David Rothbard

Editor's Note: This column was co-authored by Craig Rucker

With “dangerous manmade climate change” essentially gone as a public concern, the United Nations and its environmentalist coterie hoped to use the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference to restore momentum for their radical green agenda.

However, sharp debate during the Rio de Janeiro confab suggested that divisions between rich and poor nations have grown, and common sense may yet rule. The fact is, UN-style “sustainability” has gone nowhere for 25 years – for good reasons – and the radical ideas being promoted in Brazil ranged from counterproductive to ruinous.

Nonetheless, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the World Wildlife Fund and socialist governments like Russia, China and France still seek to jettison capitalism in favor of state or UN-managed economic systems and give a new international agency for development the power to direct and finance “sustainable development” through the force of law, enticement and punishment. They made little progress in Rio. But they are already planning their next moves, and they have billions of dollars to support their efforts.

We propose a different approach – “constructive sustainability” – that could help millions of people in the developing world people climb the economic ladder, while protecting and improving our environment.

In 1987, the UN’s World Commission on Environment issued Our Common Future, proclaiming the need for “sustainable development,” which it vaguely defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Commission Chair Gro Brundtland said it also “requires meeting the basic needs of all, and extending to all the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life.”

However, despite this fine talk, the UN built its sustainability agenda on a radical version of environmentalism rooted in “deep ecology” and the “precautionary principle.” All too often, advocates of these ideas have sought to control political discourse, limit people’s aspirations for modern living standards, and restrict economic growth and development, which they view as threats to the environment.

The Future We Want was drafted by radical greens to bring those attitudes to Rio, by presenting a long wish list of actions to be implemented at the summit. “We” continued to mean what eco-activists want.

Meanwhile, 700 million poor Africans still have no electricity or refrigeration. They are forced to cut down forests and wildlife habitats, cook over wood and dung fires, eat spoiled food, and drink polluted water teeming with parasites and bacteria. A million mothers and children die every year from pollution from these fires, a million more from intestinal diseases. Clearly, as Steven Hayward observes in the American Enterprise Institute’s latest “Index of Leading Environmental Indicators,” the world's most serious environmental problems are overwhelmingly problems of poverty in developing nations.

And yet rich-country activists continually wage campaigns to prevent the world’s poor from using fossil fuels, hydroelectric power or nuclear energy.

The UN and its green cohorts also saddled poor countries with the “Clean Development Mechanism.” This scheme provides wealthy nations with “carbon offsets,” so that they can minimize their need to reduce fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions – by “persuading” energy-poor countries to rely on expensive, unproven, “clean” technologies, like wind and solar power, when they desperately need large quantities of affordable, reliable electricity.

At Rio+20 the UN continued to talk a good game, calling for broad public participation in decision making and poverty reduction. But as before this generally meant bureaucrats and activists presented “dog and pony shows” to generate support for their agenda, rather than allowing villagers and entrepreneurs to make their own investment and development decisions.

The UN “stakeholders” also developed “voluntary” commitments to advance “social equity” and achieve the future “we” want, with environmental considerations uppermost. The Rio+20 proposals also reflected the fact that, despite poverty reduction rhetoric, many in the UN agree with Canadian economist Jeff Rubin’s unfounded assertion that “the global economy has been in a shambles the past few years, because the focus has been on one thing: returning to a state of growth.”

CFACT has a radically different approach – one gleaned from a decade of genuine interaction with local people and leaders in developing nations. Our vision of “constructive sustainability” reflects the late management expert C. K. Prahalad’s belief that “the poor must be seen not as victims or burdens, but as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers.”

It is based on economist Hernando de Soto’s view that “the cities of the Third World and former communist countries are teeming with entrepreneurs.” They “possess talent, enthusiasm and an astonishing ability to wring a profit out of practically nothing,” he notes.

Our vision also transcends the rhetoric of “social and political progress,” to advance Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s tenet that “the expansion of freedom is ... both the primary end and the principal means of development.” It affirms the fact that people are not just consumers and polluters, but are also (and above all) creators and innovators, protectors and stewards.

Fortunately, many people in emerging nations are now far better informed by cell phones and the Internet. They are taking our side in this contest for hearts and minds – and are aware that the UN’s approach involves myriad regulations, and “consensus building” among activists and bureaucrats, but with poor families and communities conspicuous in their absence.

What’s needed is to free people to develop their own avenues to prosperity, placing ownership of the wealth-creating engines in the hands of the poor. This is the foundation of “constructive sustainability,” or “constructive sustainable development,” with the emphasis on development: responsible and ecologically sound, to be sure – but sustained development, for the benefit of people, especially the world’s poor.

The United Nations needs to return to its founding principles, and get serious about making freedom, entrepreneurship, and genuine poverty alleviation and economic betterment the new focus of “sustainable development.” It should finally put the economic growth engine “horse” ahead of the sustainable development “cart.”

Doing so will enable poor countries to repeat an important lesson of history: Prosperity enables political reform, societal inclusiveness, environmental protection, and improved health and living standards – all that is best for planet and people.


David Rothbard

David Rothbard is president of the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, a Washington, DC-based policy group that works on issues of environment and development.