Beware of Sustainable Development

“Sustainable development” and “sustainability” have become mantras of environmentalists, the UN, federal, state, and local governments, and even some corporations that strive to be politically correct. The City of Tucson has an Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development. Perusal of that site shows that City bureaucrats and administrators have swallowed carbon-dioxide flavored Kool-Aid and sing Kumbaya to each other.

Sustainable development (aka Agenda 21) has its origins in a United Nations program.  Henry Lamb of Sovereignty International traces its history in an article in Canada Free Press:

Agenda 21 was developed over a period of time, traceable from the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Environment, which identified “environmental protection” as the world’s greatest problem, and gave the world the U.N. Environmental Programme, followed almost immediately by Nixon’s Executive Order that created the EPA.

Then came the 1976 U.N. Conference on Human Settlements, signed by the U.S., which proclaimed that “Public control of land use is…indispensable.” The next major step was the creation of the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland. The commission issued its final report in 1987, called Our Common Future. This document produced the concept and defined the term “Sustainable Development” to be: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This rather ambiguous definition was spelled out in great detail in a 40-chapter, 300-page document titled Agenda 21, signed and adopted by 179 nations in 1992 at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro.

A document from that 1976 UN conference states: “Land…cannot be treated as an ordinary asset, controlled by individuals and subject to the pressures and inefficiencies of the market. Private land ownership is also a principal instrument of accumulation and concentration of wealth and therefore contributes to social injustice…”

From “Our Common Future” we find this definition: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

On the surface, that sounds all warm and fuzzy, perhaps even prudent.  But below the surface we find impracticality and an assault on private property rights and liberty.

Sustainable development invariably involves giving some central authority control over the economy.  The former Soviet Union is a good example of how badly that works.

The reason central planning doesn’t work is that we cannot know what the needs of future generations will be.  The concept of sustainable development is actually one of arrogance. How is your crystal ball working?

For instance, a sustainable development planner in the 1890s would seek to control whale oil for heating, rock salt for food preservation, and draft horses for transportation and agriculture. Fifty years ago, who would have considered the role rare earth minerals play in our current electronic age? Under the illogic of sustainable development, no generation has the right to use or draw-down the natural resource base given that a future generation has a claim on those resources, and the generation after that has a claim and so on, i.e., no resource rights exist for any generation.

Under sustainable development we have developed unsustainable, uneconomic “green” energy that would not exist without being heavily subsidized by a government that thinks it knows better.

Just a few years ago myopic academics were worried about “peak oil”, the imagined end to a resource upon which our civilization depends.  Then came shale oil and natural gas discoveries.

As a political philosophy, sustainable development will not accomplish “fairness” in seeing that everyone will get a fair piece of the pie, because under government control of resources, the pie will become much smaller.

On a resource conservation basis, sustainable development is a “glass-half-empty” philosophy. Only by maximizing knowledge, technology and wealth today, will we insure that the needs of tomorrow are met.   Ultimately sustainable development is itself unsustainable and anathema to a free society.


  1. You are a wacko – you know that right?  Maximizing wealth today?  Did you learn this from your “The Secret” CD?

  2. Clever how you integrated that “UN” “One-World State” paranoia into your article.  Who owns this paper?? 

  3. Rational conservation – yes,  “sustainability”-  no.  The  neo-malthusian argument that we cannot continue our current rates of growth without depleting earth’s resources is pessimistic, fear-based and unsupported by facts.   Fact is, despite continued economic and population expansion, each generation has left future generations with more resources than  existed prior.  I’m a resource optimist who believes natural resources are meant for human benefit and survivability, rather than sustainability.  Today’s resources are for today’s use;   tomorrow’s resources are yet to be found.  But theological sustainability,  environmental  overkill  and overregulation  are stifling our new-found capabilities and killing economic growth.  Why not use what has been provided us, through a free market system that yields our most efficient and better use of available resources?  

    1. “Resources are meant for human benefit and survivability, rather than sustainability” — What does that even mean? Logically, survival and sustainability go hand in hand, and it IS to
      human benefit to promote them b/c they aid our LONG-TERM survival.
      Don’t our grandchildren have a right to clean air, water, food, etc?

      Likewise, saying, “each generation has left future generations with more resources than  existed prior” is manifestly untrue. We HAVE, so far, left much more technology (and more pollutants), but, by definition, using resources leaves less of them for future use. There’s undeniably LESS oil, less clean water, less fertile topsoil, fewer surviving animals in many different species, etc., but many more people. Yes, there’s more food, but it’s of lower nutrient density and far more contaminated with pesticides than ever.

      The free market system has its strengths, but long-term thought is not one of them. That’s mostly b/c it defines “efficiency” solely in fiscal terms, and purposely ignores many very real negative impacts on society. The real world does not care how much money someone has.

      Sustainable planning doesn’t require dictatorship, as Jonathon strongly implies; it just requires us to be willing to recognize that we have a responsibility to generations beyond ours AND to a world that’s far larger than ourselves. It’s long since time we stopped living as if in a bubble.

