The End of International Environmentalism

Green ideology crashes and burns at the Rio +20 Earth Summit.

Twenty years ago, the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro marked the arrival of environmentalism as a potent force in international affairs. That 1992 conference produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which aims to set limits on global emissions of greenhouse gases, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, which promotes ecosystem conservation. At the time, Chris Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute crowed, “You cannot go to any corner of the globe and not find some degree of environmental awareness and some amount of environmental politics.” With socialism in disrepute, Flavin said, environmentalism had become the “most powerful political ideal today.”

Two decades later, that ideal is in disarray. A 20th anniversary conference in Brazil last June, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development—nicknamed Rio +20—was an undisguised flop. Greenpeace spokesperson Kumi Naidoo judged Rio +20 a “failure,” while Oxfam Chief Executive Barbara Stocking called it a “hoax.” More than 1,000 environmentalist and leftist groups signed a post-conference petition entitled “The Future We Don’t Want,” a play on The Future We Want, the platitudinous document that diplomats from 188 nations agreed on there. Naidoo lamely vowed that disappointed environmentalists would engage in acts of civil disobedience.

Should the people of the world share the greens’ despair over the “failure” of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development? No. First of all, “sustainable development” is a Rorschach blot. The United Nations defines it this way: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That fuzzy concept can be used by anyone to mean anything he likes. So it is not at all surprising that the representatives from rich and poor nations meeting in Rio could not agree on anything substantive under this heading.

Since that first Earth Summit, the world has experienced a lot of beneficial development. In 1992, 46 percent of the planet’s population lived in absolute poverty (defined as income equivalent to less than $1.25 per day). Today that number is down to 27 percent, in inflation-adjusted terms. During the same period, average life expectancy has increased by three and a half years.

At Rio +20 environmentalists and the leaders of poor countries were hoping to shake down the rich countries for hundreds of billions of dollars in annual development assistance. But most of the development achieved during the last two decades was not the result of official assistance (a.k.a. taxpayer dollars) from the rich to the poor. In fact, a study published in the February 2012 issue of the Canadian Journal of Economics by a team of German development economists found that aid often retards economic growth, having “an insignificant or minute negative significant impact on per-capita income.” Most of the aid is stolen by the kleptocrats who run many poor countries, while the rest is “invested” in projects that are not profitable.

So what has produced so much improvement in the lives of poor people in developing countries since the first Earth Summit?

“Remember in the 1960s, official development assistance accounted for 70 percent of the capital flows to developing nations, but today it amounts to only 13 percent, while at the same time, development budgets have actually increased,” explained U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Rio +20. “Why is that? Well, you know very well. Because while continuing to provide assistance, the private-sector investments, using targeted resources and smart policies, have catalyzed more balanced, inclusive, sustainable growth.” Summary: The way to development is trade, not aid.

Activists, frustrated at their inability to effect wealth transfers, are now fixated on a particularly puzzling and disturbing goal: to maintain and expand open-access commons, which are unowned properties available to be exploited by anyone. Many participants at the People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice, a parallel Rio gathering of 200 environmentalist groups, advocated a green twist on an old red ideology, even postulating that property is theft.

Canonical Marxism predicted that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its class “contradictions,” in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer until reaching a social breaking point. In the environmentalist update, capitalism will collapse because the pollution produced by its heedless overconsumption builds to an ecological breaking point. For the hard core, the solution to environmental problems is a kind of eco-socialism in which nature is prevented from being “privatized” or “commodified.” This trend in environmentalist thinking might be called commonism.

Looking across the globe, it is true that various aggregate environmental measures have deteriorated. Since 1992, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) claims, biodiversity has declined by 12 percent, and 740 million acres of primary forests have been cut down. Today 53 percent of fish stocks are fully exploited and the share that is overexploited, depleted, or recovering has risen from 10 percent to 32 percent since 1974. But are these calamities the result of rapacious capitalism? Not really.

