“Sustainable” Development’s Unsustainable Contradictions

by | Sep 14, 2002

The U.N.’s “sustainable development” conference in South Africa has been characterized, so far, by what the press calls “divergent agendas,” a confused contest of competing interests and an attitude of futility. One speaker summed up the expectations for the conference: “They’ll talk and talk and talk, then they’ll agree to talk some more at a […]

The U.N.’s “sustainable development” conference in South Africa has been characterized, so far, by what the press calls “divergent agendas,” a confused contest of competing interests and an attitude of futility. One speaker summed up the expectations for the conference: “They’ll talk and talk and talk, then they’ll agree to talk some more at a later date and go home.”

Both the conference’s dignitaries and the protesters who rail at them blame these results on hypocrisy and dishonest political maneuvering. If only the nations in attendance would take “sustainable development” seriously, the conference could “live up to its promise of being a fitting culmination to a decade of hope,” in the words of South African President Thabo Mbeki.

But the confusion in Johannesburg is precisely the result of taking “sustainable development” seriously — with all of the contradictions inherent in the notion.

For environmentalists, the campaign for “sustainable development” is not motivated by a legitimate desire for development. Instead, it is an attempt to put a respectable face on their anti-development, anti-industry, anti-technology philosophy. The environmentalists want to pretend that strangling industrial civilization would not consign the world to a permanent hell of poverty, starvation and mass death. They want to evade the monstrous consequences of their ideas.

Thus, they tell us that there is something called “sustainability,” a magic mechanism that will help the Third World achieve prosperity — even as the environmentalists restrict the only known conditions for prosperity: free trade and industrialization. The way to achieve this contradiction, or at least to achieve the illusion of it, is the central idea of the Johannesburg conference: the demand that industrialized nations pay out massive aid subsidies, putting Third World countries on the dole rather than helping them develop their own economic production. It is an attempt to give the Third World some of the results of industrial development without actual industry or development.

But even the promise of aid is a lie, because Western money can do no good when the greens have outlawed all elements of industrial development. For example, there is much talk in Johannesburg about using Western aid to prevent famine, to halt the spread of disease and to provide Third World countries with clean water and sanitation. But it is the environmentalists who have campaigned against the construction of hydroelectric dams, a major source of electric power and clean water. It is environmentalists who have tried to block the use of genetically modified crops, which are more resistant to drought and disease. And it was environmentalists who stopped the use of DDT, allowing the resurgence of malaria, which once again kills millions in the Third World each year.

These campaigns are proof of the greens’ real motives. They want to stop development and keep the Third World in a state of poverty — while they work to bring the same ideal of poverty to industrialized nations. Most environmentalists embrace this goal, but few dare to admit it openly — so they peddle a variety of ruses to hide their meaning, ranging from “sustainable development” to “shrinkth,” a term suggested by the editor of Earth Island Journal as a less negative-sounding “antonym for growth.”

The fact that the environmentalists are getting away with this ruse on such a grand scale, with international summits devoted to their evasions, is inexcusable.

History has amply demonstrated what kind of development is truly good for human life. For two centuries in the West, free markets, property rights and the industrial civilization they made possible have produced an ever-increasing — and indefinitely “sustained” — prosperity. The environmentalist mythology paints this as an era of deadly pollution, when, in fact, the advent of industrialization doubled the average person’s lifespan. It’s not hard to see why: the Industrial Revolution brought us all of the development goals set forward at the U.N. conference — clean water and sanitation, the elimination of disease, plentiful food — and much, much more. These were enormous achievements in making man’s physical environment healthier, and they were all made possible by industrial capitalism.

But we have yet to see an international “capitalism summit” or “industrialization conference.”

It is common these days to blame the West for all of the world’s ills. Yet there is one sense in which the West is to blame: we live in the midst of the greatest prosperity in history, yet our intellectual leaders refuse to acknowledge the source or even the value of that prosperity, and they refuse to let the world know what is really required for sustained development: capitalism.

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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