A Sensible Environmentalism

The idea of sustainable development has been around for nearly two decades, but its vagueness has kept it from being a useable guide for policy. It received its most prominent international acknowledgment at the recent U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. Although some found the September 2002 summit to be one in a long line of U.N. environmental conferences thick with sentiment and unspecific goals, the dynamic at Johannesburg was in fact markedly different, and may represent a turning point in the global environmental debate. The outcome of Johannesburg suggests that the sustainable development project may be moving away from its Malthusian roots toward a broader, more productive view of the relationship between economic development and environmental quality.

Sustainable development first came to light as a successor to the limits-to-growth concept of the 1970s. This latter theme, first popularized in Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb and then in the 1972 Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth, held that we were in imminent danger of running out of natural resources and suffering the effects of rising pollution levels. The idea's adherents were confident enough to offer firm predictions and specific dates, which turned out to be spectacularly wrong. The Carter administration's Global 2000 Report to the President announced that the price of oil would rise 50 percent in real terms in the 1980s and reach $ 100 a barrel by 2000. In retrospect, it is apparent that the resource scarcities of the 1970s were the transient results of faulty government policies, such as price controls and currency inflation. Falling pollution levels in industrialized nations have since demonstrated that environmental improvement is compatible with economic growth.

Limits to Growth?

Among serious environmentalists the limits-to-growth notion has been discredited and abandoned, albeit grudgingly. Reactions to Bjorn Lomborg's recent book, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the True State of the Planet, made clear just how entrenched the old philosophy had become. Lomborg challenged what he called the environmental "Litany," i.e., the sum of environmental alarms (pollution, deforestation, species loss, etc.) that supposedly suggests that "the world's ecosystem is breaking down." Most of the data in fact show that environmental problems are either getting better or are vastly exaggerated. The reaction to Lomborg's findings was as incoherent as it was furious. On the one hand, Lomborg was attacked for factual errors, though in the rough and tumble of debate over the book only a handful of minor errors were demonstrated. On the other hand, it was argued that while Lomborg's facts might be in order, he was attacking a straw man--no serious environmentalist believed in the limits-to-growth litany any more. Environmental scientist Michael Grubb of Cambridge University wrote in his Science magazine review of Lomborg that "to any professional, it is no news at all that the 1972 Limits to Growth study was mostly wrong or that Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown have perennially exaggerated the problems of food supply." Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute argued that Lomborg's book "paints a caricature of the environmental agenda based on sometimes mistaken views widely held 30 years ago, but to which no serious environmental institution subscribes today."

This is disingenuous. The gloom-and-doom view of the environment still dominates the news media and popular environmental rhetoric, even though more knowledgeable environmentalists know better. Lomborg's compelling book put the last nail in the coffin of the limits-to-growth mentality, which had been the environmental movement's most valuable public-relations tool.

The weakness of the limits-to-growth argument does not mean there are no long-term environmental problems associated with growth. Hence the idea of sustainable development was born. It may have been intended as a euphemism for less development, just as in today's debates over suburban sprawl "smart growth" is often a euphemism for less growth. But ideas often take on a life of their own, and that has happened with sustainable development. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development, more commonly known as the Bruntland Commission after its chairman, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland, propelled sustainable development to the forefront with its report Our Common Future. The Bruntland Commission defined sustainable development as "meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Although this definition is suggestive, the language is still too vague to be helpful in formulating policy. Former President Bill Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development recognized in its 1996 report that the definition was inexact." As a U.N. report observed in May 2002, "The concept of sustainable development does not yet provide decision-makers with the kind of detailed and integrated prescriptions that they need to make day to day policy decisions."

Even though sustainable development defies a precise definition, at a general level it still holds common sense appeal. No one is for a mode of life that would make future generations poorer, or for one that degrades our environment and thereby jeopardizes the health of future generations. Yet sustainable development is inherently contentious because of the difficulty of comprehending the myriad linkages among environmental factors in a dynamic world. Clashing conceptual frameworks lead to widely varying conclusions about what constitutes sustainability, and quantifying sustainable development is nearly impossible. As environmental scientist Timothy O'Riordan warned in 1988, "It may only be a matter of time before the metaphor of sustainability becomes so confused as to be meaningless, certainly as a device to straddle the ideological conflicts that pervade contemporary environmentalism."

