicate a drop of 18 percent.131

The Global Environmental Outlook Report 2000also tells us of the Earth’s many water prob-lems.132 These we shall look at in Part IV, butwhen GEO 2000 actually mentions numbers, itgets carried away. “Worldwide, polluted wateris estimated to affect the health of about 1200million people and to contribute to the deathof about 15 million children under five everyyear.”133 However, the total number of deathsamong children under 5 is estimated by WHOto be about 10 million.134 Equally, the reportclaims that “the growth of municipal andindustrial demands for water has led to con-flicts over the distribution of water rights.Water resources are now a major constraint togrowth and increased economic activitiesenvisioned by planners, especially in the westand southwestern arid lands of the UnitedStates.”135 But its only reference does not evenmention water constraints influencing eco-nomic growth in the US.136

Virtually every year, Worldwatch Institutemakes much of the fact that the use of renew-able energy sources grows much faster thanuse of conventional fuels – in the 1990s at 22

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percent compared to oil at less than 2 per-cent.137 But comparing such growth rates ismisleading, because with wind making upjust 0.05 percent of all energy, double-digitgrowth rates are not all that hard to come by.In 1998, the amount of energy in the 2 percentoil increase was still 323 times bigger than the22 percent increase in wind energy.138 Even inthe unlikely event that the amazing windpower growth rate could continue, it wouldtake 46 consecutive years of 22 percent growthfor wind to outgrow oil.139

Likewise, the environmental movementwould love renewable energy to be cheaperthan fossil fuels. But using economic argu-ments, there often seems to be an astoundinglack of rigor. Many argue simply on faith thatif the costs on environment and humans fromcoal pollution and waste products were takeninto account, renewable energy would indeedbe cheaper.140 However, three of the largestprojects – one European and two American –have attempted to examine all costs associatedwith electricity production, all the way fromthe mortal risks of mining coal, the traffic haz-ards of transportation and occupational haz-ards of production including consequences ofacid rain, soot, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxidesand ozone on lakes, crops, buildings, childrenand old people and up to the consequences oftax codes and occupation plus a long, long listof similar considerations and costs.141 Andthey still find the extra costs to be less thanthe gap between renewables and fossil fuels(see also the discussion in Part III).142 However,there is no doubt that renewables will becheaper in the near-to-medium future, andthis will probably be a big part of the reasonwhy we need to worry less about global warm-ing in the long run (see Part V).

An equivalent laxness in economic argu-ments is obvious when Worldwatch Institutetells us that “wind power is now economicallycompetitive with fossil fuel generated electric-ity.”143 However, they also tell us that in thefuture it is necessary that “sufficiency replacesprofligacy as the ethic of the next energy para-

digm.”144 But according to WorldwatchInstitute this will be okay, since it is not amajor cut-back: “Modest changes, such asowning smaller cars and homes, or drivingless and cycling more, would still leave uswith lifestyles that are luxurious by historicalstandards.”145 Thus, while it may be true thatif we merely accept less convenience we willstill be better off than by “historical stan-dards,” it nevertheless means that we will beless well off. Possibly, it will be a more sustain-able society with a better environment, but atleast the choice should be stated clearly as atrade-off.

Likewise, Worldwatch Institute wants todownplay the costs of avoiding global warm-ing by reducing CO2 emissions. QuotingThomas Casten, a CEO from a smaller renew-able energy firm, they point out that “thesmall, extraordinarily efficient power plantshis company provides can triple the energyefficiency of some older, less efficient plants.The issue, he says, is not how much it will costto reduce carbon emissions, but who is goingto harvest the enormous profits in doingso.”146 However, Worldwatch Institute alsoenvisions how in the twenty-first century “theclimate battle may assume the kind of strate-gic importance that wars – both hot and cold –have had during” the twentieth Century.147

Backed up by a number of leading scientistswriting in Nature, Worldwatch Institute actu-ally asserts that to develop the necessary tech-nologies to combat climate change willrequire a monumental research effort, con-ducted with the urgency of the ManhattanProject.148 It is perhaps as well to note thatboth the cold war and the Manhattan Projectwere rather expensive projects.

