Unmasking the Flaw in Sustainability Thinking

Published July 1, 2006

This article is the third in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, excerpted and abridged by Jay Lehr.

Prior to December 2001, the federal government was prepared to receive bids for oil drilling on 5.9 million acres as near as 17 miles off the coasts of Alabama, the Florida panhandle, and Mississippi. Ultimately, however, the U.S. Department of the Interior took bids for only 1.5 million acres, the nearest of which are 100 miles offshore.

U.S. taxpayers have already received $340 million from oil companies just for the privilege of exploratory drilling. If oil is found, it will generate additional revenue, add to the nation’s energy supply, reduce the need to import oil, and help hold down the prices of heating oil and gasoline.

Despite these benefits, environmentalists immediately demonstrated outside the location where bids were received and announced their next step would be an attempt to block all oil drilling and production. Taxpayers will pay the costs of the ensuing lawsuits, regardless of whether oil exploration and production are eventually blocked.

National environmental advocacy organizations actively oppose exploration and production from all known U.S. oil reserves, be they in the Gulf of Mexico, northern Alaska, the California coast, the Rocky Mountains, or anywhere else resource recovery is proposed. Ask an environmental activist to tell you where a few good places would be to get our domestic oil, and you will likely never hear the suggestion of even a single location.

Forest Fears Unfounded

In the early years of the modern environmental movement there was much speculation and great fear that destruction of the rainforests, especially in Brazil, would imperil the global ecosystem.

These assertions have proven false in many particulars. First, the claim that large swaths of the Brazilian rainforest were being destroyed at an alarming rate proved false. Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, and Philip Statt, a professor of biogeography who studied the tropical forests for 30 years, initially believed rainforests were endangered. But working independently in the 1980s and 1990s, studying from airplane flights and satellite photos, they found 90 percent of the Amazon rainforest was intact. They were incredulous that entertainers could spread such misinformation without feeling guilty about their lies.

Additionally, the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produced by man has led to an increase, instead of a decline, in plant growth in the Amazon. J. Grace reported in Science (1995) that Amazonian rainforests are increasing their vegetation by about two tons of biomass per acre per year.

A Finnish research group measured a 25 percent increase in growth in the Amazon forests from 1971 to 1990, which they, like Grace, believed was due at least in part to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air.

Sustainability No Problem

Many thoughtful persons have been concerned about the concept of sustainability. Intuition tells us natural resources are finite, so we have an obligation to conserve them for future generations.

This assertion is such a sacred cow that few have analyzed it and almost no one has dared to challenge it. It is time to examine it with an open mind.

The United Nations Commission on Economic Development defined sustainability as that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. But how are we expected to know the needs of humans in 2100 and beyond?

Many environmental advocates define sustainability as a process in which the natural resource base is not allowed to deteriorate. Others define it to be the amount of consumption that can be sustained indefinitely without degrading capital stocks.

Cato Institute senior fellow Jerry Taylor, writing in 1998 for the Foundation for Economic Education, explained the failure of these concepts as follows: “What is ‘the natural-resource base’ we are directed not to draw down? Resources are simply those assets that can be used profitably for human benefit.”

Ingenuity Creates Resources

Waves, for example, are not harnessed for human benefit today and thus cannot be considered a “natural resource.” But the technology to harness the movement of waves to generate energy certainly exists, and the day when the cost of doing so is lower than the cost of alternative energy sources is the day when waves become a natural resource.

Petroleum was not an important resource 100 years ago, but today it is considered one of our most important resources. It is fashionable to argue that future generations have as much right to today’s environmental resources as we do and that we have no right to decide whether they should inherit their share of those rights. This concept of intergenerational equity is hopelessly incoherent. Individuals are said to have absolute resource rights before conception, no resource rights from conception to birth, and then only limited resource rights until death.

Society has managed to sustain development now for approximately 3,000 years without the guidance of state planners. The result is not only a society that is both healthier and wealthier than any other in history, but one with more natural resources at its disposal than ever before.

Unmasking the flaw in sustainability thinking will have consequences. It is a dramatic challenge to anyone who sincerely desires to understand the fundamentals of conserving, preserving, and yet utilizing planet Earth’s resources.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois. His groundbreaking hardcover book for laymen, Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be viewed at http://www.heartland.org.