The same UNEP report notes that 80 percent of the world’s forests, which harbor the bulk of the world’s biodiversity, are government-owned. Also, in nearly every place where some kind of environmental calamity is under way, it is taking place in an open-access commons. Polluted river? No one owns it. Forest getting cut down? Same problem. Overfishing? Likewise. A water shortage? Ditto. Empirically, calling for the enlargement or reimposition of a commons with respect to an environmental resource or amenity is tantamount to calling for its eventual destruction.

Countries with strong property rights generally see environmental improvement such as reductions in air and water pollution, stable fishery stocks, and expanding forests. That’s because owners protect their resources, since they directly suffer the consequences of not doing so. Furthermore, countries with strong property rights are more prosperous and can thus afford the costs of environmental regulations, even inefficient ones, applied to those commons that still remain.

Two decades on, what was once the “most powerful political ideal” on the international scene crashed and burned at Rio +20. The failure of environmentalism as an ideology was inevitable, since it has so badly misconstrued the causes of many of the problems it claims to address. It will be interesting to see in which direction those cherishing a permanent animus against democratic capitalism will now go. 

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  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    "The End of International Environmentalism"

    I wish

  • sarcasmic||

    CON-SEN-SUS!

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    In 1992, 46 percent of the planet’s population lived in absolute poverty...Today that number is down to 27 percent...

    We can get it back up to 46% people! Come on! We can do it!

    /UN

  • John||

    Thing of all of the resources that 19% who are no longer living in poverty are using? It is unsustainable. Not only are they living better, fewer of them are dying. That is even worse.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Boy, do I hope you are being sarcastic.

  • John||

    I was.

  • tarran||

    I've met people who actually think the way John is describing (and no, those aren't John's beliefs).

  • John||

    So have I. What was it a few years ago the well known environmental scientist who admitted to "rooting for the hurricanes" and other natural disasters because he felt the earth should have a lower population?

    Watch that History Channel show "After People" sometime. It is full of environmentalists who love the idea of 90% or more of the human race dying off.

  • tarran||

    Yep.

    Look at how they are reacting to fracking!

    A few years ago, Natural Gas was the holy chemical fuel, blessed by the holy mother gaia as not contributing to global warming by producing the hated, evil CO2.

    Then people figured out how to get at massive reserves that were untappable in the past, and the price collapsed.

    Now, it's an evil fuel that must be stopped at all costs.

    Their revealed preference is for energy poverty.

  • sarcasmic||

    Poverty is romantic!
    Living off the land, making your own clothes, being one with the earth.
    It's romantic!

    Especially when compared to the soot and grime of industry, and the inequality between the rich capitalists and the poor working class!

    Yay poverty!

  • jacob the barbarian||

    I think you were channeling a certain phat pale injun

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I read a book, years ago, that said that contrary to the common picture of the Industrial Revolution as study of diets comparing early industrial workers with the farm workers of the previous generation, the industrial workers were eating something like 1000 calories a day more.

  • Calidissident||

    And of course these people never actually practice what they preach. Of course they shouldn't be the ones to die off or live in a mud hut. That's for all the lesser people

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I realized that when I watched their fondness for hydroelectric power evaporate when Jimmy Carter actually threatened to build the means to make some. Poor Jimmy never knew what hit him; he thought he was giving them what they wanted.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    who admitted to "rooting for the hurricanes" and other natural disasters

    Just like George Carlin. It was funnier when he did it, though.

  • Hoser||

    That was actually one of the arguments for banning DDT; that it would help control 'overpopulation'. Environmentalists and the biggest racist/fascists out there.

  • Bill||

    It worked too!!

  • David Emami||

    Watch that History Channel show "After People" sometime.

    Ugh. Yeah, it's basically porn for the Deep Ecology crowd, folks like Pentti "the UN should nuke the cities" Linkola. While watching it, you can almost hear the Earth First members staring the screen, moaning "oh man, that is so hot."

  • Marshall Gill||

    With socialism in disrepute, Flavin said, environmentalism had become the “most powerful political ideal today.”

