Policy Analysis No. 449

Sustainable Development: A Dubious Solution in Search of a Problem

Executive Summary

From August 26 through September 4, 2002, approximately 100 heads of state and 60,000 delegates will gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, to attend a “World Summit on Sustainable Development.” The conference—convened on the 10th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and expected to be the largest U.N. summit in history—will explore domestic and international policy options to promote the hottest environmental buzzwords to enter the public policy debate in decades.

The concept seems innocuous enough. After all, who would favor “unsustainable development”? A careful review of the data, however, finds that resources are becoming more—not less—abundant with time and that the world is in fact on a quite sustainable path at present.

Moreover, the fundamental premise of the idea—that economic growth, if left unconstrained and unmanaged by the state, threatens unnecessary harm to the environment and may prove ephemeral—is dubious. First, if economic growth were to be slowed or stopped—and sustainable development is essentially concerned with putting boundaries around economic growth—it would be impossible to improve environmental conditions around the world. Second, the bias toward central planning on the part of those endorsing the concept of sustainable development will serve only to make environmental protection more expensive; hence, society would be able to “purchase” less of it. Finally, strict pursuit of sustainable development, as many environmentalists mean it, would do violence to the welfare of future generations.

The current Western system of free markets, property rights, and the rule of law is in fact the best hope for environmentally sustainable development.

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