      1. Gus,
        Sorry you take such a pessimistic-alarmist  view of the world.  In your ideal, pollution-free, anti-technological society  with zero population growth and privation, would you would have us return to our prior state of low life expectancy, disease, food scarcity,  poverty?   Would we all become walkers, hunters and foragers?  I see survivability and sustainability as incompatible, with no logical connection  between them.  The real world of survivability is one of competition and hard work.   Man  unlike lesser species,  must mold his environment to accomplish his needs and improve his quality of life.   Yes, resources can be finite and must be used wisely, but they were put there for our use,  and use them we must.  We have no certainty of tomorrow’s needs; the resources of today could be substituted and replaced by alternatives and new technologies.  To me, the popularized term “sustainability” is an idealistic, unobtainable concept with no practical real world utility, especially where competition and survivability are the rule.  It is fundamentally illogical, without historical precedent in a biological or geological sense.  As such, sustainability is a fantasy, driving a superstitious doctrine.   The real danger to our present and future existence and well-being is not industrialization and technology, but suffocation from fear, tribal group think and environmental extremism.

  4. Jonathan, are you aware that you live in a desert dependent on imported river water to stabilize an aquifer left from past ice ages? Current rainfall cannot keep up with our population growth, free society or not, as drought has no respect for politics (or religion). Get with science and lay off your own Kool-Aid. Dismissing sustainability sounds suicidal in a Jim Jonesy kind of way. Very disturbing.

    1.  So you refer to those who you disagree with as “upright apes”? Odd that the Tuscon Citizen allows you to continue to publish. Then again…

      1. Mr. Stewart, the term “uprightage” is a screen name for one of the commenters. I did not make it up. Seems you are wrong about that too.

  5. Read it. Malthus will have the last laugh, but won’t enjoy it. ( by the way, The American Spectator are fringy creationist science hating creeps. Try using their search bar for “evolution” and “creationism”. Methinks their files are corrupted by faith, and ought not to be trusted.)

  6. I found this piece to be a bit too fear mongering for my tastes. I also felt that the overall narrative more based more in ideological narrative than scientific fact. That is a disappointment after reading quite of bit of the blog. 

    I find it ironic that if one were to take the statement “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the
    present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet
    their own needs.” and replace “sustainable development” with “U.S. debt reduction” there is a good chance this discussion would be directed in an entirely different direction. So why is it that we need to reduce the national debt now for the sake of our children and grandchildren, but when it comes to the environment it is every person for themselves? I can’t believe for a second that the honest answer has anything to do with objective fact.  

    1. Seth, the answer is in the post:”Only by maximizing knowledge, technology and wealth today, will we insure that the needs of tomorrow are met.”  Your point about national debt is a good one.

      1.  Jonathon, that vague handwaving answer does not address the question. We are not only drawing down our oil reserves, we are polluting the air, water, and ground with unsustainable practices. We can indeed apply new technology and knowledge to improving fuel efficiency, walkable urban development, better mass transit, clean power sources, healthier agriculture practices, etc. There are a number of vested interests that want to keep us hooked on their particular addiction, however, and make us believe it is “The American Way of Life” instead of lifestyle choices. Remember, it was George W. Bush who said, “America is addicted to oil”.

      2. “Wealth” is FAR more than just finances. REAL wealth is around us, defined by the world’s ability to provide for our survival. Too often, our economic activity and our technology are undermining that and interfering with our ability to understand how it actually works, the kind of “maximiz[ed] knowledge” that really helps us.

        Thinking WE have the right to consume as much of a 5+ BILLION year old world as we wish, without regard to the needs of other existent species and future generations is arrogant, not accepting responsibility for such needs.

      3. The world does not provide for our survival;  WE provide for our own survival through reason, ingenuity and hard work.   Man improves his well-being by manipulating his surroundings to fit his needs. Resources in the ground have no value until extracted, modified and utilized to better our lives. This distinguishes us from the other species.     
        “Sustainable” energy is one in which the quantity, quality, and utility of energy improve over time, becoming more available, more affordable, cleaner and usable over time, all made possible by free will, reason and invention.  In a sense, energy users are not borrowing from, but subsidizing the future by continually improving today’s energy, which the future inherits.  According to Bradley (Capitalism at Work), human ingenuity is the ultimate resource,  not a depletable one but an expandable one, with each invention resulting in new breakthroughs and new horizons.  Technology has made possible the highest living standard the world has ever known, and technological advancement  is what proved Malthus wrong.

  7. The EPA of today is not the EPA of President Nixon. It has been taken over by radicals. Can it be fixed? Sure it can, but a good start would be to fire the radicals and require new hires to answer to lawmakers. No more make your own laws as you go along. Otherwise down you go and duties revert to the parent department, DOE. But you gotta watch those guys like a hawk too.

  8. One reason “America is addicted to oil” as GWB put it in his 2006 State of the Union Address revolves around sprawl. The farther we have to drive to commute, shop, run errands, school, etc, the more gas we use, and the less likely we are to walk or bike.

    I want to leave a nation that is not a slave to oil prices (which will continue to rise due to the peaking of global production), so I heartily support efforts to create a more sustainable society. Who would be against having a viable future for our children, unless it is land speculators wanting to cash in on land in the exurbs? I have no stomach for ensuring a profit on their poor choice of investment gambling.

  9. For those “glass half empty” commenters who are afraid of using resources, here is a practical example of my contention “Only by maximizing knowledge, technology and wealth today, will we insure that the needs of tomorrow are met.”

    When I first worked as an exploration geologist, copper mines were essentially throwing away the oxide copper minerals because they could not be processed through the smelters used to extract copper from sulfide ores. Then a new process was invented: solvent-extraction/electrowinning for extracting copper from oxide mineralization. This process made waste into ore and enlarged the usable copper resource.

Comments are closed.