    In other words, "they were on to us so we had to change the name."

  • Rhino||

    like "commonism." seriously? they changed one letter and they think we won't figure them out?

  • David Emami||

    In other words, "they were on to us so we had to change the name."

    Hence the term "watermelon" -- Green on the outside, Red on the inside.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Another trendy excuse for international wealth transfers will surely come along. Maybe something to do with resource exploitation of near-Earth objects. And there's always reparations.

  • Loki||

    Maybe something to do with resource exploitation of near-Earth objects.

    "It's not 'fair' that only rich space fairing nations can afford to access NEOs, therefore any profits from these resources must be redistributed evenly to all countries because... uhm... NOT FAIR!!!11!!!" /leftist twat

  • ||

    Hey now, you are going to get ken going...I think twat is on par with cunt. sorta.

  • Brett L||

    Let's just all admit that Environmentalism is a 1st world problem. With more nations moving out of the 1st than in, of course its in decline. Who cares about pollution when survival is at stake? No one. Only when the kids are fed and clothed and people have some money in their pocket do they start thinking beyond that. This is right and good.

  • Sevo||

    Brett L| 9.24.12 @ 10:54AM |#
    "Let's just all admit that Environmentalism is a 1st world problem."

    Sort of, but it's more a po-mo religion. It requires acceptance of values based on revelation rather than evidence, and the constant reference to 'mother earth' tells you these are not rational people.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    With socialism in disrepute, Flavin said, environmentalism had become the “most powerful political ideal today.”

    Recycle, reuse.

  • John||

    It is pretty difficult to call yourself a Marxist in public anywhere outside of a faculty lounge and be taken seriously. But you can advocate for exactly the same policies under the guise of environmentalism and be taken very seriously.

  • sarcasmic||

    Science!

  • Rhino||

    the old bait and switch.

  • gigarath6||

    You forgot the most important of the three R's in sustainability. Reduce.

  • Reformed Republican||

    The title reminded me of this Monty Python bit: http://youtu.be/TGv2wqJJmbc

  • Doctor Whom||

    Also, in nearly every place where some kind of environmental calamity is under way, it is taking place in an open-access commons.

    But ... but ... tragedy of the commons! No, I won't consider how the commons came to be in the first place.

  • John||

    The tragedy of the commons is a lot better than the tragedy of private property!!

  • tarran||

    If I had a nickel for every person here in MA who has told me that the state will better husband resources than private actors who would loot everything "for profit", I'd be living in a mansion on Belmont Hill with my hot girlfriend whose only job would be to boss the servants around before heading out to the health club.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I have always found that asking suck prats "And you find evidence to support this view, where?" shuts them up nicely.

  • sarcasmic||

    It's a matter of principle. Profits are waste.
    Government doesn't profit. So there is no waste.
    Nothing is more efficient than government. Just look at Medicare.

  • ||

    "It's a matter of principle. Profits are waste. Government doesn't profit. So there is no waste. Nothing is more efficient than government."

    What's so annoying when you here this is you know that the opposite is true, and there's nothing you can say to convince them that they're wrong. Some of these people are actually intelligent and I just want to beg them to pick up a book and actually start thinking anlytically instead of emotionally. It's really a shame to see the stubborness.

  • Doctor Whom||

    Evidence is a non-concept that the patriarchy uses to preserve its privilege.

  • sarcasmic||

    Oh yeah?
    Show me a perfect libertarian society!
    You can't!
    That right there is proof that libertarian ideas are bunk!
    Ha!
    I win!
    /muirduck

  • Bill||

    Roadz!

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Evidence is the difference between rationalism and romanticism. Rationalists made the United States republic. Romantics built the gulag.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Profit beats the alternative.

  • tarran||

    Back when I taught calc, I would put one problem in the test on maximizing/minimizing functions, where somebody owned some natural resource and had to maximize the profit over the lifetime of the resource.

    It was always different - field for farming, orchards, logging, oil field management, one time I even did Ivory from elephants tusks to get black market trades in there.