Reality: water problems

A lot of worries go into the question of water –do we have enough, will scarcity cause waterwars, etc. In recent years water scarcity hasbecome one of Worldwatch Institute’s favorite

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examples of future problems. While we willdiscuss these water questions more thor-oughly in chapter 13, we will here look at twoof the most common claims.

One of the most widely used college bookson the environment, Living in the Environment,claims that “according to a 1995 World Bankstudy, 30 countries containing 40 percent ofthe world’s population (2.3 billion people)now experience chronic water shortages thatthreaten their agriculture and industry andthe health of their people.”149 This World Bankstudy is referred to in many different environ-ment texts with slightly differing figures.150

Unfortunately, none mentions a source.With a good deal of help from the World

Bank, I succeeded in locating the famous doc-ument. It turns out that the myth had itsorigin in a hastily drawn up press release. Theheadline on the press release was: “The worldis facing a water crisis: 40 percent of theworld’s population suffers from chronic watershortage.”151 If you read on, however, it sud-denly becomes clear that the vast majority ofthe 40 percent are not people who use toomuch water but those who have no access towater or sanitation facilities – the exact oppo-

site point. If one also reads the memo to whichthe press release relates, it shows that theglobal water crisis which Lester Brown andothers are worried about affects not 40 per-cent but about 4 percent of the world’s popu-lation.152 And, yes, it wasn’t 30, but 80 coun-tries the World Bank was referring to.

However, it is true that the most importanthuman problem with water today is not that weuse too much but that too many have no access.It is estimated that if we could secure cleandrinking water and sanitation for everyone,this would avoid several million deaths everyyear and prevent half a billion people becomingseriously ill each year.153 The one-off cost wouldbe less than $200 billion or less than four timesthe annual global development aid.154

Thus, the most important water question iswhether access to water and sanitation hasbeen improving or declining. Peter Gleick, oneof the foremost water experts, has edited asubstantial, engaged book about water, Waterin Crisis, an erudite Oxford publication ofalmost 500 large pages. However, when esti-mating water and sanitation access, Gleickseems to stumble on the Litany, as illustratedin Figure 4.

20 Part I: The Litany

Figure 4 Two attempts at showing the development of access to clean water and sanitation. Left, number of peopleunserved 1980–2000. OBS: Numbers for 1990–2000 are incorrect. Right, number of people unserved 1980–90,1990–4, 1990–2000 in broken lines. OBS: Solid lines for 1980–94 are incorrect. Source: Gleick 1993:10, 187–9.1998:262, 264, 1999, Annan 2000:5.








1980 1985 1990 1995 2000





, mill











1980 1985 1990 1995 2000


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From 1980 to 1990, Gleick makes the samegeneral point as this book, i.e. that things havebecome better: fewer people in the world aredenied access to water, and because 750 mil-lion more souls came into the developingcountries in the same period, 1.3 billion morepeople have actually gained access to water.The proportion of people in developing coun-tries with access to water has thus increasedfrom 44 percent to 69 percent, or by morethan 25 percentage points. As far as sanitationis concerned, more or less the same number ofpeople are denied access (about 6 millionmore), but once again, because of the growthin the population, almost three-quarters of abillion more people have access to sanitation –making the proportion increase from 46 per-cent to 56 percent.155 However, the periodfrom 1990 to 2000 in the left side of Figure 4indicates that things will now get worse. Farmore people will end up without water orsewage facilities. In fact the proportion willagain fall by 10–12 percentage points. But ifyou check the figures it turns out that allGleick has done is to expect that 882 millionmore people will be born in the nineties. Sincenone of these from the outset will have accessto water or sewage facilities their number hassimply been added to the total number ofunserved.156

Of course, this is an entirely unreasonableassumption. In essence, Gleick is saying thatin the decade from 1980 to 1990, 1.3 billionpeople had water supplies installed, so weshould assume that for the period 1990 to2000 the figure will be zero? However, thegraph has been reproduced in many places,and has for instance been distributed in aseminal article on the shortage of water.157

