Sustainable Development: Common Sense or Nonsense on Stilts?

By Taylor, Jerry | Freeman, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Sustainable Development: Common Sense or Nonsense on Stilts?


Taylor, Jerry, Freeman


The mantra of "sustainable development" is constantly on the lips of the international agencies and nongovernmental organizations helping lesser-developed countries. The concept seems innocuous enough; after all, who would favor "unsustainable development"? But 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 economically ephemeral-is dubious. Indeed, the policy prescriptions that are generally endorsed by those concerned about sustainable development are inimical to our best environmental and economic interests.

This is so for three reasons:

If economic growth were to be slowed or stopped, it would be impossible to improve environmental conditions.

The bias for command-and-control regulations on the part of those endorsing the concept of sustainable development will only serve to make environmental protection more expensive; hence, we have to "purchase" less of it.

Strict pursuit of sustainable development, as many environmentalists mean it, would only do violence to the welfare of future generations.

The debate surrounding sustainable development is important because it advertises itself as a comprehensive governing philosophy for the 21 st century. Indeed, Vice President Al Gore has called the need for environmental protection the best "central organizing principle"' of the modern state. This is heavy stuff. It.puts sustainable development in the pantheon of other "central organizing principles" proposed for the state over the yearssuch as rule by class or race and absolute rule by majority. While environmental protection is certainly important, making it the government's chief principle would concentrate tremendous power in the hands of those who believe only they can best direct human affairs. The results of such experiments have been less than spectacular and usually counterproductive, to say the least.

What Is Sustainable Development?

Despite its institutionalization, sustainable development is rather difficult to define coherently. The United Nations Commission on Economic Development (UNCED), in its landmark 1987 report, Our Common Future, defines it as that which "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."1 But that definition is hopelessly problematic. How can we be reasonably expected to know, for instance, what the needs of people in 2100 might be? Moreover, one way people typically "meet their own needs" is by spending money on food, shelter, education, and whatever else they deem necessary or important. Is sustainable development, then, simply a euphemism for the creation of wealth (which, after all, is handed down to our children for their subsequent use)? True, there are human needs-such as peace, freedom, and individual contentment-that cannot be met simply by material means, but sustainabledevelopment advocates seldom dwell on the importance of those nonmaterial, non"resource-based" psychological needs when discussing the concept.

Thus, sophisticated proponents of sustainable development are forced to discard as functionally meaningless the UNCED definition. Otherwise, the UNCED definition can be read as a call for society to maximize human welfare over time. An entire profession has grown up around that proposition. It is known as economics, and maximizing human welfare is known not as "sustainable development" but as "optimality." Can it really be that Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations was the world's first call for sustainable development?

Economists David Pearce and Jeremy Warford, two of the world's more serious thinkers about sustainable development, disclose that by sustainable development, many advocates mean "a process in which the natural-resource base is not allowed to deteriorate."2 This is generally known as the "strong" definition of sustainability.

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Sustainable Development: Common Sense or Nonsense on Stilts?
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