NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Sustainable Development and Freedom

October 25, 2002

The recent United Nations Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa focused on sustainable development -- "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The World Economic Forum's environmental sustainability index (ESI) seeks to measure sustainability for 142 nations based on measures of pollution trends and ecosystem conditions, along with measures of human well-being, social capacities and governance.

The ESI confirms that developed countries have made substantial environmental progress despite much higher rates of nonrenewable resource consumption than undeveloped countries.

Furthermore, the ESI scores can be compared with measures of economic freedom. When the ESI scores are plotted against scores from the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom 2002, nations with freer economies have better records in improving environmental quality - confirming that free markets and democracy are the best path to sustainability. For example:

  • Developed countries such as Finland, Sweden and Switzerland have high ESI scores (73.9, 72.6 and 66.5, respectively) and are among the most economically free countries (with Heritage/WSJ index scores of 1.95, 2.05 and 1.90). [See the Figure.]
  • Countries ranking in the middle range of ESI scores (around 50), such as Algeria, Russia and Egypt, have less economic freedom (3.10, 3.70 and 3.55).
  • The low end of the ESI scale includes less-developed countries such as Haiti, Ukraine and Turkmenistan that have little economic freedom (3.80, 3.85 and 4.4).

In developed nations, measures to control immediate problems of pollution and wasteful resource use as they arise go a long way toward achieving environmental sustainability. They also go well beyond what is necessary for sustainable development, given that we do not know the resource needs of future generations, in part because we do not know the technologies that will be developed.

Source: Steven F. Hayward, "Making Sense of Sustainable Development," Brief Analysis No. 422, October 25, 2002, National Center for Policy Analysis.

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