TCS Daily

Development Sustained

By Paul Driessen - August 20, 2002 12:00 AM

The UN's upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa at the end of August, begs an obvious question: what exactly is meant by "sustainable development"?

An important new book sheds light on that question and challenges the themes, assumptions, analyses and "solutions" advocated by the sustainable development movement. "Sustainable Development: Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty?" makes a significant contribution to our ongoing debate over economic growth and the environment. Edited by Julian Morris, co-director of the International Policy Network, the book brings together the experience and thoughts of seventeen experts from five continents. It should be required reading for anyone heading to Johannesburg or dealing with issues of trade, development, foreign aid, environmental protection, and a better future for people and our planet.

Ask an environmental activist to define sustainable development, and he will most likely say it means we must "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This sounds straightforward enough, but it's vague. What exactly does that entail?

Less vague are the means by which SD proponents intend to achieve a sustainable world. Those means are spelled out in detail in a 300-page manifesto drafted at the Rio summit ten years ago known as Agenda 21.

Agenda 21 proposes that national governments pursue sustainability by controlling education, land and energy use, economic production and consumption, transportation, markets, labor, trade, housing, policy making processes and people's daily lives. It would do so through centralized government plans and edicts, monitored and enforced through
the United Nations and global NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

As Morris points out, this vision of sustainable development primarily reflects the aesthetic preferences of a small cadre of bureaucrats, multinational NGOs and wealthy foundations in developed countries. The needs, views and concerns of poor people in poor countries have been largely ignored.

The SD proponents' vision is likewise rooted too much in conjectural problems and theoretical needs of future generations - and too little on real, immediate, life-and-death needs of present generations. It focuses too little on fostering economic development, and too much on restricting development - typically in the name of protecting the environment.

Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg summit also reflect the assumption that we are rapidly depleting our natural resources and destroying the planet. These beliefs have been vigorously challenged by numerous writers and scholars, including Ronald Bailey, Robert Bradley, Gregg Easterbrook, Bjorn Lomborg, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore and the late Julian Simon. Their work demonstrates that environmental quality has been steadily improving - at least in the developed world - and that human health has never been better.

In a spirit of constructive dialogue, Morris offers a vision for "true sustainable development." It requires "a shift in focus away from false perceptions and supposedly desirable outcomes - and toward an institutional framework that allows and encourages people to improve their lives, make the best use of available resources and improve the environment. This framework must include decentralized ownership and control of property and natural resources, enforceable property and contract rights, free markets, limited regulation, and empowering individuals and communities to take charge of their own lives."

The Johannesburg protocols, however, fail to do this and thus make it increasingly difficult to address truly critical Third World problems. Consider these:

  • 1.6 billion people still do not have access to electricity, and 3 million (mostly women and children) die from acute respiratory infections, because they are forced to cook and heat with wood and dried cow dung. Hydroelectric dams and coal or gas-fired power plants could eliminate much of this indoor air pollution. But most SD proponents oppose these energy alternatives and favor wind and solar power.

  • 1.3 billion lack access to clean drinking water, and more than 2 million (again, mostly children) die of water-borne diseases every year. But many environmentalists oppose the dams and water projects that play an essential role in solving this problem.

  • 300 million people contract malaria every year, and 2 million die. The 30-year death toll (since a DDT ban went into effect) stands at 50 million, mostly children and pregnant women, nearly all in the Third World. But many environmentalists still oppose even limited, carefully controlled use of DDT in homes to combat this killer disease.

  • 800 million people are chronically undernourished. But most sustainability proponents favor severe restrictions on the biotechnology that could replace crops with insect and drought resistant varieties, increase crop yields, and reduce both the need for pesticides and the amount of land being farmed.

  • 3 billion people live on less than $2.00 a day. But the Johannesburg protocols would limit the ability of Third World countries to develop. They would also reduce wealth and buying power in developed nations that are important trading partners and sources of foreign aid, and give rich nations a rationale for barring imports that contain biotech products or result from allegedly unsustainable practices.

As Morris observes in closing: "It is our duty to ensure that the institutions we pass on to our children, and our children's children, enable them to progress. And we must strive to ensure that institutions which enable progress are adopted widely, so that people alive today are able to improve their lot; to live rather than subsist; to create rather than copy; to be free rather than be oppressed." It can only be hoped that the sustainable development movement and Johannesburg summit participants will take heed.

Paul Driessen is a senior fellow for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, a Washington, DC think tank. "Sustainable Development: Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty?" is available for $15.00 (plus $3.95 shipping and handling) from the International Policy Network (IPN), 1001 Connecticut Avenue, NW - Suite 1250, Washington, DC 20036.

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