'Sustainable growth' is not sustainable solution
8/28/2002 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
President Bush's absence at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg has a large fraction of the international environmentalist community mad enough to kick a panda. But, while it may make the rest of the world angry, Bush is doing the right thing. In fact, the world leaders who choose to attend the summit are in all likelihood doing the wrong thing.
Few groups, aside from the Flat-Earthers and fans of Carrot Top, have been more consistently wrong in their basic assumptions and predictions than the sustainable-development crowd.
The philosophical assumption undergirding sustainable growth -economic growth without depletion of natural resources -has a very old pedigree, dating back most famously to the 18th century economist Thomas Malthus, who claimed the world would starve because food production could never keep up with human population growth.
Perhaps the most famous modern Malthusian is Paul Ehrlich, an academic scare-monger who's still cited by the establishment press as a reliable expert. He predicted in 1968 that the "population bomb" would result in the mass starvation of billions of people, including some 65 million Americans by the 1980s.
Of course, Ehrlich, like all Malthusians before and since, was proven laughably wrong. But the idea endures that we must live within our means or die.
Malthusian thinking fails to grasp that human beings are "the ultimate resource," in the words of the late hero Julian Simon, who wrote a book by the same name. Human beings solve problems through creativity and ingenuity.
Take food. Today, humans are producing more food than ever before in history, easily enough to feed the whole world. Indeed, thanks to improved crops and farming techniques, the developed countries of the world actually produce way too much food at prices that are too low.
In America, the political reward for politicians to subsidize unneeded agriculture -i.e. the farm vote -far outweighs the economic or material benefits from propping up superfluous farmers.
Meanwhile, America has abandoned millions of acres of inefficient farmland over the last decade, much of it reverting to the wild, including much of the Great Plains, which is today supporting the largest buffalo population since at least the 1870s. Indeed, the plains states have become so depopulated that the Census Bureau is reclassifying much of the land as "frontier" or simply "vacant." Meanwhile, the East Coast is covered with more forests than it has been in more than a century, largely because we stopped using wood for fuel
Such trends should make the sustainable-development people happy, not just because we can feed more people, but because technological advances mean fewer precious habitats, like rainforests and grasslands, have to be destroyed to feed hungry mouths around the globe.
But the Johannesburg crowd prefers such things as "organic" crops, which are grown without the aid of biotechnology, modern pesticides and fertilizers. That's fine, except science can find no special benefits to organic food, while there are many obvious drawbacks to inefficiently growing less food on more fertile soil -namely global deforestation and hunger.
But such blinkered thinking is typical of the sustainable-growth people. They say we must live within our means, but they want to determine the means by which we live.
Fossil fuels, they claim, are destroying the Earth's atmosphere, but they reject the use of nuclear energy, which generates no greenhouse gasses. They rightly decry the state of world fisheries, but they don't like modern fish-farming techniques that would alleviate the pressure of overfishing in our oceans, just as domesticating livestock solved the problem of overhunting thousands of years ago.
They bemoan wastefulness, even as they champion recycling, which in the words of John Tierney, writing in The New York Times Magazine a few years ago, "may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources."
The true-believers in the Johannesburg crowd have an almost religious faith that Western-oriented capitalism is destructive to the environment, while "indigenous peoples" live in harmony with the natural world.
Alas, this is a dangerous myth. Sure, plenty of environmental horrors have occurred under capitalism, but they have occurred under socialism, monarchies and, yes, even the gentle indigenous peoples of the world. There's a growing consensus among anthropologists and biologists, for example, that Native Americans radically transformed the natural landscape long before Europeans arrived, including helping to drive the woolly mammoth to extinction.
What makes capitalism special is not the problems it creates but its ability to fix them. That's why the United States has cleaner air and water than it has had for generations. President Bush is right not to attend the Johannesburg boondoggle, because if he went he would have to compromise with those who are part of the problem, not the solution.