Commentary

It’s the Third World — Not the West — That’s Unsustainable

By Jerry Taylor
This article was first published in National Review Online, Aug. 28, 2002.

As the U.N.’s “World Summit for Sustainable Development” got under way last week in Johannesburg, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki welcomed the 12,600 attendees with the warning that “unsustainable patterns of production and consumption are creating an environmental disaster that threatens both life in general, and human life in particular.” The root of the problem, according to Mbeki, is that the international economic order is “constructed on the basis of a savage principle of survival of the fittest.” And thus, the U.N. conference got off on a predictably wrong foot.

First, blaming Western industrialized nations for producing and consuming too much is misguided. If the West didn’t produce as much as it does, standards of living in countries like South Africa would be lower than they are today. If the West didn’t consume as much as it did, we’d join those countries in their pool of human misery. Nobody in the United States has to apologize for living in nice houses, eating well, investing in education, spending money on health care, or enjoying life. Despite what the U.N. would have us believe, those things did not come at the expense of the Third World or the global environment.

Tropical rainforest deforestation, for instance, has little to do with Western consumption. Less than 10 percent of the harvested timber is exported. Most of that wood is burned for fuel, and most of the cutting takes place to clear the way for Third World farmers who lack the capital to increase yields in any other way save for putting more land under the till. Third World poverty - not Western affluence - is the problem.

Pollution, moreover, is likewise primarily a problem in the developing - not the developed - world. As anyone who’s traveled can attest, air and water quality in the West is far better than it is in countries like South Africa and continues to improve at jaw-dropping rates. Western nations aren’t the ones exporting “brown clouds” to the Third World. It’s the Third World that’s exporting brown clouds to the rest of us.

President Mbeki ignores the fact that the West doesn’t simply consume natural resources. It also creates them. Natural resources are simply that subset of the earth’s “stuff” that we can harness profitably for human benefit. As knowledge and technology expands, our ability to harness new and different sorts of inert matter for human use expands along with it. It’s the only way to square the fact that - no matter how you measure the availability of fossil fuels, minerals, or foodstuffs - they’re becoming relatively more abundant, not scarcer, even in the face of growing consumption.

Second, Mbeki’s slur against Western capitalism as a “primitive” and “self-destructive” ethos of “survival of the fittest” is insipid. First, the lesson of the 20th century is that no other economic system is as capable of producing wealth and bettering the lot of mankind than capitalism, a fact that should be clear to president Mbeki of all people.

Third, virtually every serious analyst is now well aware of the link between economic growth and environmental quality. Once per capita income reaches a certain point (somewhere between $2,500 and $9,000, dependent upon the pollutant), ambient concentrations of air and water pollution begin to decline in real terms. Analysts have also found a link between poverty and deforestation, between poverty and land degradation, and between poverty and environmental health threats.

That latter point deserves more attention. Approximately 2 million people across the Third World die every year because they rely upon dung and kerosene to heat their homes and cook their food, a practice that generates deadly amounts of indoor air pollutants. Another 3 million people a year die in Africa alone because they rely on lakes and rivers for drinking water that has been contaminated by untreated sewage and other wastes. Yet both electrification and water treatment requires capital investment that the Third World can’t afford because, well, they’re more interested in redistributing wealth to fight “jungle capitalism” and following every trendy environmental fad that crosses their path than in promoting the economic freedoms and private property rights necessary to facilitate economic growth.

Unfortunately, President Mbeki and most of the rest of the attendees are largely interested in getting a handout from the West. And they believe that guilt-tripping Europeans and Americans for their excessive consumption and economic success is the way to get it. Other attendees see the conference as yet another front in their war against economic liberalism. To the extent that either party succeeds, sustainable development will be hobbled, not helped, by the Johannesburg conference.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, www.cato.org.