Twenty years ago, the Rio de Janeiro “Earth Summit” proclaimed that fossil fuel-induced climate change had brought our planet to a tipping point, human civilization to the brink of collapse, and numerous species to the edge of extinction. To prevent these looming disasters, politicians, bureaucrats and environmental activists produced a Declaration on Environment and Development, a biodiversity treaty, Agenda 21 and a framework for the Kyoto climate change treaty.
In developed nations, government responses to the purported crises sent prices soaring for energy, increasing the cost of everything we make, ship, eat and do – and crippling economic growth, killing jobs and sending families into fuel poverty. In developing countries, governments restricted access to electricity generation and other technologies – forcing the world’s poorest families to continue trying to eke out a living the old-fashioned way: turning forest habitats into firewood, cooking over wood and dung fires, and living with rampant poverty and disease.
This year, recognizing that people are no longer swayed by claims of climate cataclysms, Rio+20 organizers repackaged their little-changed agenda to emphasize “sustainable development” and the need to preserve “biodiversity.” To garner support, they professed a commitment to poverty reduction, “social justice” and the right of all people to “fulfill their aspirations for a better life.”
However, mostly far-fetched or exaggerated environmental concerns remained their focal point, and (as always) they have been willing to address today’s pressing needs only to the extent that doing so will not “compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
Of course, no one can foresee what technologies future generations will develop, or which raw materials those technologies will require. Sacrificing the needs of current generations to safeguard unpredictable future needs thus makes little sense. Moreover, preventing energy and mineral exploration in hundreds of millions of wilderness, park and other “protected” areas today could well foreclose access to raw materials that will be vital for technologies of tomorrow – itself a violation of sustainability dogma.
It is equally difficult to determine what resource uses are “not sustainable.” If changing economics, new discoveries or new extraction methods (like hydraulic fracturing) mean we now have 100-200 years of oil and natural gas, for example, that would appear to make hydrocarbon use quite sustainable – at least long enough for innovators to develop new technologies and sources of requisite raw materials.
By contrast, wind, solar and biofuel projects impact millions of acres of wildlife habitats, convert millions of additional acres from food crops to biofuels, and kill millions of birds and bats. Calling those projects “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” may be inappropriate – a misnomer.
Of equal or greater concern, activists have repeatedly abused the term “sustainability” to justify policies and programs that obstruct energy, mineral and economic development, and thereby prevent people from fulfilling their “aspirations for a better life.” Set forth in a 99-page report, the UN’s latest “blueprint for sustainable development and low-carbon prosperity” continued this practice.
“Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A future worth choosing” (RP2) called for a global council, new UN agencies, expanded budgets and powers, greater control over energy development and other economic activities, and “genuine global actions” by every nation and community – supposedly to ensure “social justice,” poverty eradication, climate protection, biodiversity, “green growth,” renewable energy, an end to “unsustainable patterns of consumption and production,” and other amorphous and self-contradictory goals.
RP2 also sought to prevent “irreversible damage” to Earth’s ecosystems and climate, as defined and predicted by UN-approved scientists, activists and virtual reality computer models. Reports and campaigns by the UN, World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Greenpeace and similar groups supported the agenda. To ensure that they would have sufficient funds to implement the agenda – without having to rely on dues or grants from developed nations – the Rio+20 organizers also wanted the power to tax global financial transactions and other activities, with revenues flowing directly to the United Nations.
Rio+20 was clearly not about enabling countries, communities and companies to do a better job of protecting environmental values, while helping families to climb out of poverty. It was about using sustainable development pieties to target development projects, limit individual liberty and market-based initiatives, and provide sufficient wind and solar power to generate and demonstrate modest improvements in developing countries’ living conditions – while ensuring that poor families never become middle class, and communities never actually conquer poverty, misery and disease.
Advancing “social equity” and “environmental justice,” in ways that Rio+20 sought to do, would actually have meant perpetuating poverty for developing countries, and reducing living standards in wealthier countries. The goal, as in all previous incarnations of Rio+20, was to ensure more equal sharing of increasing scarcity – except for ruling elites.
The real “stakeholders” – the world’s poorest people – were barely represented at Rio+20. Their health and welfare, dreams and aspirations, pursuit of justice and happiness were given only lip service – then brushed aside and undermined. The proceedings were controlled by bureaucrats who do not know how to generate new wealth, generally oppose efforts by those who do know, and see humans primarily as consumers and polluters, rather than as creators and innovators, protectors and stewards.
If Rio+20 had achieved what its organizers had set out to accomplish, citizens of still wealthy nations would now have to prepare for new assaults on their living standards. Impoverished people in poor nations would now have to prepare for demands that they abandon their dreams for better lives.
That is neither just nor sustainable. It is a good thing that the radical Rio+20 agenda was largely rejected. Now we must all work together to find and implement constructive and sustained solutions to the real problems that continue to confront civilization, wildlife and the environment.
This essay was originally published in National Review on June 20, 2012, as “The UN’s Rio+20 Agenda: The “sustainable development” agenda will harm health, welfare, and nature.