Commentary

Bush Is Right to Snub Johannesburg

By Jerry Taylor
August 31, 2002

The world’s chattering classes are beside themselves over President Bush’s decision to stay in Texas rather than travel to Johannesburg, South Africa over the Labor Day weekend to attend the U.N.’s “World Conference on Sustainable Development.” American environmentalists wail that the president is thoughtlessly dismissing the most important issue of our time. The Europeans cry that the president is ducking his responsibilities as leader of the most powerful nation on earth. This is akin, however, to the lions that cry that the lamb has refused their invitation to dinner.

The real reason the Euros are upset is that they had hoped to beat on the president like a Mexican piñata for his refusal to go along with the Kyoto Protocol and the rest of their international environmental agenda. Nothing plays better to the folks back home than a heapin’ helpin’ of America bashing, and the stage for such theatrics is far more compelling when the villain-in-chief is there for the international smack-down. The Greens, too, would like nothing better than to show American audiences what an environmental “rogue state” we have become under Bush’s watch. It’s no mystery, then, why George Jr. is reluctant to recreate George Sr.’s disastrous appearance at the Rio Summit 10 years ago.

It’s not as if there is any serious business on the table in Johannesburg either. No treaties, no protocols, no binding agreements - just a lot of hand-wringing about how poverty in the Third World is a western conspiracy and a lot of emotional nonsense about the coming collapse of the environment due to our piggish insistence on maintaining a standard of living beyond that of, say, Pakistan.

Isn’t that a bit harsh, you ask? After all, who’s in favor of “unsustainable development”? Well, no one. But human civilization has “sustained” itself nicely since the Industrial Revolution without any help from Greenpeace, the EU, or the U.N. To take the U.N.’s own definition of the term - meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs - sustainable development is a reality here and now.

Look at the data. Life expectancy across the globe has shot up over the course of the last two centuries. People are better fed, better clothed, and better housed today than ever before. Inflation-adjusted prices for virtually all resources - renewable and nonrenewable - are going down, which points to growing abundance, not growing scarcity. Global forests have, on balance, expanded over the past 50 years. Air and water pollution in the most industrialized nations of the world is a mere shadow of what it was decades ago. Even Third World countries have found that, once per capita income reaches a certain point, economic growth coincides with a cleaner environment. And if current trends in productivity, population growth, and consumption continue, we’ll be able to return a chunk of land the size of the Amazonian Basin back to nature by 2070. The human footprint on the environment is indeed becoming lighter and softer.

Where we do find nagging problems, such as stressed marine fisheries, tropical rainforest deforestation, fresh water scarcities, and the loss of biologically important ecosystems and habitat? In areas that lack property rights and areas lush in government mismanagement of the commons and poverty - not industrial society per se.

Poverty’s role in environmental degradation is far greater than any set of black-hat industries or fat and happy American consumers. For instance, 2 million people die every year from pollution caused by burning dung, kerosene, and coal indoors for residential heating and cooking needs. Electrification would save far more lives than any agreement that could possibly come out of Johannesburg. But electrification takes money that poor countries don’t yet have. And it won’t be any easier to afford if the Green campaign for renewable energy in the Third World comes to pass. Such a mandate would make electricity more expensive and thus lengthen the time it takes to remedy the aforementioned scourge.

Similarly, three million people die every year in Africa due to poor water quality, another problem that could be remedied by investment in water treatment facilities. But those investments will not come without economic growth, and that growth isn’t going to happen if the Johannesburg crowd succeeds in making energy, timber, agricultural products, and a host of other things more expensive to ostensibly protect the environment.

There are serious environmental problems to solve. But nearly every global indicator points toward improvement - not deterioration - in the environmental landscape. The president is right to ignore a conference dedicated unwittingly to turning the planet in the opposite direction.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute.