Monday, 30 October 2006

The buzzword for this morning is 'sustainability'

The buzzword for this morning is 'sustainability.' Be aware that both National and the Clark Government have now trumpeted that your freedom and your future prosperity are to be sacrificed on the altar of 'sustainability' -- National are doing so in the name of political strategy; Clark in the pursuit of a political diversion, but the few carrots and the many sticks are the same. So what the fuck does it mean, this flatulent buzzword? It's no good looking to your dictionary for help:
Sustain v.t., to bear the weight of, to hold up, to keep from falling...
Not much help there. No, sustainability is more about keeping people down than it is about keeping anything up.

'Sustainability' first became fashionable with the UN's Bruntland Report of 1987, which provided a recipe for authoritarians to take control of their nations' economies -- this report by the way was produced on on the back of scare stories from Rachel Carson about DDT (which proved to be both wrong and destructive), from Paul Ehrlich on the population explosion (which proved to be embarrassingly wrong), and from the Club of Rome on how the world is running out of resources (which myth Julian Simon almost "single-handedly routed"). All were wrong, spectacularly wrong, but their spectres still haunt the world through the 'sustainability' detritus of this report.

The Bruntland Report defined sustainable development as
development that "meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
This nostrum was adopted by the Agenda 21 circus in Rio early in the '90s, by schools and universities around the world, and was reaffirmed by the World Sustainability Summit in Johannesburg as recently as 2002. As the Ayn Rand Institute's Robert Tracinski pointed out at the time, the confusion seen at the 20002 summit
is precisely the result of taking "sustainable development" seriously -- with all of the contradictions inherent in the notion.

For environmentalists, the campaign for "sustainable development" is not motivated by a legitimate desire for development. Instead, it is an attempt to put a respectable face on their anti-development, anti-industry, anti-technology philosophy. The environmentalists want to pretend that strangling industrial civilization would not consign the world to a permanent hell of poverty, starvation and mass death. They want to evade the monstrous consequences of their ideas.

Thus, they tell us that there is something called "sustainability," a magic mechanism that will help the Third World achieve prosperity -- even as the environmentalists restrict the only known conditions for prosperity: free trade and industrialization. The way to achieve this contradiction, or at least to achieve the illusion of it, is the central idea of the Johannesburg conference: the demand that industrialized nations pay out massive aid subsidies, putting Third World countries on the dole rather than helping them develop their own economic production. It is an attempt to give the Third World some of the results of industrial development without actual industry or development.

But even the promise of aid is a lie, because Western money can do no good when the greens have outlawed all elements of industrial development. For example, there is much talk in Johannesburg about using Western aid to prevent famine, to halt the spread of disease and to provide Third World countries with clean water and sanitation. But it is the environmentalists who have campaigned against the construction of hydroelectric dams, a major source of electric power and clean water. It is environmentalists who have tried to block the use of genetically modified crops, which are more resistant to drought and disease. And it was environmentalists who stopped the use of DDT, allowing the resurgence of malaria, which once again kills millions in the Third World each year.

These campaigns are proof of the greens' real motives. They want to stop development and keep the Third World in a state of poverty -- while they work to bring the same ideal of poverty to industrialized nations...
Michael Shaw and Ed Hudgins call 'sustainable development' Sovietization, and they highlight a number of philosophical problems with the notion:

The U.N.'s concept of Sustainable Development is antithetical to individual freedom and economic liberty. It is, philosophically speaking, unsustainable. Development in this context refers to the use of naturally occurring materials such as land, forests, rivers, water, and the like. The notion of Sustainable Development assumes that if not managed by some collective body, these materials will be destroyed by individual owners. The United Nations Habitat Conference Report in 1976 stated: "Private land ownership is also a principal instrument of accumulation and concentration of wealth and therefore contributes to social injustice…Public control of land use is therefore indispensable."

This idea plays on the notion that resources are limited. Yet there is no such thing as a "natural resource." There is only matter and energy in the world that we human beings with our remarkable minds are able to make use of for our survival and well-being. Oil, for example, a century and a half ago, was not a resource to a farmer who found it seeping out of his land; it made the land worthless for growing crops or grazing farm animals. Only when men discovered how to use it to heat homes, run electrical generators, and propel planes and automobiles did it become a resource. Since from a human perspective there is no limit to the potentially usable matter and energy in the universe, there is no problem of running out of resources. The only problem is which resources will be developed and at what cost.

There is nascent technology, for example, to generate energy via ocean waves or to use orbiting collectors that would convert and beam energy to Earth via microwaves or lasers.

And University of Arizona, Tucson, Professor John Lewis has done serious work on the technology and economics of mining asteroids for minerals.

Sustainable Development is supposed to meet "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition is collectivist to the core. Not only does it ignore individual owners of assets, it in effect bestows title to those assets to an unborn future collective—not even future individuals who might inherit titles to property - but to "future generations." Agenda 21's definition of Sustainable Development was lifted from the 1977 Constitution of the Soviet Union.

In addition, this conception assumes that one can judge at any given time whether some use of an asset will be sustainable in the future. But such knowledge is virtually unobtainable. Estimates a century ago that America would soon lose its forests—a renewable resource -- were wrong; we have more woodlands today than at that time. Predictions at that time that America would run out of oil in a few decades also proved spurious. Consider the folly if our ancestors had determined to save whale oil for lighting a few homes during the twentieth century.

But more fundamental is the fact that we cannot know how technology will affect the sustainable use of any given asset in the future. A snapshot is not a movie. America's history shows material progress over past centuries by any measure. If we had asked at any given time whether the use of an asset were sustainable without knowledge of future technologies that are simply unknowable before they are created, not doubt most development and progress would not have occurred.

This brings up another flaw in the definition of Sustainable Development. It is likely that future generations will live better than present ones if governments do not sabotage economic growth through takings, taxes, and regulations. If anything, the present generation makes itself a victim by forgoing the use of resources for the sake of future ones. The present generation bequeaths to the future a wealth of capital and knowledge. That means future generations will not need to reinvent the wheel.
These problems with Sustainable Development show that at best it is a subjective, collectivist muddle and its application inevitably will destroy private control of property and with it freedom itself.

'Sustainability' is not about wealth production, rational analysis or the use of science or technology for advancement of human welfare. Quite the opposite: at root it is about sacrifice, paying penance for our prosperity and our freedom, and like all forms of sacrifice or of altruism, it's more about the present-day sacrifice than it is about future results (if any).

As Bjorn Lomborg points out for example, rational analysis of authoritarian reactions to projected environmental problems see the solutions as more expensive and more damaging than the so-called problems. As he says, "Just because there is a problem doesn’t mean that we have to solve it, if the cure is going to be more expensive than the original ailment." That of course doesn't stop much irrationality.

We're supposed to conserve 'resources' for future generations, for example, but if ‘resources’ are ‘conserved for future generations,’ when in fact will the resources be used? Which future generation will be allowed to access them? When? This is a sacrifice of the present to a future that never arrives. If ‘resources’ may no longer be used, can they really be called a ‘resource’? It is the human mind that has turned trees, rocks and mud puddles of yesterday into the resources of today; it is the human mind that is the ultimate resource -- and just like all the other resourcess, it is not running out, although with economies and industry being shackled it is the mind being applied to production that is itself being shackled.

But will our grandchildren really thank us tomorrow for not applying our minds and our energy to production today? Will they really thank us tomorrow for not having built today the roads, dams, abattoirs, oil refineries, industrial and chemical plants, canals, sewerage systems, pulp and paper mills, railways and mines that we present generations have enjoyed as a gift from our own predecessors? Will they think we've been sensible? Or bloody idiots with an anti-human agenda who should have been silenced with a gag and a bucket of paraquat.

But in the end it's not sense that attracts politicians is it, it's power, and the reason for the more-than-decade-long popularity of the 'sustainability' nostrum is that it delivers power to those who are hungry for it: to politicians and their minions. It is nothing other than a pseudo-concept giving planners, bureaucrats, politicians and minor functionaries power over your property and your industry and the use of your mind to create new wealth and new resources. And it does this in a way peculiarly suited to politicians -- by delivering them a constituency that can't talk back. If ‘resources’ (i.e., your property) must be protected for ‘future generations,’ and in the absence of future generations to speak for themselves, then the idea of 'sustainability' nostrum empowers someone to speak on their behalf. That someone of course is a politician.

How ironic: a constituency from tomorrow that can't answer back, used to shackle the constituency of today that can. What could be more ingenious? And what could be more suitable to sell politically.

