Sustainable Development: Pros and Cons





This article (1) surveys various individuals' and groups' views and proposals in regard to sustainable development and (2) provides some critical comment about these views and proposals. No conclusions are reached because the purpose of the article is to provide its readers with the information they need to come to their own conclusions.

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Carole E. Scott is the editor of B>Quest.

Sustainable Development

What It Is 

According to the "Encyclopedia of Sustainable Development "The guiding principle of sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable development recognises [sic] the interdependence of environmental, social and economic systems and promotes equality and justice through people empowerment and a sense of global citizenship. Whilst we cannot be sure what the future may bring, a preferable future is a more sustainable one" [ARIC].

In economic terms this means not just "...a cleaner environment; it also requires a stable and healthy economy. To deliver a more sustainable economy we need to do more with less by making better use of resources, increase investment, promote stability and competition, develop skills and reward work. Sustainable development requires us to take a long term view of the economy, rather than adopting short term fixes" [ARIC].

The phrase sustainable development grew out of a 1987 report by the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development. It defined sustainable development as "...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Under many interpretations this has come to mean development that uses up nothing and disturbs as little as possible on land, at sea, and in the air" [Anonymous in the Oil & Gas Journal, July 7, 2003].

The meaning of "sustainability" differs from one discipline to another. [Stone] Agriculturalists stress food self-sufficiency. Environmentalists are concerned with the conservation of natural resources. Economists are concerned with economic efficiency: the value to society of the output of goods and services relative to the value to society of the resources expended in producing this output. Sociologists and anthropologists seek to preserve traditional cultures, values, and institutions. Some groups advocating sustainable development have added to their policy recommendations various--often political--objectives that in some cases appear to have little or no connection to the definition of sustainable development provided by the "Encyclopedia of Sustainable Development". 

The more extreme agriculturalists believe that in order for farming to be truly sustainable that it must not "...deplete or harm any of its resources, including the land and the farmer."  [Smiley] Biodiversity should be practiced on each farm, and crops should be grown organically. In order to garner the returns normally accruing to middlemen, farmers are encouraged to engage in direct marketing done locally and involving the provision of organically-grown, fresh (in season) crops. This "... new agriculture will need to remove most large animals from factory confinement (where they produce bulky, but unhealthy, food and pollutants) and return them to the land where they can produce healthy food and curb pollution" [Savory].

A wide variety of life-style changes have been recommended by advocates of sustainable development, including such things as flushing toilets with rainwater and water from drains; substituting bamboo for lumber; making carpets from hemp; generating electricity with windmills; and eliminating sprawl--the spreading of people across the landscape horizontally, rather than vertically. 

The Origin of Sustainable Development

"The recent environmental debate has been characterised [sic] by an obsession with two phrases: sustainable development and the precautionary principle. Wilfred Beckerman ("Small is Stupid", Duckworth Press, 1995) argues that sustainable development is not a functional concept: we do not know what people in the future will like, so we cannot make decisions for them. Sustainable development is completely amorphous and could be used to justify almost any policy. However, just as classical liberals have been forced to engage in the 'welfare' debate, it seems inevitable that we shall have to engage ourselves in the sustainability debate, because sustainable development seems to have captured the imagination of the intellectual class. The challenge, then, is to provide consequentialist [sic] arguments in favour [sic] of environmental protection being based on the principles of a free society" [Morris].

Some claim that sustainable development is the modern version of the "limits to growth" theory formulated by the Club of Rome thirty years ago. This group said that humankind was headed for disaster unless economic and technological development that depletes natural resources is brought to a halt.

The belief that economic development destroys the environment led in 1983 to the United Nations forming a commission chaired by Norwegian Prime-Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. It produced a report entitled "Our Common Future" that was published in 1987. Five years later at the Rio Earth Summit  the nations of the world met to try and put together a plan for halting and reversing environmental deterioration. The participants' objective was to propose strategies for sustainable development, that is, ways to improve human well-being in the short term without threatening the local and global environment in the long term. What emerged is known as the "Brundtland Report."  In 1990 towns and cities in Northern Europe created the Brundtland City Energy Network. This report also helped fuel a movement that led to United Nations Earth Summit meetings in 1992 and in 2002 and the International Climate Change Convention and "Agenda 21" programs.

