Acton Commentary

Sustainable Development - Is it Sustainable?


As the United Nations’ World Summit on Sustainable Development opens this week in Johannesburg, South Africa, it appears that the language of the politics of sustainable development will become a permanent part of the lexicon of public debate. The problem is, however, that “sustainable development” itself is a fluid term, having a different meaning for every person who pronounces on it, one-way or the other. To gain some insight into the question of sustainable development and the issues embraced under its rubric, it is important to note the big themes being pursued in Johannesburg this week: reducing global poverty and purifying the environment.

These goals are laudable and are not to be dismissed. It seems reasonable to think, however, that calling together 65,000 people could pose an obstacle to coming up with a coherent plan to address the important issues of global poverty and environmental degradation. As with all policy prescriptions, the devil is in the details and it would be foolish to assume that the proceedings of the “Earth Summit II”, as some have dubbed it, will be any different.

The fluid meaning of sustainable development and the bevy of issues pursued under its aegis tend to obscure more than they reveal. For a coherent understanding of this concept to emerge as a touchstone of real reflection on the issues of global poverty and environmental degradation, it is important to understand the politics of sustainable development and the line by which they have advanced for more than three decades.

The sustainable development movement has accepted, as an article of faith, the greenhouse hypothesis. This hypothesis buys the whole story of global warming, and to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the emotional disposition of its proponent, the predictions of an ecological apocalypse just over the horizon. Thus, the usual prescriptions to stave off the impending doom call for draconian measures to reduce greenhouse gases, such as strictly limiting or ending industrial emissions, enforcing tighter fuel efficiency standards, publicly funding expensive alternative energy sources, restricting worldwide deforestation, and making global efforts to control population, to name just a few. The sustainable development agenda is neatly summed up by Sandra S. Batie in her article, “Sustainable Development: Challenges to the Profession of Agricultural Economics” where she states, “the current generation must not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their material needs and to enjoy a healthy environment.”

While there are many different interpretations and nuances concerning the “sustainable” agenda, its advocates often

  • Perceive that the biosphere imposes limits on economic growth,
  • Express a lack of faith in either science or technology as leading to human betterment,
  • Are extremely averse to environmental risks,
  • Support redistributive justice and egalitarian ethics,
  • Profess concern over population growth and have faith in the wisdom of human capital development (education), and
  • Have as goals the survival of species and the protection of the environment and of minority cultures, rather than economic growth per se.

These six fundamental convictions and dispositions are the product of a certain anthropological and economic worldview. At the root of these convictions are the steady-state and zero growth economic models. Such an outlook dismisses the creativity and additive value of human activity. Unfortunately, many of the prescriptions offered by the sustainable development crowd scoff at, or completely dismiss, the reality that human activity is additive to creation’s largesse and that economic development is not a zero sum game, dependent on a static amount of resources. Resources, more broadly understood, are resources only in relation to human need and activity.

This is an important point to be made, because the two big issues embraced by the sustainable development agenda are global poverty and environmental degradation. The models employed by those arguing for the sustainable development project contain serious anthropological errors, assuming nothing new is created or invented by human activity. In as much as the dignity of the human person serves as the point of departure for reflection on the policy prescriptions of the sustainable development agenda, much good can be done. Pope John Paul, in his 1999 World Day of Peace Message articulated precisely this point:

The promotion of human dignity is linked to the right to a healthy environment, since this right highlights the dynamics of the relationship between the individual and the society. A body of international, regional, and national norms on the environment is gradually giving juridic form to this right. But juridic measures by themselves are not sufficient. The world’s present and future depends on safeguarding of creation, because of the endless interdependence between human beings and their environment. Placing human well-being at the center of concern for the environment is actually the surest way of safeguarding creation. (Emphasis added)

In reality, many of the proposals that will be put forth in Johannesburg will be the product of Western environmental dilettantes, who while long ago rejecting orthodox faith, will pursue dubious environmental policies with religious fervor. Strangely, many social justice advocates who are there to remind the world of the plight of the poor will be in league with those same environmentalists who would rather “control” population than feed people.

This is evidenced in the various measures that are being put forward to eliminate industrial emissions and the development of natural resources such as wood, minerals, energy sources and agriculture. These things serve as the foundation for economic growth and often constitute the most valuable assets the poorest nations of the world have in their possession. To deny these nations the opportunity to develop, trade, and utilize these resources is to condemn them to continued poverty.

Those who argue that environmental degradation occurs as a result of development are ignoring the facts about the fruits of development. In reality, environmental degradation is worse in the world’s poorest nations, not in Western industrialized nations. As the living standards of nations rise, so do the levels of their environmental quality. Economic development allows nations to switch from primitive biomass fuels, such as wood and dung, and to set aside primitive agricultural and commercial practices that take a heavy toll on the environment. Such a situation however, illustrates that the human reality within the environment is not static but dynamic, responding to human needs, such as economic growth and the necessity of a healthy environment for further human flourishing. Contrary to the politics of sustainable development, both are possible and intimately related to one another.

In the final analysis, the sustainable development agenda assumes that there is only so much to go around and we must preserve that which we have at all costs. They believe that the static nature and number of resources should be controlled by the steady-state which will dictate all development and consumption. This view, however, is confronted by the fact that there is nothing about human beings in relation to their environment that is static—rivers flood, volcanoes erupt, resources employed in one era are set aside with the advancements of the next. If global poverty and environmental degradation are to be addressed, it will be important to unleash and encourage the entrepreneurial spirit that allows creation’s largesse to be made more bountiful and more accessible to all, rather than relying on the stale politics of global socialism, which masks present selfishness as concern for the future.