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The "Sustainable Development" Scam

The Free Market

Tags The EnvironmentInterventionism

01/01/1992Matthew Hoffman

The Free Market 10, no. 1 (January 1992)


Eco-socialists have to find some way to "Sustainable foist their ideas on the public. The term "socialism" doesn't sell anymore, but there are proxies. One is "sustainable development."

Like most left-wing verbiage, sustainable development is designed to sound like something everyone wants. Unmentioned is who decides what development is and isn't sustainable. Not entrepreneurs and consumers, but government.

This variant of central planning was conceived at a U.N.-sponsored environmental conference in Canada eleven years ago, and U.N. front groups like the Worldwatch Institute have pushed it ever since. It's also caught on with governments all over the globe, including our own. The Congress's Environmental and Energy Study Institute is spearheading the movement here with a U.S. Foundation for Sustainable Development and a National Commission on Environment and Security. EPA administrator William Reilly is advocating a national program. "Economic development based on unsustainable resource use cannot continue indefinitely, without endangering the carrying capacity of the planet," he warned recently in Policy Review.

Sustainable development is a big step forward in public relations for the neo-Malthusians, who had predicted global apocalypse in the 1970s, due to overpopulation and resource depletion. Sustainable development functioned as code words for Malthusianism in 1987, when the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development published its now-famous report, Our Common Future. Unlike earlier doomsday reports, it avoided any specific predictions of environmental collapse. But it retained an apocalyptic tone. "Little time is available for corrective action," it warned, which it defined as national economic planning coordinated by the U.N. in the name of environmentally sustainable development supported with "very large financial outlays."

The funds would accrue to the U.N. through taxation—that's right, taxation—of the "use of international commons," including fishing, seabed mining, and "parking charges for geostationary communications satellites," as well as taxation of international trade.

Ludwig von Mises proved the impossibility of central economic planning seventy years ago, but Bureaucratic International has never let reality intrude. The World Bank, for example, has hired Herman Daly, author of the neo-Malthusian economic planning classic Steady-State Economics, to create an economics of sustainable development. Daly's ideal economy is managed by wise government officials who don't allow resources to fall below "desired levels" in reserve, and who restrain population growth with transferable "birth licenses" sold to the public.

Daly's latest scheme as senior economist at the World Bank is the "Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare," which substitutes for Gross National Product by accounting for such things as loss of "wetlands." Because these items have no prices attached to them, their inclusion is purely arbitrary.

More importantly, the U.N. plans to make sustainable development the central theme of the upcoming Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992. It is here that environmentalists hope to induce the United States and other nations to sign treaties forcing them to adopt sustainable development practices.

Why has sustainable development caught on with so many people? For environmentalists, it's a handy all-purpose term that can be used to represent the whole movement, from eco-socialists to weekend backpackers. It appeals to scientists and economists as well, because as "experts" on such matters, they will be the ones to decide what is "sustainable" and what is not.

For those of us who don't make our living claiming that the world is going to end soon, sustainable development can only deliver what the government is best at delivering: poverty. At least this time, says environmentalists, we will have the consolation of knowing it's for our own good.


Cite This Article

Hoffman, Matthew. "The "Sustainable Development" Scam." The Free Market 10, no. 1 (January 1992).