Renewable Resources

The first step toward taking sustainable development seriously is to treat it not as a metaphor or political straddle but as a practical tool for analyzing environmental and resource-use problems and distinguishing good policy from bad. This can be done by applying the idea to several discrete environmental issues: renewable resources, nonrenewable resources, local ecosystems, and the global ecosystem.

Renewable resources--such as forestlands, watersheds, wildlife, and other self-generating resources and ecosystems--present the clearest application of the idea. A renewable resource is used unsustainably when it is exploited at a faster rate than it can replenish itself. Typically, in a well-functioning market, price increases are a signal of unsustainable usage and an inducement to conservation and substitution.

Most instances of unsustainable use of renewable resources can be attributed to a lack of a well-functioning market and price system, a lack of property rights to resources or ready alternatives to those resources (especially in underdeveloped nations), or perverse regulatory policies. Groundwater and stream-flow resources in the United States are often overused because of government subsidies and a lack of clearly defined, tradable property rights to water. Overfishing in the oceans is one example of unsustainable use of resources owned in common. It is easy to imagine that cattle might be scarce if they were owned in common and were taken from one vast domain (as buffalo once were) rather than being privately owned on separate ranches. Assigning ownership rights to ocean fishing should not be much more difficult than assigning rights to the radio frequency spectrum, as has been done throughout the world. Some promising experiments are using property rights to preserve fisheries in New Zealand, Iceland, and several other areas.

Research advances in resource economics have cast a shadow on regulatory approaches to many large-scale resource-use problems, and interest is growing in the use of markets and property rights to solve these problems, even among left-leaning environmentalists. Much destruction of forest resources resulted from unsound government measures--measures that private owners would not likely have undertaken to the same extent, if at all. As former vice president Al Gore noted in Earth in the Balance, "The most serious examples of environmental degradation in the world today are tragedies that were created or actively encouraged by governments--usually in pursuit of some notion that a dramatic reordering of the material world would enhance the greater good."

Whether caused by faulty markets or faulty public policies, overuse of renewable resources is relatively easy to correct in principle and increasingly in practice. For example, forestland in the United States and other industrialized nations has been increasing for more than 40 years. There are signs as well that the unsustainable exploitation of rain forests throughout the developing world is beginning to ebb.

Nonrenewable Resources

The implications of sustainable development for the use of nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuels and minerals are more complicated. It is by definition impossible to use a nonrenewable resource sustainably--each unit of a nonrenewable resource used is one less unit from a finite pool. Even so, it does not follow that such resources need to be conserved in order to sustain development, or even that exhausting the resources entirely will impinge on the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The use of whale oil in the nineteenth century for energy and manufacturing was clearly unsustainable. Indeed, it was not sustained. The hunting of whales to near extinction may have been a tragedy and may have threatened the biological diversity of the planet, but the depletion of whale oil as a resource did not impede succeeding generations from growing and meeting their needs (and not, incidentally, from restoring and protecting the whale population at the same time). Rather, the use of whale oil facilit ated economic development, enhancing wealth, incomes, occupational specialization, and technological prowess that in turn allowed governments and businesses to adopt better, more efficient, and more sustainable methods of production.

The whaling example illustrates the problem of taking a static view of nonrenewable resource consumption over the longterm. Production technology changes profoundly and unpredictably over time; newer technologies, being more efficient than the ones they replace, yield more output per unit of resource input. This does not mean that, because more efficient technology stimulates growth and therefore total output, every technological improvement is more conserving of natural resources. But it does mean that it is nigh impossible for one generation to know what resources future generations will need and in what proportions-and that a little humility is in order when making long-range plans. A planner in 1900, worried about the resource needs of the year 2000, would have taken care to secure supplies of whale oil and firewood for heating and lighting, copper for telegraph wires, rock salt for refrigeration, horses for transportation, and vast expanses of land to grow feedstock for draft animals. The planner would l ikely have been unworried about securing supplies of oil and gas, as they were only starting to come into widespread use, and supplies were abundant.

