- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

China’s leaders hope to make the nation rich, to quadruple the size of its economy by 2020. It’s a laudable goal, given the increased life expectancies and better environmental protection that such wealth brings, even though truly sustainable prosperity may only come to that country once fundamental democratic reforms have been made.

However, sustainable prosperity is not synonymous with sustainable development. It may even be its opposite, according to Klaus Toepfer, the head of the U.N. Environment Program. He recently told a group of reporters that the Earth does not have enough resources for China to meet its goals, asking rhetorically, “Quadrupling the GDP of a country of 1.3 billion, can you imagine what are the consequences?” He went on to argue that China could only meet its goals if developed nations radically altered their patterns of consumption.

Yet the sort of developmental stasis envisioned by Mr. Toepfer is the last thing that the environment can truly sustain. After all, protecting the environment and the species therein requires prosperity. Starving people don’t often worry if their next meal will be made from the last member of a species, just so long as its not their last meal. As “Skeptic” publisher Michael Shermer noted in the current issue of Scientific American, “the noble savage remains one of the last epic creation myths of our time,” but that simply isn’t the case. “Given the opportunity to hunt big game animals to extinction,” Mr. Shermer wrote, “[Native Americans] did.”

Relatively poor countries do not often have the resources to put into environmental protection — ranging from pollution control equipment to national parks — and they show it. Few eco-tourists schedule trips to Somalia or the still-polluted parts of the former Soviet Union. The preservation of endangered species in Western countries is as much a consequence of the environmental ethos that underlies their policy-making as it is the prosperity of their economies.

The debate comes down to a fundamental disagreement in perspective: Mr. Toepfer and those with like minds see the size of the world’s pie of resources as static, reduced each time any entity (individual or state) takes a slice. Conservationists are in many ways far more progressive. They expect that tomorrow’s innovation will make taller pie (and so allow for greater environmental protection) from today’s trash as it has innumerable times in the past. This doesn’t mean that prosperity is the solution to every environmental ill. As P.J. O’Rourke noted in his book, “Eat The Rich,” “Money won’t solve all our problems. But money will give us options — let us chose the problems we want to have.”

To be sustainable, that prosperity must be set in other social institutions — property rights, the free market and the rule of law. China’s campaigns to greater wealth have often been short-circuited because the coercive rule of its regime has corroded those underlying essentials. Yet sustained prosperity is demonstrably better for the environment than sustained poverty. In the future, prodigal wealth will be the best environmental protection for China’s people — all 1.3 billion of them.

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