Rio +20 Earth Summit: The End of International Environmentalism

Watching green ideology crash and burn


Twenty years ago the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro marked the ascension of environmentalism as a political force in international affairs. That conference in 1992 produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. 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." Flavin added that with socialism in disrepute, environmentalism is now the "most powerful political ideal today." At the conclusion of the Rio +20 Earth Summit, it is clear that that is no longer so.

The largest United Nations conference ever—featuring more than 50,000 participants from 188 nations —was a flop. For most of the environmentalist ideologues at the Rio +20 conference the only question was whether it was a "hoax" or a "failure." Oxfam chief executive Barbara Stocking preferred "hoax" while "failure" was Greenpeace spokesperson Kumi Naidoo's dismissive term.

In response to outcomes of the Rio conference, more than a thousand environmentalist and leftist groups signed a petition entitled The Future We Don't Want. That is a play on the title of the platitudinous outcome document, The Future We Want, agreed to by the diplomats at the end of the conference. Greenpeace's Kumi Naidoo lamely vowed that disappointed environmentalists would now engage in acts of civil disobedience in order to bring about the world they want.

Should the people of the world be disappointed by the "failure" of the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development? No. First of all, sustainable development as a concept is a Rorschach blot. The canonical version reads: "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This has no specific meaning and can be used by anyone to mean anything that they would like. So it is not at all surprising that the representatives from 190 rich and poor nations meeting in Rio de Janeiro could not agree on anything substantive with regard to sustainable development.

Nevertheless, since the first Earth Summit, the world has experienced a lot of development. In 1992, 46 per cent of the world's population lived in absolute poverty (defined as income equivalent to less than $1.25 per day). Today that is down to 27 percent. In addition, average life expectancy has increased by three and a half years.

At the Rio +20 Earth Summit, environmentalists and the leaders of poor countries were hoping to shake down the rich countries for hundreds of billions in official development assistance annually. However, most of the actual development achieved over the past two decades was not the result of official development assistance (a.k.a. taxpayer dollars) from rich countries being sent to poor countries. In fact, some researchers have found [PDF] that development aid often actually retards economic growth and "has an insignificant or minute negative significant impact on per-capita income." Why? Largely because the aid is stolen by the kleptocrats who run many poor countries and the rest is "invested" in projects that are not profitable. So what has produced so much improvement in the lot of poor people in developing countries since the first Earth Summit 20 years ago?

"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 the Rio +20 Conference. "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.

After a week spent listening to environmentalist hopes and objectives, one particularly puzzling and disturbing activist brainchild emerged and that is their undertaking to maintain and expand open access commons. Many participants at the People's Summit, which was run by 200 activist groups in parallel to the official summit, evidently do believe that property is theft. In the original Marxist version capitalism would collapse as its "contradictions" mounted. In the Green update capitalism will collapse as its pollution mounts. For lots of the hardcore, the solution to environmental problems is a kind of eco-socialism in which nature is not "privatized" or "commodified." This trend in environmentalist thinking might be called "commonism."

Looking across the globe, it is the case that various aggregate environmental measures have deteriorated. Since 1992, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) claims [PDF] that biodiversity has declined by 12 percent, 740 million acres of primary forests have been cut down, and 85 percent of the all the fish stocks in the oceans are overexploited, depleted, recovering, or fully depleted. Are environmental calamities the result of rapacious capitalism? Not really. The same report notes that 80 percent of the world's forests, which harbor the bulk of the world's biodiversity, are government owned. In most parts of the world, government-owned nets out to owned by no one. Essentially these aspects of nature already exist in the commons for which many environmental commonists are agitating. As Sarah Palin might ask, "How's that working out for you?" Not too well if the UNEP data are to be believed.

The fact is that in nearly every place where what most people would regard as an environmental problem is occurring, it is happening in an open access commons. A river is polluted? No one owns it and stands ready to protect it. Forest is being cut? Same problem. Overfishing? Yes. A water shortage? Yes, again. Empirically, calling for the enlargement or re-imposition of a commons with respect to an environmental resource or amenity is tantamount to calling for its slow destruction.

Countries with strong property rights generally see environmental improvement, e.g., air and water pollution are declining, fishery stocks are stable, and forests are expanding. First, because owners protect their resources since they directly suffer the costs and consequences of not doing so. And a second indirect effect is that countries with strong property rights are more prosperous and can thus afford to bear the costs of environmental regulations, even inefficient ones, applied to those environmental commons that still remain.

Looking back the failure of environmentalism as an ideology looks inevitable since has misconstrued the causes of many of the problems to which it claims to have a solution. At the close of the Rio +20 Earth Summit last Friday, environmentalism reached its highwater mark and is now ebbing as a political force internationally. It will be interesting to see in which direction those cherishing a permanent animus against democratic capitalism will go.

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).