ecostory 57/2005 - Lomborg Down-Under
Lomborg's The Sceptical Environmentalist promotion in Australia

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This is an email written upon Mr Lomborg's visit to Australia in October 2003, but still very important because of the treacherous tracks that Mr Lomborg's deceitful "analyses" left, even among serious scientists until today, 3 December, 2005, in Geneva.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Harvey is Senior Scientist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Centre for Terrestrial Ecology, Boterhoeksestraat 48, NL-6666 Heteren, The Netherlands. Tel: (+31) (26) 4791 306 email j dot harvey at nioo dot knaw dot nl

Dear Helmut,

I just thought that you might find this letter I wrote to a Lomborg critic (the only one I could find writing in The Australian) interesting. The Institute of Public Affairs in Australia is doing a lot of harm promoting Lomborg (on one of their ads he is described as "a leading environmental scientist", which is pure and utter garbage. We need all the help we can to counter his nonsense.

Best regards,


Dear Greg,

Just thought I would drop you a line to comment on the Lomborg brouhahaha that is currently underway as he tours Oz under the wing of your premier right wing 'unlimited free market, eviscerate the role of government in the pursuit of private profit' think tank. I am one of the authors (Jeff Harvey) of the pieces severely criticizing Lomborg's nonsense via the UCS and in Nature (where I co-reviewed his appalling book with Stuart Pimm) and I also was one of the individuals to formally complain to the Danish Committee for Scientific Dishonesty (with Pimm) last year. Their decision goes some way to vindicating what environmental scientists have been saying all over the world for two years now. As a senior scientist, my research at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology focuses on multitrophic interactions and attempts to upscale complex processes that govern the assembly and functioning of ecological communities. I have also worked for a number of years on examining functional constraints on life-history evolution in parasitic wasps.

I wrote to you because you seemed the one sensible voice amongst the sycophants in the exchange via the Australian articles by Wood and Lomborg. Paul Ehrlich has been viciously attacked by a bunch of morons in the exchange, people who know nothing about his research nor about his credentials. Let these jerks stand up to Ehrlich in any kind of relevant debate instead of pontificating about his errors with all kinds of hyperbolic attacks in the safety of their offices or living rooms. Ehrlich has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers on a variety of ecological research topics, he is the recipient of the Craaford Prize (awarded in lieu of the Nobel Prize to those in environmental sciences) and his contribution to evolutionary ecology and (more recently community ecology) has been immense. Contrast that with Lomborg's puny credentials - one peer-reviewed paper to his name in more than 10 years (!!!) - and you get the picture.

I debated Lomborg here in Holland a year ago and I certainly held nothing back on the day. The man is a con-artist through and through. Because I was limited to 35 minutes in debunking his nonsense (I assured the audience that I could speak for 48 straight hours in undermining his lies and deceptions) I focused on his abysmal biodiversity chapter, where I am closest to my own expertise. I gave example after example where he is selective, citing studies that bolster his own pre-determined worldview and ignoring those that don't. This pattern is in fact repeated throughout his book. Lomborg skims the literature and time and time again he emerges with a fraction of the available studies, citing a disproportionate number of those that support his arguments (even when many more studies have opposing conclusions). On acid rain, climate change, forest loss, this utterly dishonest pattern is repeated constantly. This kind of selective distortion may be acceptable in the social sciences, but in the life sciences it is not. This makes his book a polemic.

Lomborg also thinks its fine to misquote scientists by selectively taking segments of their statements to support his arguments. There are many examples, but perhaps the most egregious is when he states (regarding extinction rates) that "Even (Paul) Colinvaux (an eminent biologist) admits the rate (of extinctions) is incalculable". One might think that Colinvaux is throwing his hands in the air and saying unequivocally that the eco-skeptics out there have a point. But what Colinvaux REALLY said (in its entirety) was this: "As human beings lay waste to massive tracts of vegetation, an incalculable and unprecedented number of species are rapidly becoming extinct". So what Colinvaux really believes is that the number is large - and he is not admitting anything. This kind of manipulation is utterly unacceptable and dishonest behavior on Lomborg's part.

