Tuesday, August 25, 2009


One of the more irritating buzzwords you hear tossed around in Washington is "sustainable development". It's a nebulous term people love to use but often have trouble defining. That's not surprising since it's a fairly ridiculous concept -- if something isn't sustainable then it will eventually end of its own accord. Who consciously engages in unsustainable development?

That's not to say a definition doesn't exist. As wikipedia says:
The term was used by the Brundtland Commission which coined what has become the most often-quoted definition of sustainable development as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
I still don't think this provides much insight, as it is not obvious for example that either we are currently suffering because of the consumption of those who came before us or imperiling the needs of subsequent generations.

That is not to say environmental degradation has not occurred, with things like overfishing, overhunting, and deforestation very real concerns. These, however, are not the result of too much development but a lack of clearly-defined property rights and capitalism to govern their consumption (where scarce resources are given high prices that deter their usage and promotes alternatives). Indeed, environmental devastation is most often found in those places which are least developed while more prosperous (read: capitalistic) countries tend to be in better condition.

I'm therefore left to conclude that those who peddle the sustainable development mantra are motivated either by ignorance or simply a desire to carry out an anti-capitalist agenda by other means. No, I'm not kidding about the latter group, given comments by some environmentalists:
The outgoing leader of Greenpeace has issued a call for the suppression of economic growth in the U.S. and Western nations. Under questioning by BBC reporter Stephen Sackur on the August 5, 2009 “Hardtalk” program, Gerd Leipold, the retiring leader of Greenpeace, said “the lifestyle of the rich in the world is not a sustainable model.

Excerpt from NotEvilJustWrong.com: “Leipold told the BBC that there is an urgent need for the suppression of economic growth in the United States and around the world. He said annual growth rates of 3 percent to 8 percent cannot continue without serious consequences for the climate.”

“We will definitely have to move to a different concept of growth. … The lifestyle of the rich in the world is not a sustainable model,” Leipold told the BBC.

“If you take the lifestyle, its cost on the environment, and you multiply it with the billions of people and an increasing world population, you come up with numbers which are truly scary,” Leipold explained.
Comments in a similar vein here.

Use of the term sustainable development only confuses the debate over environmentalism and serves as a distraction towards achieving real improvements in the air, water and land. It implies that consumption now adversely impacts consumption later, when the reality is that subsequent generations are likely to enjoy a standard of living significantly superior to our own, in large part because of current consumptive activities that produce wealth.

If we really want to preserve the environment and ensure the existence of resources for future generations we should strive to promote a system of free enterprise supported by strong property rights. What's truly unsustainable is a deviation from this approach.

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