Sustainable Versus Unsustainable Propositions

27 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2008 Last revised: 23 Jul 2015

See all articles by John C. Dernbach

John C. Dernbach

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School

Date Written: March 4, 2008


This article is a critique of Bjørn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001) from the perspective of sustainable development. While the author often uses the language of sustainable development, the book would turn sustainability on its head.

It is generally true, as Lomborg says, that many social and economic measures of human well-being have improved, including life expectancy, human health, and education. But the book systematically underestimates environmentally-related risks, ignores the problem of unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, and does not seriously address the moral and even religious issues raised by global environmental degradation.

Lomborg also asserts that children born today will unquestionably be better off in both developed and developing countries, if only we focus primarily on economic development. While economic development is important, it is not the complete answer, and not all forms of economic development will do. Laws and policies need to play a role in fostering economic, social, environmental, and security goals in mutually reinforcing ways. We need to recognize at least six things about these laws and policies: 1) good governance and other factors, not just economic growth, contribute to human quality of life, 2) laws and policies are essential for environmental protection, 3) poverty and environmental degradation are mutually reinforcing, 4) economic growth is not an essential precondition to environmental protection, 5) precautionary measures are appropriate to address significant environmental risks, and 6) laws and policies are increasingly available for sustainable development. The book is inconsistent with at least five of these propositions; it occasionally concedes that laws and policies may improve environmental quality. The good news is that the risks we face are also opportunities to improve human quality of life; appropriate laws and policies that address these risks provide a more realistic basis for a future in which we are all better off.

Keywords: sustainable development, Lomborg, skeptical environmentalist, environment, science, environmental law, national governance

JEL Classification: K32, O13, Q2, Q3, Q28, Q32, Q38, Q01

Suggested Citation

Dernbach, John C., Sustainable Versus Unsustainable Propositions (March 4, 2008). Case Western Reserve Law Review, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2002. Available at SSRN:

John C. Dernbach (Contact Author)

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School ( email )

3800 Vartan Way
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9380
United States

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