The conservation benefits of new technologies are often vastly greater than is appreciated. Consider the large, immediate, and lasting resource benefits of the development of the automobile--now often portrayed as environmental public enemy number one. In 1900, 3.4 million horses were used for transportation in urban areas of the United States (another 17 million lived in rural areas, primarily pulling plows and performing other farm chores). The transport capacity of horses was three-quarters as great as that of railroads in 1900. The average horse consumed about 30 pounds of feed per day or 5 tons per year. The air and water quality and public sanitation hazards from horse dung were substantial: A single horse could produce 12,000 pounds of manure and 400 gallons of urine a year, much of it falling on city streets. The August 1900 issue of Scientific American summarized the problem:

The streets of our great cities can not be kept scrupulously clean until automobiles have entirely replaced horse-drawn vehicles. At the present time women sweep through the streets with their skirts and bring with them, wherever they go, the abominable filth which is by courtesy called "dust." The management of a long gown is a difficult matter. Fortunately, the short skirt is coming into fashion, and the medical journals especially commend the sensible walking gown.

More significant than the pollution were the land resources required. The amount of land used for growing feedstock for horses peaked in 1915 at 93 million acres, an area roughly equivalent to the area of all U.S. cities and suburbs today, and representing as much as 25 percent of total agricultural land at the turn of the century. Since the introduction of the automobile, this land has largely reverted to natural woodlands and grasslands or has been put to other agricultural uses. (That one change also accounts for much of the lamented decline in farmland over the past century.) The coming of the car, truck, and tractor saved 90 million acres of U.S. land, a conservation of resources usually left out of the environmental accounting of the internal combustion engine.

It is possible to conceive of technological advances in the next 75 years that will make today's resource concerns as obsolete as those for whale oil or rock salt. Arguing in favor of a "promethean environmentalism," Duke University's Martin Lewis points to the prospect of "molecular nanotechnology"--programmable molecules that would be a green technology par excellence. Well beneath those high-technology frontiers, it is possible to imagine such low-tech practices as mining old landfills for their raw materials, a form of retroactive recycling.

Spend Now, Prosper Later

Predictions of technological salvation are a poor ground for policy, of course. If sustainable development is just a duel of competing scenarios of future development, little will have been accomplished. But two important general principles, in tandem with what we know of the history of economic development, will help us to think clearly about the challenge of sustainable development.

The first is the economic principle of "substitution." As a resource becomes scarcer and hence more costly, incentives increase for discovering and deploying lower-cost substitutes. Many people will doubt that the price mechanism is as reliable a guide to sustainability when dealing with nonrenewable resources and long time horizons as when dealing with renewable resources and short time horizons. But the source of that doubt is uncertainty about the distant future--the core problem in making sustainability an operational policy tool. That circumstance afflicts policy planning and political decision making at least as much as it does the private economic calculations that drive the price system. Tremendous energy and resources are being applied today to the development of practical substitutes for fossil fuels, and would be even if governments were not subsidizing the efforts.

The second and more robust idea is derived from the economic principle of the "production possibility frontier." That is, a society maximizes its wealth by making maximum use of all available resources in the most efficient (output-enhancing) proportions. Other things being equal, a society that maximizes its current wealth also maximizes the capital assets available for future generations. In the face of uncertainty regarding future challenges, a society should build up its capital assets as much as possible, thus providing it with greater resources of wealth to bring to bear on whatever problems the future may bring.

