Sustainable development: The book and the ideology

Published October 1, 2002

Sustainable Development:
Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty?

Julian Morris (editor), Profile Books, $15.00

Scarcely a day goes by without a grim new report warning of “dire consequences” if the world does not quickly adopt new protocols on “sustainable development.”

Most of these studies are produced or sponsored by the United Nations, intended to set the stage for such events as the UN’s recent World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The proposed protocols are backed by dozens of countries (most notably the European Union), hundreds of wealthy activist groups, vast armies of bureaucrats, literally billions of dollars of taxpayer and foundation money, and throngs of sympathetic journalists.

But now an important new book challenges the themes, assumptions, analyses and “solutions” advocated by the sustainable development movement.

Sustainable Development: Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty? is thought-provoking, well-researched, and backed by extensive data. Edited by Julian Morris, codirector of the International Policy Network, the book brings together the experience and thoughts of 17 experts from five continents. It should be required reading for anyone interested in Johannesburg World Summit issues or dealing with issues of trade, development, foreign aid, environmental protection, and a better future for people and our planet.

Real Needs

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. It’s pious, altruistic, and vague.

Morris reveals how this vision of sustainability 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 are largely ignored. Those concerns include:

  • 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 this indoor air pollution, but the proponents of sustainable development oppose those key energy sources. They favor wind and solar power.

But wind power requires giant turbines that slaughter birds by the thousands. Generating electricity equal to just 20 percent of U.S. energy consumption would require 230,000 hectares of wind turbines (an area the size of Virginia or Cuba), according to American Wind Energy Association data. And gas-fired generators would still be needed, to produce electricity whenever the wind stops blowing. Solar power has similar limitations.

  • 1.3 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and more than 2 million (mostly children) die of water-borne diseases every year. 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 of them die as a result. 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, the majority in sub-Saharan Africa. But radical greens still oppose even limited, carefully controlled use of DDT in homes to combat this killer disease.
  • 800 million people worldwide 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. The Johannesburg protocols would limit the right of Third World countries to develop. They would also reduce wealth and buying power in developed nations—which 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.

An elitist vision

The activists’ 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.

Advocates of “sustainable development” also assume humans are rapidly depleting the Earth’s natural resources and destroying the planet. Those beliefs have been vigorously challenged by numerous scholars, including Ronald Bailey, Robert Bradley, and the late Julian Simon, whose work appears in this book.

Their work demonstrates that environmental quality has been steadily improving, at least in the developed world, human health has never been better, and we are not running out of anything.

In his “Epilogue,” Morris writes, “True sustainable development” 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. That 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 futures.

In his essay titled “Why Africa Is Poor,” Free Africa Foundation President George Ayittey notes, “what exists in many African countries is a ‘vampire’ or ‘pirate’ state—a government hijacked by a phalanx of gangsters, thugs and crooks who use the instruments of the state to enrich themselves, their cronies,” their tribesmen, and various bureaucrats and educated elites. The poor get almost nothing—and little of the aid promised at the first sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro has ever materialized.

And yet, Johannesburg summiteers cynically suggest they would hold foreign aid hostage until African and Asian leaders ratify sustainable development treaties that would prolong this agony.

No wonder Africa’s villagers and honest politicians have become so disenchanted with attempts to impose First World treaties and policies on the Third World.

Sustainable institutions

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 will take heed.

Paul Driessen is a senior fellow for the Washington, DC-based Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.

For more information

Sustainable Development: Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty? is available for $15.00 (plus $3.95 shipping and handling) from the International Policy Network, 1001 Connecticut Avenue NW #1250, Washington, DC 20036.