    The environmentally sensitive kids really hated it for some reason. :)

  • Killazontherun||

    How do I reach these keeds!?!?

  • Brett L||

    Hopefully she'd have some conjugal duties as well. Otherwise, what's the point?

  • OldMexican||

    Ronald Bailey on the End of International Environmentalism


    I blame Bush!

  • OldMexican||

    Many participants at the People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice, a parallel Rio gathering of 200 environmentalist groups, advocated a green twist on an old red ideology, even postulating that property is theft.


    The foundation of all of modern environmentalism, Ron, is the Marxian idea that private property is theft. It cannot be any other way: The environmentalists have always treated nature as a commons to be bequeathed to future generations in the same way it was fouund. Such notion, necessarily, runs contra property rights, as the concept implies mixing land with labor, or transformation. So don't be surprised, the above is NO trend or sudden change in principles or even tactics: It is the demolition of property rights which is the goal of all environmentalist groups.

    I'm not talking about conservationists here - most are open to private property rights as a mechanism for managing environments in a rational way, even if it means profit-loss tests. Enviros hold no such regard for anything that humans do or want.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    "The environmentalists have always treated nature as a commons to be bequeathed to future generations in the same way it was fouund. Such notion, necessarily, runs contra property rights..."

    Hell, such a notion runs contrary to the way the natural world works. The environment, with or without humans, will always be in a state of flux, until life dies out on earth, and probably not then.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    in nearly every place where some kind of environmental calamity is under way, it is taking place in an open-access commons.

    No way.

  • OldMexican||

    The same UNEP report notes that 80 percent of the world's forests, which harbor the bulk of the world's biodiversity, are government-owned.


    In Mexico, most forested lands are owned by the Federal Government by constitutional mandate. Logging companies have to obtain or lobby for a concession to log those forests, which they cannot own. So you can imagine that a) they will log as many trees as they possibly can before their concession runs out, and b) there will be PLENTY of "illegal" logging on those very forests. This obviously leaves many a forest a veritable wasteland. The outcry from the press has been constant for years, yet things will not change precisely because these are Federal lands, not private lands. Besides, most journalists in the Mexican press focus their attention on the wrong culprits (the logging companies) instead of the system, as they're mostly Marxists themselves.

    Goes without saying that the privately-owned forests are still lush and pristine. They're also the target of squatters we coloquially call "paracaidistas" (parachutists) because they seem to fall from the sky as they set up shanty towns almost overnight, their "leaders" normally being union bosses that promises them the land - for a hefty fee.

    That is what Marxism and the politics of envy do to a people.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    I'm supposed to be worried about a fucking endangered spider when my country is turning into an authoritarian state? I'm an avowed conservationist. I own a woods and manage it half for my use and the other half to maintain nature. I stay on top of many issues relating to sustainable resources. However, I am repulsed by the cultishness of the Gaia movement and its use of heavy-handed legal tactics that seriously impinge on common sense and adult choice. Just one example is the man in Idaho who was charged in the killing of a grizzly bear that wandered onto his yard. The man has 6 kids.

    You push laws that subvert the human ethic and I don't give a single shit about how much you care deeply for animal life and planet earth... you are a pile of incomprehensible nonsense that even logical conservationists view as a threat to human development. It's no wonder you fuckers have to turn to the U.N.

  • OldMexican||

    Re Agile Cyborg,

    Just one example is the man in Idaho who was charged in the killing of a grizzly bear that wandered onto his yard. The man has 6 kids.


    The action of the State in this case has to do more with wielding power than with environmentalist craziness. Not that the State will not uise environmentalism to justify their actions, mind you; however, the bureaucrats are driven by a totally different set of motivations: The State will always act like the guards in the Stanford prison experiment.

    Any pretext to bully people into submission will be used by the minions of the State, be it protecting the grizzly bears, or "national security." Remember the fable of the wolf and the lamb.