Economist Thomas C. Schelling has applied this notion to the issue of climate change. On the surface, climate change seems to fall within the purview of sustainable development. If climate change arising from manmade [CO.sub.2] emissions will bring catastrophic consequences over the next one hundred years, then our current way of life is unsustainable and will have to change. But even if this is accepted in toto, it does not provide unambiguous policy guidance as to how exactly our way of life ought to change now. Even under the most pessimistic forecasts of global warming, truly serious consequences will not appear for many decades. Because we will be wealthier and more technologically adept in several decades than we are today, the best climate-change policy might be to emphasize economic growth for the present rather than instituting costly short-term measures (such as those envisioned in the Kyoto Protocol) that would seriously retard economic growth. "Climatically," Schelling argues, "it would make virtu ally no difference what the trajectory was by which we got to ii acceptable atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses], ... while economically, it matters a great deal how we get there." And that makes the relationship of economic development to sound environmental stewardship particularly relevant. As Schelling concludes:

Might we do more to protect the Indian population of 2050 and 2075, for example, from climate change by accelerating economic development in India now than by slowing down climatic change itself? Even for the grandchildren of those now in India, China, Indonesia, and other developing countries, putting a lot of resources into slowing climate change and nothing into their own accelerated development may be the wrong thing to do.

The Ecosystem

The Schelling argument reminds us that the most animating sustainability issues today concern not staple commodities, renewable or nonrenewable, but the more complex case of large ecosystems. "We are running out of sky, not oil," says Gary Cook, legislative director of the Greenpeace Climate Campaign.

The overuse of an ecosystem is easy to observe on the local level. Plausible examples of unsustainable local ecosystems include Pittsburgh in the heyday of the coal and steel industry in the first half of the twentieth century, smog levels in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, and the fouled waters of Lake Erie and "fire hazard" Cuyahoga River in 1970. The dramatic reversal of the environmental degradation of those ecosystems shows the resiliency of nature and provides some basis for optimism. In advanced industrialized nations, most forms of pollution have been falling for decades. Indeed, particulate air pollution began declining in Pittsburgh as early as 1925. Although pollution is still increasing in many developing nations, research and experience suggest that nations with growing economies can look forward to falling pollution rates over time.

Yet the question remains whether the progress to date is sufficient in the aggregate or whether the degradation of ecosystems in the developing world will overwhelm the progress being made in the developed world. Is the earth's ecosystem as a whole being sustained?

Recent studies by Redefining Progress and the World Wildlife Fund attempt to sum up the total effect of the human economy on the planet's ecosystems, and both are pessimistic. The studies employ the same methodology, converting human activities into a measurement of the land area required to support them' they conclude that since the 1980s human activities have exceeded the biosphere's capacity and that the earth can no longer regenerate itself fast enough to keep up with human demands. Both studies feature an ominous line graph of "Number of Earths Used by Humanity" showing the line crossing the 1.0 mark in 1978. By 1999, humans were using the equivalent of 1.2 "earths." The World Wildlife Fund version of the study predicts that ecological collapse will arrive by the year 2050 unless major changes are made. Both studies received wide publicity upon their release and were widely circulated at the Johannesburg summit.

The conclusions of the studies depend, however, on the conversion of human activity into land area equivalents, a procedure that the authors candidly admit allows for a large variance in outcomes depending on the assumptions made. The largest variable in the studies is the land area required to sequester all of mankind's carbon dioxide emissions such that there would be no increase in [CO.sub.2] levels in the atmosphere. If one changes the model's assumptions about sustainable levels of [CO.sub.2], or about what other potential sequestration techniques might be substituted, the results of the model are much less alarming.

Converting impact of human activity on the planet into a simple metric of land area is an interesting contribution to our understanding of sustainability, but it is static and incomplete. It does not allow for dynamic trade-offs and technological change over time, as seen in the example of the automobile. The model is therefore of limited value to policy makers, except as a reminder of the inherent difficulties that uncertainty about the future creates for any form of long-range planning.

A more illuminating effort is the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), a product of a joint effort of the World Economic Forum, the Yale University Center for Environmental Law and Policy, and the Columbia University Center for International Earth Science Information Network. By focusing narrowly on indicators of current environmental performance, the group's report points to a general strategy for the broader but more complex issue of long-range sustainable development. Their Environmental Sustainability Index offers a sustainability score ranging from 0 to 100 (with 100 being optimal sustainability) for 142 nations based on 20 indicators and 68 related variables. The methodology enables cross-national comparison of environmental progress, but the ESI does not attempt to make aggregate judgments about the sustainability of the entire planet.