In 1996, the UN published its official esti-mates for access to water and sanitation in theperiod 1990 to 1994.159 What constitutes waterand sanitation access is naturally a question ofdefinition. (How close to the dwelling need awater pump be? Is a hole in the ground sanita-tion?) In 1996, the UN used its most restrictivedefinition of access on both 1990 and 1994.160

This caused the UN estimate for the 1990number of unserved to increase substan-tially.161 Thus, in the right-hand side of Figure4 we can see how the number of people with-out access to water in 1990 was no longer 1.2billion but 1.6 billion, now declining to 1.1 bil-lion in 1994. Equally, the number of peoplewithout sanitation was not 1.7 billion but 2.6billion, increasing to 2.9 billion in 1994.Gleick gives us both sets of numbers in his aca-demic book,162 but when presenting the evi-dence in a popular magazine only the original1980 and the revised 1994 figures are pre-sented.163 This, of course, compares twoentirely non-comparable figures. It suggeststhat the decline in the number of water-unserved has been much smaller than it reallyis, and suggests that the increase in sanita-tion-unserved has been much higher than itreally is.

In April 2000, the UN’s latest estimate for1990–2000 was published, indicating thatunserved of both water and sanitation hadindeed declined over the decade.164 Since thedecade added some 750 million people to thedeveloping world, this means that more thanthree-quarters of a billion more people gotaccess to clean drinking water and sanitation.Thus, the share of people with accessincreased substantially. In Figure 5 you cansee how the share of people in the developingcountries with access to drinking water hasincreased from 30 percent in 1970 to 80 per-cent in 2000. Equally, the share of people withaccess to sanitation has increased from 23 per-cent in 1970 to 53 percent in 2000.

Although there is still much left to do, espe-cially in sanitation, the most important waterproblem is indeed improving.

Reality: Pimentel and global health I

Most basic environmental research is soundand unbiased, producing numbers and trendsas inputs to evaluations such as WorldwatchInstitute’s State of the World or indeed this

Things are getting better 21

Page 32: The Skeptical Environmentalist - The Library of Congresscatdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam031/00068915.pdfThe Skeptical Environmentalist Measuring the Real State of the World Bj¿rn

book. However, there is a significant segmentof papers even in peer-reviewed journalstrying to make assessments of broader areas,where the belief in the Litany sometimes takesover and causes alarmist and even amazinglyshoddy work. Most of these poor statementsare documented throughout this book, butnevertheless it might be instructional to takea look at the anatomy of such arguments. As Ido not want just to show you a single exampleor pick out a lone error, but to show you thebreadth and depth of the shoddiness, we willactually have to touch a number of bases thatwe will return to during the book.

Professor David Pimentel of CornellUniversity is a frequently cited and well-known environmentalist, responsible –among many other arguments – for a globalerosion estimate far larger than any other (wewill discuss this in Part III) and for arguingthat the ideal population of a sustainable USwould be 40–100 million (i.e. a reduction of63–85 percent of the present population).165

In October 1998, Professor Pimentel pub-lished as lead author an article on the“Ecology of increasing disease” in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience.166 The basic prem-ise of the paper is that increasing populationwill lead to increasing environmental degra-dation, intensified pollution and conse-quently more human disease. Along the way,many other negative events or tendencies arementioned, even if many have very little bear-ing on the subject.

The Pimentel article repeatedly makes themistakes we have talked about above, butmost importantly it is wrong and seriouslymisleading on all of its central conclusions.However, this has not hindered the article inbeing cited and frequently used in pointingout the decline of the world.167

When looking at trends, Pimentel happilyuses very short-term descriptions. He looks atthe biggest infectious disease killer, tubercu-losis, claiming it has gone from killing 2.5 mil-lion in 1990 to 3 million in 1995, and citing an

22 Part I: The Litany

Figure 5 Percentage of people in the Third World with access to drinking water and sanitation, 1970–2000. Light,broken lines indicate individual, comparable estimates, solid lines is a logistic best fit line – a reasonable attempt tomap out the best guess of development among very different definitions.158 Source: World Bank 1994:26(1975–90), WHO 1986:15–18 (1970–83), Gleick 1998:262, 264 (1980–90, 1990–4), Annan 2000:5(1990–2000).







1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000





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Drinking water