 Agenda 21:

The Brundtland Report contained the claim that the relationship between humans and the Earth that sustains them has undergone a "profound change" that has produced unintended changes in the atmosphere, soils, waters, and among plants and animals as well as changes in the relationships between them. The rate at which these changes are taking place is, this report claims, "...outstripping the ability" of science and our current capabilities to "access and advise. It is frustrating the attempts of political and economic institutions, which evolved in a different, more fragmented world, to adapt and cope" [Brundtland City Network]. 

Concern was expressed in the Brundtland Report about climate change caused by the greenhouse effect; urban-industrial air pollution created by the use of fossil fuels; the acidification of the environment; and the risk of nuclear reactor accidents. Concluded was that "It is clear that a low energy path is the best way towards a sustainable future. But given efficient and productive uses of primary energy, this need not mean a shortage of essential energy-services. Within the next 50 years, nations have the opportunity to produce the same levels of energy-services with as little as half the primary supply currently consumed.  This requires profound structural changes in socio-economic and institutional arrangements and is an important challenge to global society" [Brundtland City Network]. This report also called for social equity both between and within generations. 

In the Report it was asserted that it is possible to make development sustainable, that is, we can meet our current needs and aspirations without reducing the ability of future generations to do the same. Although we face limits imposed by present technology and social organization, these can be improved so that we can enjoy a new era of economic growth that will cause poverty to no longer be inevitable. The poor nations of the world must be guaranteed their fair share of this growth. Contributing to the achievement of this are political systems that guarantee the effective participation of citizens of the world's poor nations. The world's richest nations must use energy in a way that respects the Earth's ecology, and population growth must not outstrip our ability to produce without harming the eco-system. Political support is necessary for these goals are to be achieved.

For over a decade a variety of international organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and groups known as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which represent a wide variety of ideological groups, have pushed the idea of sustainable development. Some are openly anti-capitalistic and anti-globalization.

Today "The United Nations is pressing for companies to introduce systems in which the prices of goods and services partly reflect the environmental costs of their production, use and disposal" [ARIC].  Proponents of sustainable development do not seem to anticipate  that a resulting increase in the price level will force consumers to consume less and that this reduction in sales will cause the demand for labor to decline; thereby causing job loss, which will, by reducing consumer income, further reduce sales.




Dire Forecasts

"Like many societies in today's world, the Classic Maya suffered from deforestation, burgeoning population pressure, agricultural breakdown, and polarization between rich and poor. Gone is the idealized image of the Maya as lowland pacifists. Today, we realize that the Classic Maya  were part of the overall fabric of civilized native society that developed in large parts of Middle America." [Ballantine]

"As political leaders throughout the world face climatic destabilization, the contrast between what is seen as politically feasible, and what is understood to be ecologically necessary, is stark. Prior civilizations crumbled under the weight of ecological deterioration ignored for too long. If we fail to adequately respond to climatic disruption, we are vulnerable to a similar fate" [Green Parties, Kyoto Statement, 1997].

According to the world's Green parties "The conditions for life on earth are deteriorating at an ever- faster pace" [Green Party, "Final Statement..."]. At the United Nations conference in Kyoto, Japan they proclaimed that: "Humanity stands on the threshold of fundamentally destabilizing the climate it has known throughout recorded history. The unprecedented consensus reached by the world's leading climate scientists through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1995 has clarified the issue. No longer does any serious question exist as to whether humans are altering the climate. Only how much and how quickly remain uncertain. We must undertake a rapid shift from fossil fuels, which will be one of the most difficult yet rewarding projects humanity has yet undertaken. We must transition into highly efficient economies reliant on renewable and climate-friendly energy" [Green Parties, "Kyoto Statement"].

Book reviews from one "green" publisher provides a taste of how some environmentalist view our situation:

Strangely Like War, by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan

"Jensen and Draffan lay bare the stark scenario we face unless rampant deforestation is slowed and stopped. A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the relationship between clear-cutting and our ecological crisis, as well as an essential 'handbook' for forest and anti-globalization activists."

Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M. Smith

"A former executive with a leading GM testing laboratory exposes the serious health dangers that genetically modified foods can pose and explains how corporate influence has been used to cover them up. Filled with lucid descriptions of genetic engineering, the problems it poses, and how to protect yourself and your family."

Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism by Sharon Beder

"How are large corporations shirking their environmental responsibilities? What methods are they adopting to shift public and governmental focus from themselves to other supposed causes of environmental deterioration? Explore the relationships among politicians, the private sector and citizens within the context of such issues as global warming and atmospheric pollution..." [Chelsea Green]

Paul and Anne Ehrlich claim that we are threatened by overpopulation, depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, and the loss of biodiversity. Each of these threats to our well being, they believe, have been confirmed by valid scientific research. [Ehrlich]

An anonymous reviewer of Paul Ehrlich's earlier book, "The Population Bomb," on (dated December 27, 2001) probably reflects --though in a less civil tone than some use--the views of some of those who are skeptical of environmentalists like the Ehrlichs:

"Ehrlich has made a 40 year career out of being flat out wrong. Every prediction in this book failed to come to pass. For some reason that is beyond me he manages to keep a good reputation, especially from radical environmentalist kooks and scientists who are greedy for grant money who will latch on to any alarmism in order to get those dollars rolling in .Ehrlich and Rifkin and the whole pantheon of the doom and gloom preachers are a discrace [sic] to science and deserve nothing but scorn for poisoning the public discourse and knowledge with their modern brand of apocalyptic thinking. But deep down a lot of people desire that an apocalypse is right around the corner. Whole religions have been founded on this type of thinking, like the hardcore environmentalist movement of present day America. Like all doom and gloomers [sic] Ehrlich will be forgotten 50 years from now, but of course a new generation of Chicken Littles will have arrived." 

Table One (below) reveals that in much of the world there is no danger of a population explosion; in fact in much of the world the economic problem is a declining, aging population. 

Table One

Total Fertility Rate

2003 (estimated)

Better than a 2.0 rate is required to prevent population from declining















United States














United Kingdom






















Source: CIA World Factbook

Lester Brown, president and founder of the Earth Policy Institute, complains in his book, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble,  that today "Our existing economic output is based in part on cutting trees faster than they grow, overgrazing rangelands and converting them into desert, overpumping aquifers, and draining rivers dry. On much of our cropland, soil erosion exceeds new soil formation—slowly depriving the land of its inherent fertility. We are taking fish from the ocean faster than they can reproduce. We are releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere faster than the earth can absorb it, creating a greenhouse effect. Rising atmospheric CO2 levels promise a temperature rise during this century that could match that between the last Ice Age and the present" [Brown].

In his book Brown denies the following claims made by people he labels anti environmentalists:

Even if the problems mentioned above exist, a cost/benefit analysis may not justify doing anything about some or all of them. It has, for example, often been pointed out that the cost of a given recycling program substantially exceeds what the materials can be sold for. However, such a cost/benefit analysis means nothing to those who deny that that market-determined  prices of natural resources, labor, and real capital have any useful meaning. On the basis of their belief that the problems do exist and are largely or totally controllable by mankind, such environmentalists believe the curative actions they recommend should be taken regardless of market-determined values of costs and benefits.

Recycling is advocated by proponents of sustainable development on the basis of it::

A major problem for the non-scientist considering whether or not to support programs advocated by environmentalists is to decide which scientists to believe: the ones claiming we face imminent and certain disaster that can be prevented, or those who deny that this is the case.  

Because of the extensive new and different type of infrastructure required to carry out the program recommended by the advocates of sustainable development, it would, at least a short run, lower the standard of living in an economy near or at full employment. How costly this massive shift in the nature of infrastructure would be would vary with how quickly the existing infrastructure is replaced. 

If a future generation chooses not to adopt sustainable development, its adoption by the current generation will represent a transfer of wealth from it to that future generation. Clearly, proponents of sustainable development  believe that future generations possess rights that override the claims of the current generation on natural resources. History reveals that earlier generations did not accept this view. American farmers, for example, depleted the land, dealing with resulting diminishing returns by moving to new land further West. They later turned to conservation, not for the benefit of future generations, but because this solution was no longer available. Obviously, of course, we do not have to follow in their path.

Although some seem to imply that the environment is everywhere getting worse and worse, there are some who do not agree with this dismal assessment.

"Believe it or not, in my native state of Georgia, the tenth-largest and the third-fasted-growing state," writes Georgia U.S. Senator Zell Miller, "even with all the industrial and residential development, the environment is in better shape than it was one hundred years ago by several measures. There are three million more acres of forest than a century ago. There are almost as many wetlands as in colonial days....[According to H. Harold Brown, professor emeritus of Crop and Soil Sciences at the University of Georgia] 'Georgia's air and water are cleaner today than they have been in fifty years.' Should we continue to work to improve it? Of course." Miller claims that "extreme environmentalists" are "...just more elite special interest groups,  interested solely in willing elections and in raising money for carnivorous consultants to do the ultra-expensive work of shaping the image of some Playdough politician spouting their carefully crafted save-the-land, save this-or-that scripts" [Zell Miller ppg. 122 - 123].