On the ESI scale for the year 2002, Finland came in first, with a score of 73.9, and Kuwait came in last, with a score of 23.9. The United States was ranked forty-sixth, with a score of 53.2, down from its eleventh place score of 66.1 in the 2001 ESI. The most significant finding derived from the ESI study is the relationship between wealth and environmental quality: The wealthier the nation, the better its environmental performance. The ESI offers fresh confirmation of what economists call the environmental Kuznets curve, named for economist Simon Kuznets, who developed the original curve to explain the relationship between economic growth and income inequality in the 1950s. According to its environmental application, environmental quality degrades during the early stages of economic growth but begins to improve after a certain level of national income is reached.

The Wealth of Nations

For all the disagreement about how to define and measure sustainable development, there is growing acceptance among environmentalists that economic growth is central to environmental improvement. Fortunately, the declarations and policy statements generated at the Johannesburg summit reflect that consensus. Although climate change is still one of the most prominent issues for environmentalists, it was not high on the agenda of the Johannesburg summit. (Nor did the summit endorse an anti-fossil fuel agenda, as many more radical environmentalists had hoped.) The issues that topped the agenda were fighting poverty and providing adequate water supplies for developing nations. The focus on the practical issue of water represents a vindication of critics of the Kyoto Protocol such as Bjorn Lomborg, who pointed out that the entire world can be provided with clean water for a fraction of the cost of Kyoto and as many as 2 million deaths a year thereby prevented. That practical, near-term issues of economic and social development were at the top of the agenda of a conference on sustainable development indicates that antigrowth environmentalists have lost control of sustainable development and that a more mature understanding of the issue is making headway.

Even with these hopeful signs at the Johannesburg conference, there still remains deep confusion about (or perhaps antipathy toward) the sources of economic growth. The U.N.'s recent Global Environmental Outlook placed the blame for environmental degradation on "the current 'markets first' approach" to economic and human development, and one Johannesburg policy statement decried global economic liberalization, complaining that "private corporations are a major part of the problem" of unsustainability.

The authors of those papers and other Johannesburg participants sympathetic to their views would also do well to ponder the World Economic Forum's study comparing environmental sustainability scores with measures of economic freedom. When the ESI scores are compared against the scores from the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom 2002, we see that nations with freer economies also have better records of environmental sustainability. The data suggest that the best foundation for sustainable development is the same as that for development per se: free markets and liberal democracy.

It is wrong, then, to derive from the idea of sustainable development environmental measures very different from those that were already well known when the idea was first introduced. Moreover, in the developed nations these familiar regulatory measures, which control immediate problems of pollution and wasteful resource use as they arise, already go well beyond what is necessary for sustainable development and also a long way toward achieving environmental sustainability. The political forces that will carry such measures further will have less to do with concerns over future sustainability than with the preferences and ability of wealthy populations to make their own lives safer, healthier, cleaner, and more agreeable.

The sustainable development debate has provided serious environmentalists with a graceful retreat from the deadend of the limits-to-growth approach, and it has inspired a deeper appreciation of the dependence of environmental progress on economic progress. It has also pointed the way to an alliance between poverty reduction and environmentalism--two goods that were Long thought to be at odds. If the result is a more practical environmentalism, and more serious efforts to bring poor nations into the world of freedom and prosperity, the idea will have proven a fruitful one indeed.

This article is adapted from the American Enterprise Institute's Environmental Policy Outlook (No. 2). "Sustainable Development in the Balance."

Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the Pacific Research Institute's annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators.

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About the Author


Steven F.
  • Steven F. Hayward was previously the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI. He is the author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends, and the author of many books on environmental topics. He has written biographies of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and of Winston Churchill, and the upcoming book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents. He contributed to AEI's Energy and Environment Outlook series. 

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