Sustainable Development: A Dubious Solution in Search of a Problem

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From August 26 through September 4, 2002,approximately 100 heads of state and 60,000 delegateswill gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, toattend a "World Summit on Sustainable Development."The conference--convened on the 10thanniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiroand expected to be the largest U.N. summit in history--will explore domestic and international policyoptions to promote the hottest environmental buzzwordsto enter the public policy debate in decades.

The concept seems innocuous enough. Afterall, who would favor "unsustainable development"?A careful review of the data, however,finds that resources are becoming more--notless--abundant with time and that the world is infact on a quite sustainable path at present.

Moreover, the fundamental premise of theidea—that economic growth, if left unconstrainedand unmanaged by the state, threatensunnecessary harm to the environment and mayprove ephemeral--is dubious. First, if economicgrowth were to be slowed or stopped--and sustainabledevelopment is essentially concernedwith putting boundaries around economicgrowth--it would be impossible to improve environmentalconditions around the world. Second,the bias toward central planning on the part ofthose endorsing the concept of sustainable developmentwill serve only to make environmentalprotection more expensive; hence, society wouldbe able to "purchase" less of it. Finally, strict pursuitof sustainable development, as many environmentalistsmean it, would do violence to thewelfare of future generations.

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

Jerry Taylor

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