21st century false prophets

Posted: Aug 17, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It is very difficult to speak ill of those who supposedly do nothing but good. Christopher Hitchens, the left-wing controversialist, manages it with flair. Not long ago, he wrote a book depicting as a scoundrel the late and now beatified Mother Teresa. Yet I can think of no one else successfully engaged in such arduous undertakings. Perhaps that explains the enduring affection the world has for those famous false prophets who for 40 years have almost always been wrong -- the environmentalists. They claim to be doing so much good. How can one possibly hold their many erroneous pronouncements and botched prophesies against them? For instance, who out there would call Dr. Paul Ehrlich, president of Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology, a humbug or a fool? Admittedly, he has been stupendously wrong about most of his environmental declarations. Yet protecting the world from famine and depletion is a noble thing. Hence the public admires and forgives him his errors and the occasional nervous breakdowns they have caused among the environmentally sensitive. In the 1970s, Ehrlich predicted that the world was at the threshold of mass starvation. In his 1968 best-selling compendium of imminent catastrophes, "The Population Bomb," he predicted that "hundreds of millions" of people were going to starve to death owing to overpopulation and agriculture's inability to feed the masses. His readers popularized wearing buttons prophesying "Famine '75." He was wrong. Yet because he was wrong in a good cause, he went on to become widely admired, and who out there speaks ill of him today? Maybe Hitchens has an expose coming, but few others would dare. In 1980, he put his money behind his claim that industry was pillaging the world's natural resources, making them scarce and expensive. A critic, Dr. Julian Simon, bet him that by 1990 any five metals that Dr. Ehrlich considered headed toward extinction would actually become cheaper. Ehrlich took the bet, chose the metals and lost on all five. He is honored today and Simon is forgotten, though Simon's predictions of the planet's happy longevity free of starvation and depression proved to be as accurate as Ehrlich's gloom proved to be inaccurate. One is more admired for claiming to do good than for proving to be right. Thus I worry about the fate of Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, a 36-year-old Danish political scientist and statistician from the University of Aarhus. In his new book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist," he demonstrates just how wrong Ehrlich has been and he throws in the Worldwatch Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and all the other environmentalist alarmists as traffickers in error. Lomborg demonstrates that the global warming statistics used, for instance, for the Kyoto accords are based on falsehoods; and "the typical cure of early and radical fossil-fuel cutbacks is much worse than the original affliction." He accuses the environmentalist hysterics of basing their hysteria on selective short-range studies that ignore reassuring long-range studies of environmental improvement. Sometimes, they are aware of the misinformation they spread. "We are not running out of energy or natural resources," Lomborg demonstrates in a book that includes 3,000 footnotes. "There will be more and more food per head of the world's population. Fewer and fewer people are starving. In 1900, we lived for an average of 30 years; today we live for 67. According to the UN, we have reduced poverty more in the past 50 years than we did in the preceding 500, and it has been reduced in practically every country." All this is a consequence of a rapidly improving worldwide environment. So what will happen to Lomborg? Will he slip into oblivion as did Simon and others who have made accurate predictions about the environment where the environmentalists, so-called, have been wrong -- possibly not. Lomborg began his career on Ehrlich's side. Now, though in disagreement with other environmentalists, he steadfastly identifies himself as an environmentalist. He is doing good, but with accurate information. Lomborg reminds us that most intelligent people are environmentalists. Almost everyone wants a healthy environment. Moreover, the American environmental movement did not begin with Ehrlich or any of the other 1960s zealots. It began with our conservationists a century ago. It has proved to be a success worldwide. Or, as Lomborg says in "The Skeptical Environmentalist," "Mankind's lot has actually improved in terms of practically every measurable indicator." Apparently there have been more people out there worthy of the public's admiration.