Sustainable Development and Business

"It is often said that government should solve problems created by the failures of the market, of which environmental problems are said to be a species. According to Pigou ("The Economics of Welfare", 3rd Ed., 1929, p. 174) a market failure occurs when there is a divergence between the social and the private marginal net product of a particular economic activity. Such a divergence might arise if, for example, a firm emits a noxious vapour [sic] which damages neighbouring [sic] properties, but the firm does not compensate the affected parties....

Whilst a universal system of private property might in theory resolve most environmental problems, certain practical issues remain. In particular, many entrenched interests groups are likely to continue to lobby for protection through competition-restricting regulations, whilst environmental groups seem reluctant on the whole to embrace private property. The question remains: how do we move from a system of environmental protection that is dominated by the state to one in which individuals play a more important role? Economists have suggested the use of either tradable permits (TPs) or pollution charges as alternatives to traditional regulations" [Morris].

The prices businesses must charge in order to stay in business only reflect their explicit costs. They do not include such implicit costs as the cost to society of the pollution of the air and water by industry's smokestacks and the pollution of rivers, lakes, and oceans caused by the dumping of industrial wastes into them. These social costs are called negative externalities or spillover costs. There are several ways the government can convert these implicit costs to explicit costs; thereby either reducing or eliminating a given type of pollution. Which method is the best one to utilize is not widely agreed upon, and some think there is no one solution that is best in all situations. 

Some economists think that the most efficient method is to put a cap on how much pollution can be produced in a given area. To reduce pollution by a given amount, a company would be allowed to pick the cheapest way to do so. Because it may be cheaper to reduce pollution at one of a company's facilities than at another, the required reduction can be achieved by altering only the facility where the cost of reducing pollution is the least costly. It is also the case that one company might find it cheaper to reduce a given type of pollution than would another company. The former company would be allowed to achieve the required reduction in pollution and sell a "right to pollute" (TPs) to the other company; thereby forcing this "dirty" company  to charge its customers a higher price than otherwise would be the case.

It could be argued that in order to treat businesses equitably, the government should compensate them for positive externalities (spillover benefits) they provide society. These are  things beneficial to society that business provide but cannot charge their customers for. People who get a vaccination, for example, seem to only be willing to pay what they think it is worth to them to not to get a disease; yet people who do not get vaccinated also benefit from them being vaccinated because this reduces their likelihood of getting the disease.

Because the value of either a positive or a negative externality cannot be determined in a market place where providers who have to cover the costs of providing them interact with buyers who value them interact, placing values on them is an arbitrary process. 

Governments, too, produce negative externalities. Public roads in the United States, for example, are a major source of air pollution. The Department of Defense has dumped 400,000 tons of hazardous waste, which is more than the five times what the largest chemical corporations combined created. [Brock, "Environmentalism and Economic Freedom..."] Government-owned utilities and landfills have also in some cases polluted the environment. In the communist-ruled Soviet Union the Ariel and Caspian Seas were horribly polluted and shrunken in size by the activities of state-owned enterprises.

Beckerman claims that millions of people lack clean air and water and deteriorating ecosystems not as a result of "unsustainable development," but by poverty, poorly defined property rights, and the lack of freedom of opportunity. Furthermore, he believes, the policies recommended by advocates of sustainable development would intensify these conditions. [Beckerman, "A Poverty of Reason"]

Block argues that the typical economics  textbooks that treat pollution as an "externality" are wrong. This is because "An external diseconomy is defined as a harm perpetrated by A on B, one for which B can neither collect damages nor halt through injunction. But why is B so powerless?" [Block, " Environmentalism and Economic Freedom..."] He believes that it is inadequacy of the law that renders B so powerless. Up until the early nineteenth century, he says, in both the United Kingdom and the United States a farmer could go to court when a railroad engine set fire to his crop and get injunctive relief and an award of damages. In this period a factory that polluted the air had an incentive to find ways to cease doing so in order to avoid being dragged into court and being required to stop doing so and pay damages as well. This all changed, Block says, in the mid nineteenth century, when private property rights ceased to be upheld by the courts because a new consideration, the public good, was given precedence over them. "Accordingly," he writes, "when an environmental plaintiff came to court under this new system, he was given short shrift. He was told, in effect, that of course his private property rights were being violated; but that this was entirely proper, since there is something even more important that [sic] selfish, individualistic property rights. And this was the 'public good' of encouraging manufacturing" [Block, " Environmentalism and Economic Freedom..."].

