Changing Everything

Ronald Bailey prepares to cover the World Summit on Sustainable Development


More than 100 presidents, prime ministers, and other potentates will convene over the next couple of weeks (August 26-September 4) in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a desperate attempt to save the Earth. The occasion is the United Nations' World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which is aimed at revolutionizing how the world's economy operates. This economic, social and environmental revolution must occur because, it is claimed, humanity is on an unsustainable path that is leading toward global catastrophe. Indeed, all summer, as the WSSD approached, we have been treated to a series of reports and media events concocted to persuade us that the world is about to fall apart.

Alongside the official WSSD events will be a Global Forum organized by activist groups who style themselves as the representatives of global "civil society." The United Nations itself gets to choose which organizations are "legitimate" civil society representatives. Thus it will surprise no one that most such activist groups agitate for a stronger and growing role for the United Nations in governing the world's economy and environment.

The WSSD is a followup to the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago. At that gathering, world leaders negotiated and adopted the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB), among other treaties. The fearful truth is that once a UN treaty process or agency has been launched, it continues to grow and mutate, but is always aiming to increase the power of international bureaucracies and national governments at the expense of individuals.

Consequently, under the once voluntary arrangements of the FCCC, we now have the Kyoto Protocol, which is ostensibly aimed at slowing man-made global warming but which is in reality a mandatory plan outlining the energy future of the whole of humanity for the next century. Meanwhile the CDB, a treaty originally aimed at protecting wildlife and wildlands, has given birth to the Biosafety Protocol which is a trade treaty designed to impede international shipments of food made from genetically improved crops. These international agreements have incorporated and legitimized the "Death Star" of all regulatory policy notions, the precautionary principle.

The 100 world leaders at the WSSD are being asked to finalize and approve a Plan of Implementation intended to put humanity on a sustainable path to economic development and environmental protection. First then, what is "sustainable development?" In 1987, a UN Commission on Economic Development report, Our Common Future, defined it as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This rather vague concept has since been vastly elaborated, but the hard core, unchanging center of the concept is that, whatever else it means, it means that rich developed capitalist nations are on an unsustainable path. It essentially incorporates the old-fashioned Malthusianism of early 1960s and 70s-style political environmentalism in which the world is becoming overpopulated and running out of resources.

The UN Plan is big on rhetoric in favor of reducing global poverty, increasing access to clean water, sanitation, and education in poor countries. So far, so good. Who could be against such laudable goals? And the Plan does have some very good ideas. For example, it encourages developed countries to eliminate their $300 billion in annual farm subsidies which distort international trade and undermine poor farmers in developing countries. The Plan also favors eliminating energy subsidies and charging farmers the true of cost of their irrigation water. It also encourages rich countries to eliminate trade barriers against the products made in poor countries.

However, the Plan also urges all countries to adopt and implement the pernicious Kyoto and Biosafety Protocols and use the precautionary principle as a guide to regulating the development of new technologies. One of the chief contested areas is Section IX, the section that deals with money. Section IX urges debt relief for improvident and corrupt developing country governments and asks rich countries to up their foreign aid budgets substantially. Certain paragraphs of Section IX, favored by activists, would attempt to subordinate the World Trade Organization to the goals of sustainable development.

The main flaw in the UN Plan is its abiding conviction that sustainable development is only possible with the vigorous intervention of national governments and international bureaucracies. Developed capitalist economies are precisely those economies that "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." As history has amply shown, technological progress makes possible the economic growth that allows future generations to meet their own needs. There is only one proven way to improve the lot of hundreds of millions of poor people, and that is democratic capitalism. It is in rich democratic capitalist countries that the air and water are becoming cleaner, forests are expanding, food is abundant, education is universal, and women's rights respected. Whatever slows down economic growth also slows down environmental improvement.

In Johannesburg, the future of the world may well be determined. Will human liberty and innovation be allowed to flourish or will humanity succumb to the myth of the "limits to growth?"

I will be covering the Summit with daily dispatches from Johannesburg reporting on the activities of the official delegates and the goings on among the activists. They will be available at Reason Online beginning next week.