Real sustainable development uses steadily improving technologies and practices to leave the world better than we found it. It conserves resources and is more efficient, it is responsible, it maintains profitability and keeps employees employed. It tunes up cars, keeps tires inflated and improves light sequencing to move traffic along, increase gas mileage and reduce pollution.
The public relations variety of sustainable development promotes corporate images and inspires flattering press releases, but it is often devoid of real substance.
Then there is the United Nations, environmental activist brand of sustainability. It says we may meet the needs of current generations only to the extent that doing so “will not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
At first blush, this sounds logical, even ethical. In reality it is unworkable, inequitable and a pathway to more government control.
Indeed, we cannot talk about sustainability, President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren has said, without talking about politics, power and control.
“Sustainability” has thus become yet another justification for bigger government, in the battle over centralized power versus independent states and sovereign nations, statism versus individual rights and liberties, and the power and influence of activist nongovernmental organizations.
The outcome of this battle will determine who is to be master: those who must live with the consequences of their personal choices, or unaccountable politicians and bureaucrats who force people to live with the policies, regulations, decisions and consequences they impose on others.
No one predicted that a Wisconsin home would suddenly be lit with hydroelectric power in 1887, or that electricity would safeguard and enhance our lives in the numerous ways it does today. No one foresaw widespread natural gas use for electricity generation and home heating – or fiber optic cables replacing copper and mobile phones with more computing power than a 1990 desktop.
Today, the pace of technological change is mind-numbing. Yet under sustainability precepts, we are supposed to predict future technologies – and ensure that today’s development activities will somehow not compromise those technologies’ unpredictable energy and raw material requirements.
Sustainability dogma also demands that we base policies on knowing how many years energy and metal deposits will last, and determine whether using them will be sustainable.
The reality is, 3-D and HD seismic, deepwater drilling and production, hydraulic fracturing and other new technologies enable us to find and develop new deposits, and make existing deposits last decades longer. How long must those expanded reserves last, before using them won’t be sustainable? And who decides?
How can politicians, regulators and environmental activists decree that oil and gas are not sustainable – even as these technologies unlock a century of new deposits? What’s more, how can they then insist that corn ethanol is sustainable, even though this year’s U.S. ethanol quota requires 40 percent of our corn, cropland the size of Iowa, billions of gallons of water and enormous quantities of pesticides, fertilizers, tractor fuel and natural gas, to produce a fuel that drives up food prices and gets one-third less mileage per gallon than gasoline?
How can they decree that wind energy is sustainable, despite the need to blanket wildlife habitats with turbines and transmission lines that kill millions of birds and bats every year — and duplicate their electricity generation with fossil fuel power plants that produce 80 percent of the electricity attributed to “renewable, sustainable” wind power?
How is it sustainable, ethical or “environmental justice” for the United States to use so many of the world’s oil, gas, rare earth and other resources – because we refuse to allow development of our own vast energy, metallic and other deposits?
How is it ethical to focus on the needs of future generations, even if it means compromising the needs of current generations – including the aspirations, health and welfare of Earth’s most impoverished people? How much longer must 1.4 billion people continue to live without electricity and its blessings, because eco-activists obsess about global warming and oppose coal, gas, nuclear and hydroelectric power plants?
How long must billions of people remain malnourished, because environmental activists and UN bureaucrats don’t like insecticides, high yield farming or biotechnology?
The fundamental problem with UN/activist/EPA “sustainability” is that it is infinitely elastic and malleable. Whatever these organizations support is sustainable; whatever they oppose is unsustainable.
Worst of all, this version of sustainable development gives unelected regulators increasing control over energy use, economic growth, wealth redistribution and people’s lives, living standards, health and well-being. It does so without the essential safeguards, checks and balances of robust science, independent courts, democracy, transparency, honesty and accountability.
We should strive to conserve energy, water and other resources, when it makes economic, technological, ecological and ethical sense to do so. We should reduce air and water pollutants that actually endanger human health and welfare.
Yet we cannot afford to let “sustainable development” become yet another justification for ceding still more power to unelected, non-transparent, unaccountable overseers.
Paul Driessen is senior policy adviser for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and author of “Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death” (Merril Press, 2012).