Are you buying it?

LINKS: 'Bluegreen - the new symbol of wetness - Not PC
Bruntland Report - Wikipedia
'Sustainable development's unsustainable contradictions - Robert Tracinski, Capitalism Magazine
Sovietizing America: How sustainable development crushes the individual - Michael Shaw & Ed Hudgins, The Objectivist Center

Speaking for the speechless - Not PC (Aug, 2005)
Altruism: It's about us, not about them - Not PC (May, 2005)

RELATED: Politics-NZ, Environment, Philosophy, Ethics


  1. To be fair it is easy to burn a concept down, especially when you set it us as a straw man. The version of sustainability you describe certainly sounds awful. . . and bears little in common with this version of sustainability "Sustainability is fundamentally about maintaining life on earth and the ecosystems required to support it." - The Natural Step.

    Understandably, government who's want control will jump on just about anything to get it. And 'sustainability' has become another noe of those things. It is also interesting to note that the far left have criticised 'sustainability' as being a byword for what they call 'continued corporate degradation' of the environment, or 'business as usual'.

    Which makes me suspect that anything which is cristised so by both the left and the right may have some merit ;) LOL

  2. I apologise for my poor spelling in my last post.

  3. "sustainability" is code for "we're going to tax the hell out of the middle-classes and justify it in the name of the environment"
    If National move towards the left with this kind of weaselly claptrap they deserve to fail.

  4. KG, I think you're exactly right: "You are being taxed for your own good." Sigh.

  5. "These campaigns are proof of the greens' real motives. They want to stop development and keep the Third World in a state of poverty -- while they work to bring the same ideal of poverty to industrialized nations..."

    Do you actually believe this? I mean, it sounds lovely - smacks of a grand conspiracy, and sets up 'the greens' as subversive enemies of prosperity, but...what an utter crock of shit!

    I assume 'the greens' here refers to that growing number of people worldwide who see value in changing the current course of damaging environmental practices in the face of the solidifying possibility of climate change. If so, 'the greens' are slowly edging the nay-saying laissez-faire mob further and further out to the tenuous fringes, something I am happy to see.

    If you intend to reduce debate to insulting snapshots like those you quoted, ie 'Greenies are out to impoverish us, whatever they say they might want,' then don't be saddened by the intellectual trough that the debate will fester in.


    (PS From the arch. perspective, the latest 'Build' is a great read re: 'sustainability'. However you choose to define the motives of those who oppose laissez-faire environmental proactices, you can't deny that your dwindling minority is shrivelling faster than [insert appropriately hilarious punchline])

  6. Den, you said, "I assume 'the greens' here refers to that growing number of people worldwide who see value in changing the current course of damaging environmental practices in the face of the solidifying possibility of climate change."

    I assume you realise that the very premise of that sentence is what is under debate here?

  7. OK, lets assume that global climate change is NOT going to occur as a result of human activity. That does not exclude the fact that humans are (at least regionally speaking) putting way too much pressure on the natural processes that sustain life (your reference to the debunking of Al Gore's film mentions this with respect to Lake Chad in Africa).

    So therefore, in places where human activities are having such serious consequences at a regional scale, concepts such as 'sustainability' surely can have some merit, if sustainability is about ensuring that current resource use does not prevent ongoing future resource use, at the same time as encouraging substitution of known toxins, non-renewable uses and pollutants with less harmful products and methods.


  8. "That does not exclude the fact that humans are (at least regionally speaking) putting way too much pressure on the natural processes that sustain life (your reference to the debunking of Al Gore's film be mentions this with respect to Lake Chad in Africa)."


    "So therefore, in places where human activities are having such serious consequences at a regional scale, concepts such as 'sustainability' surely can have some merit..."

    'Agreed.' The inverted commas are used to note however that the concept is a metaphorical one rather than a real one since, as that (rather drily titled) report to which I linked yesterday argues [pdf], "the theory of intergenerational sustainability" can only be properly understood in the context of the long-term time horizons of a property-rights based system of environmental protection.

    In other words, if you want to protect Lake Chad, you need to institute and protect the property rights of those who are harmed by the demise of Lake Chad.

    This is not new, of course, this is simply the time-honoured solution to the Tragedy of the Commons - a Tragedy that ignoring the history of property-rights successes leaves many people fated to repeatedly endure.


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.