‘Sustainable development’ — fashionable oxymoron


What is so attractive about concepts that defy definition? The concept du jour is “sustainable,” a fashionable adjective for many objectives, an umbrella for many agendas.

“Sustainable” development is the ecologist’s goal, the new urban trend, the green way to build. A “sustainable” world is the promise of salvation for future generations.

The U.N. Millennium Declaration (2000) states, “The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants.” The U.N. 2005 World Summit Outcome contained some form of the word “sustain” 58 times in 38 pages.

Yale and Columbia university centers, which jointly rank countries for environmental “sustainability,” put the United States between Armenia and Myanmar in 2005.

But what does it mean? What are we trying to sustain?

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has eight meanings for “sustain.” The first is “to keep in existence.” Neither this nor any of the others suit the adjective now tied to environment and development. Sustainable development is an oxymoron. A developed property is not sustained. It’s changed. Development is not meant to keep things the same.

So, is “change” the facilitator or the antagonist of sustainability? If “sustainability” means changing a practice to maintain an existing enterprise, the possibilities are endless and the concept useless. The horse and carriage were changed by eliminating the horse. The carriage (and a way of life) was improved. Was it sustained or eliminated? That’s the problem: “Sustainability” can justify any course of action if defined carefully.

A website for the federal Environmental Protection Agency explains that widespread use of “sustainability” started with “Our Common Future,” a 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. That report defined sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This presumptive definition requires knowledge of the needs of future generations. The notion is ridiculous that we can manage the resources of future generations. Thinkers of five generations ago would have wished for a better horse and buggy or a quieter steam engine. Had the “sustainability” experts gone to work to forego fossil fuel to “save the earth,” today’s world would be more impoverished than we can imagine.

Five generations ago, nothing was known about the potential of petroleum fuels. Today, we know nothing about the fuels five generations hence. It is arrogant and pretentious to claim to know the needs and limitations of our great-grandchildren’s grandchildren.

We ought to practice preparing this generation for the next, not by teaching and preaching “cutting back” or “status quo.” Respect future generations enough and advocate not fear of the future but the noble — and proven — knowledge that humans have almost limitless potential for innovation to cope in a world of endless opportunities and possibilities.

Hundreds of developments would be pronounced “unsustainable” if human ingenuity and innovation were discounted. Take two old examples of coping with the sea.

Today’s environmentalists would scoff at dikes like those on the Netherlands coast begun over a thousand years ago, but some of the best farmland and 60 percent of the population are behind those dikes.

They would be equally aghast at Venice, Italy, building on wooden pilings in salt-marsh, beginning 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. These audacious humans would be mocked by modern ecologists, who are convinced that the sea is rising at its fastest rate since the last ice age.

These two developments are not “sustainable” by current usage of the word. Yet the Dutch and Venetians have “sustained” them, securing their future by coping, not by cutting back. And human ability to cope has advanced dramatically since the Dutch polders were built and Venice was raised.

Global-warming alarmists stress havoc from more and stronger hurricanes now and in the future. But 81 percent of all U.S. deaths from hurricanes occurred before 1930. And the South Atlantic and Gulf coastal counties’ population is almost seven times the 1930 number.

If “sustainability” is leaving resources unused for future generations, shut down the industries now. Thousands of generations will presumably follow. Just how much cutting back now will satisfy them later?

Humans are infinitely better qualified today to cope with the world because of our exploitation of resources as opposed to cutting back, sustaining the “way of life” of previous centuries.

The “sustainability” mindset would have us “maintain” a way of life that pays a dubious debt to the future. If sustainability means anything about providing for future generations, cutting back is not the way. The answers lie in education, freedom and the inspiration to cope.

[University of Georgia Professor Emeritus R. Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]

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