  • sarcasmic||

    When I was a kid there were these blueberry plains where people would go to pick wild blueberries every year. They would do controlled burns every so often to keep the plants thriving. Then some endangered snake was found there, so the authorities banned the burning and told people they couldn't pick the berries.
    The plains are now a wasteland and the snake hasn't been seen since. That was twenty years ago.

  • John||

    There are a million stories like that. When I was in law school I did an internship for the Department of Justice in the environmental litigation section. The big case I worked on involved an endangered bat in Indiana. The bat lives in hard wood forests. But the hardwood forests were being overrun by juniper evergreens. The junipers would crowd out the hard woods and generally were not goo habitat for anything and terrible for the bat. So the forest service wanted to go in and cut the junipers down so the hardwood would do better. And of course the Sierra club sued the government to stop it because it was "logging". I have never met a more frustratingly stupid group of people than the Sierra Club lawyers. The science as they say was totally settled. There wasn't a single environmental drawback to this. But they didn't give a shit. Their goal was to stop everything anywhere. It was a very educational experience.

  • sarcasmic||

    Can't spell environmentalist without "mental".

  • T o n y||

    Libertarians should find this case befuddling. The Sierra Club just wanted to stop government from interfering with nature.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Tony,

    The Sierra Club just wanted to stop government from interfering with nature.


    The Sierra Club wants everybody to stop "interfering" with nature. So don't spit in the woods - you may get sued.

  • Marshall Gill||

    And here I thought that it was natural for animals to go extinct. The Sierra Club most definitely wants to interfere with nature.

  • GILMORE||

    Wheeee!~ now we and our overlords the Koch brothers can step up our campaign to destroy nature and enslave the planet! My libertarian side will not be happy until teh Earths looks like Geidi Prime

    http://farm2.static.flickr.com.....6b4a10.jpg

  • Ron||

    It does not matter if Rio was a success or not. California already has a sustainability clause in the building code now and it is as poorly defined as you could imagine so that any enviro nut can sue and claim a development is not sustainable enough. I've already seen it happen here. One tiny case was a small four house subdivision was delayed by six months due to this and after legal fights it was determined that the ability to install solar panels in the future was enough. Some people may think that was no big deal but try paying the interest alone on a project for six month while a decision is made and sometimes that alone will kill a project.

  • sarcasmic||

    Killing the project is the goal.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    "California already has a sustainability clause in the building code now and it is as poorly defined as you could imagine so that any enviro nut can sue and claim a development is not sustainable enough. I've already seen it happen here."

    Sounds like an inherently fucked system that just needs to Ourbouros itself.

    Someone needs to start suing the organic industry over unsustainibility.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    "Canonical Marxism predicted that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its class “contradictions,” in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer until reaching a social breaking point. In the environmentalist update, capitalism will collapse because the pollution produced by its heedless overconsumption builds to an ecological breaking point. "

    Yeah, the new game is to villainize Capitalism for all of the Earth's pollution and resource use while deliberately ignoring the environmental catastrophes that occurerd in China and the former USSR.

    But hey, Marxists are nothing if not inconsistent, historically illiterate hypocrites.

  • Doctor Whom||

    The people who did those things weren't true Scotsmen Christians communists.

  • FD||

    "With socialism in disrepute, Flavin said..."

    If socialism is in such disrepute, why is it embraced and practiced in the U.S.?
    And please, spare me any arguments about degrees, how "we will get there if we vote for Obama" and other such rubbish.
    You either live in an environment where governmental redistribution from ability to need is practiced, or you don't.
    And if you are in the U.S., you do.

  • Tejicano||

    One of the major lines of BS that the climate change freaks charge is that the Arctic is melting and will thus raise the level of the oceans around the world. I cannot think of how any adult could be so science-illiterate to make such a claim. The fact that they don’t even get called on it tells me that this is just a huge ideology with too much political power for its own good.

    You can always tell when real scientists are discussing science because there are opposing views being shouted.

  • cinsel chat||

    good thanks sohbet
    cinsel sohbet

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