Lomborg also ends his trashy biodiversity chapter with an attempt to smear the reputations of Edward O. Wilson and Paul Ehrlich (next paragraph). One might wonder why the smear is relevant at all in the chapter, but it fits well within the behavior of the anti-environmental lobby. Lomborg realizes that his academic qualifications are non-existent when juxtaposed with those of eminent scholars like Wilson and Ehrlich, who, now in their 70's, have attained worldwide reputations in biology. Wilson has also been awarded the Craaford Prize and also a Pulitzer Prize for is work on "The Ants" with Conrad Holdobbler. Lomborg uses the classic refrain of the anti-environmental lobby - that is, to legitimize yourself you need to de-ligitimize the opposition. When that opposition is clearly light years ahead of you on reputation then you use whatever ammunition is available to achieve your goal to smear them. In many circles this is known as the "paradigm shift", where scientists become doomsayers, apocalyptics, chicken littles et al. if their views do not support a corporate plutocracy, and the anti-environmental lobby become "rational, sound, balanced" etc. I have researched this area for several years and given lectures on it in both Europe (including Denmark, where Lomborg refused to debate me) and the United States. Note that Lomborg also attempts to broadly smear the scientific community by claiming that we have to scare the public to ensure that we are funded - "there are many grants at stake" he opines. My research has nothing whatsoever to do with scaring the public, but to the na•ve reader he has made his point. All scientists are thus smeared with his brazen brush. Consequently, any critic of his puerile nonsense MUST have a hidden agenda. It's the classic con.

His feeble attempt to discredit Wilson and Ehrlich is appalling. He claims they are enthusiastic supporters of a plan "The Wildlands Project" (WP), which, as he puts it, "Aims to relocate everyone in US cities to small isolated urban islands so as to create wilderness corridors". Of course, such a proposition is utterly absurd, and anyone with half a brain would condemn it. The aim of putting this irrelevant paragraph into his biodiversity chapter is clearly to impugn the reputations of Wilson and Ehrlich. These scientists must be crazy to support a plan that no sane human would support. But there is a catch. Nowhere in the plan is there such an outrageous proposition. I support the WP, and so do many other scholars in the USA and abroad. I have read books (e.g. "Continental Conservation") and other literature on the WP by its founders - senior scientists Michael Soule and John Terborgh. In fact, the WP aims to re-create wildlife corridors working with co-operation between federal agencies and private landowners, in an attempt to reintroduce top level terrestrial predators into ecosystems in the western USA. Predators such as gray wolves and grizzly bears are known to play a significant role in mediating trophic cascades that regulate the assembly and functioning of ecosystems (trophic cascades are especially prevalent in aquatic ecosystems). But the WP has been bitterly opposed by far-right groups such as "Wise Use" and think tanks that advocate unlimited private access and exploitation of public lands. As it turns out, the non-peer reviewed article from which Lomborg gleaned this smear was written as a commentary in Science by two authors - Charles Mann and Mark Plummer - who support Wise Use (they have spoken at Wise Use meetings) and are employed by the "Discovery Institute", a right wing think tank based in Seattle. If Lomborg had had an ounce of integrity in him, he would have contacted Wilson and Ehrlich - indeed, Soule and Terborgh - to learn more about the WP before he wrote his irrelevant paragraph. But of course, in learning the truth behind the plan, he would not have been able to smear Wilson and Ehrlich - which was his aim from the start.

