NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Sustainable Development

October 10, 2002

A careful review of world economic data finds that resources are becoming more -- not less -- abundant with time and that the world is in fact currently on a quite sustainable path.

  • For example, proven oil reserves are 15 times larger than in 1948 and about 40 percent larger than in 1974.
  • Food production has outpaced population increase to the extent that the world fed twice as many people in 1999 as in 1961 with only 9 percent more land under cultivation.
  • Wild fisheries are being relieved by fish farms, which now account for 25 percent of the total catch.

The fundamental premise of the idea of sustainability, or sustainable development, is that economic growth, if left unconstrained and unmanaged by the state, threatens unnecessary harm to the environment. But the concept of sustainability is dubious:

  • Sustainable development is essentially concerned with limiting economic growth; but if economic growth were slowed or stopped it would impossible to improve environmental conditions around the world.
  • The bias toward central planning behind the idea of sustainable development will serve only to make environmental protection more expensive; hence society would be able to "purchase" less of it.
  • Finally, defined strictly, sustainable development would require restricting consumption to prevent natural resource exhaustion -- in effect reducing the welfare of future generations.

The current western system of free markets, property rights, and the rule of law is in fact the best hope for environmentally sustainable development.

Source: Jerry Taylor, "Sustainable Development: A Dubious Solution in Search of a Problem," Policy Analysis Study No. 449, August 26, 2002, Cato Institute.

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