Without delving too much into it (I just don't have the time), the fatal flaw in Lomborg's trash is that he dismisses the natural economy in favor of the material economy, just as his late hero, Julian Simon did. As Paul Ehrlich states (October 1st, in the Australian), the biggest error in TSE is that Lomborg completely excludes (because he does not understand it) the connection between the expanding scale of the human enterprise and the degradation of natural systems that freely supply an array of vital services that sustain humanity. As scientists we know that there is a link between the diversity and organization in natural ecosystems and their functioning, in terms of services like pollination, pest control, the maintenance of watersheds, the detoxification of wastes, the cycling of nutrients, and the regulation of the hydrological and biogeochemical cycles. These services do not carry prices, but if they did, their underlying deterioration would alert us to the predicament that we face. Nowhere in Lomborg's book is there a discussion of anthropogenic processes that lead to wetland loss and eutrophication, fraying and unraveling food webs, the disruption of the nitrogen, carbon, and hydrological cycles, and a general transformation in the health of terrestrial and marine ecosystems across the planet. Instead, Lomborg focuses on the material economy. His discussion of "valuation" is always based strictly what is in national accounts (foregone income). He estimates a forest is worth either the value of its timber or the land on which to grow food. That the same forest may constitute one link in a network of other forests that regulate ecosystem vitality and functions, and that, over increased spatial scales forests and the species that inhabit them greatly influence and regulate nutrient and water cycles, is beyond him.

When we had our one debate, Lomborg made no attempt whatsoever to counter my many examples of his distortions and dishonesty (he was given 15 minutes to do so and the only rebuttal I got was his defense of the Wilson/Ehrlich smear). But why should he? His most important trait is to look cool, collected, and above all impartial and open. After most of my points he simply interjected with "Hmm that is really interesting, I must look into it". This convinces the audience that he is sincere, even when he is not. At the end of the day everything said by his opponents is flushed down his mental toilet. After all, tomorrow is a new day, and a new audience. The same gobbledegook can be rehashed ad libitum. In my view, Lomborg is one of the biggest frauds and con-men to enter the scientific arena in more than 30 years. He realized early on that environmental science is not only a complex field, but, in a heterogeneous population, that there is always a robust market for books that appeal to those with a vested interest in maintaining a business-as-usual policy. If he was at all honest, he would admit his errors and would have approached each chapter in his book using a nul hypothesis. He blatantly ignores the fact that there is as much, if not more, anti-environmental nonsense doing the rounds (thanks to the glut of libertarian think tanks, media interests and the power of capital) than pro-environmental groups, most of which operate on fairly limited budgets. Instead, each chapter of TSE starts with the most extreme projection, allowing anything less that Lomborg concludes to downplay the problem. For example, his acid rain chapter is based on the argument that "acid rain kills forests", and biodiversity chapter begins with Norman Myers old estimate of "40,000 species per year lost" (in fact, using estimates of prehistoric extinction rates based on work by Raup and Jablonski, and current estimates of a species lifespan actually puts the figure of 40,000 somewhere in the middle, depending upon the actual number of extant species). But Lomborg's sole purpose is to lessen the impact of contemporary problems in the eyes of the reader, and to impose himself in the limelight. Hence, he claims to be an environmentalist, but to have seen the light when he re-examined the empirical data. Nothing makes better press than the "eco-zealot who changes horse mid-stream", hence why Lomborg has gone farther than quirky business economist Julian Simon ever did. But it is all a sham, in my view.

Sorry for my own pontificating, but Lomborg's star will dim as more evidence comes in. His inability to change even a sliver of his story will vanquish him with time. It is just a matter of how much damage he will do in the meantime with his rhetoric that worries me.

Best regards,


More Lomborg debunking:

ecoglobe: Lomborg is only one of a series of writers who tried to defuse the environmental warnings because it didn't suit their worldviews or business interests. Meadows' "Limits to Growth" (1972) sparked a flurry of protests and it's still a red flag for growth advocates. Though Meadows 1972 admittedly set some limits too close, its basic message still holds true, as explained in their 1992 The New Limits to Growth.
Lomborg is a worthy successor of Julian Simon, who claimed the Earth could lodge up to 80 billion people and human ingenuity was "The Ultimate Resource" (approx. 1983) that would solve all problems. Simon interestingly wrote that the non-achieved happiness of tens of thousands of non-born babies (because of contraception and abortion) is more important than the suffering of a few thousand people being tortured.
A mail to ecological economics from 1995 may demonstrate the past debate.

ecoglobe - biodiversity
ecoglobe - sustainability
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