Proponents of sustainable development claim that "...achieving satisfactory returns for shareholders in the long term depends on the sanctioning of the company and its products by a range of stakeholders: employees, consumers, suppliers, competitors, communities, local authorities, governments, and others. The idea is that there is a homologous relationship between producer/stakeholder and consumer/stakeholder, and incorporating this interface into the business strategy will help the company to harmonise [sic] its commercial objectives with socio-economic and environmental considerations" [Beckwith].

Today corporations--particularly multinationals--are being told by governments and environmentalist NGOs that they have to be committed to a new "corporate social responsibility" (CSR) that fosters sustainable development and seeks to meet today's needs and aspirations without sacrificing the ability of those in the future to meet their needs and aspirations. This means that businesses' profit seeking must take place within the context of environmental development, protecting the environment, and social equity.

To deal with the Great Depression of the 1930s, both Germany and Italy adopted corporatism in the form of nazism and fascism. A similar policy was followed in the United States before the Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Act to be unconstitutional. In corporatism prices, wages, and the level of output are determined by a partnership of government, business, and labor. CPR is a similar concept except that its objective is not protecting jobs, and its partnership is broader. Its objective is to ensure that development is sustainable. This is to be accomplished by businesses coordinating with governments and NGOs to guide investment into those areas that promotes the public good. This means that they must consult with such entities as local governments, unions, environmental groups, and ethnic and religious minorities. Through a consensus among these stakeholders it will be determined where production will take place and how it will be carried out. Selected will be locations and processes that will maintain the natural environment and not deplete resources that future generations will need. Because, presumably it is assumed that future generations will show the same concern for subsequent generations, non-renewable resources will be eternally "locked up".

Henderson suggests that businesses are being intimidated into going along with this program. They fear that not to go along will result in bad publicity; damage their image in consumers' eyes; and lead to more government control of their activities. It is possible, too, that some executives and/or their consultants may share the ideology behind CPR. He warns that if this program is widely adopted by force or choice that it will eliminate the traditional form of corporate governance and purpose. Business will be politicized, and there will be no way to objectively measure the success of  a business with such a set of objectives. [Henderson] 

Another reason why a business might choose to go along with this program may be in order to play a role in designing and implementing the policies involved in achieving sustainable development in a way that will either benefit it or harm its competitors. 

"The net effect [of CPR]" claims Richard Ebeling, "would be the end of efficient and productive enterprise, the strangling of market competition, greater restraints on entrepreneurial innovation, and limits on the economic opportunities of those who live in great poverty around the world. The only beneficiaries would be the global social engineers who cannot give up the collectivist ghost, and who still dream the dream of centrally planning the lives and fortunes of their fellow men" [Ebeling].

KIA, a Korean car manufacturer, is one of the  multinational corporation that has adopted CRP. It has a campaign in the United Kingdom that urges people to use cars only for long journeys, and it provides a mountain bike with every new car it sells. It also helps organize "walking buses," a network of parents who escort children to school on foot. In Europe a "wash right" campaign touts the advantages of low temperature washing by explaining that it saves both clothes and energy.  The public is assured that sustainable consumption isn't about consuming less; it is about consuming in a different way that is more efficient that results in a better quality of life. [United Nations] 

"Better quality of life? Clearly, to come to this conclusion in regard to washing your clothes the value assigned to getting clothes cleaner is low, but the fact that many people now pay for hot water to use in their washing machines suggests that they do not place a low value on getting their clothes clean. Britons who put their children on a bus, rather than walking them to school, must place a relatively high value on their time and keeping their children out of the elements. How are they to be convinced to appropriately revalue these things so that they find the advocated life style equally satisfactory? 

"Access to energy reserves," Jim Miller warns in a 2003 article in Oil and Gas Investor, "will migrate to oil and gas companies that are ready to support host governments' unique social, environmental and economic goals.

For many senior executives," he writes,  "sustainable development is nothing more than the latest crusade of fringe environmental groups and liberal economists. They believe that granting legitimacy to sustainable development would incur costs while blurring focus on the core business, and would invite further unwanted government intervention.

Miller claims that "Such a view is shortsighted and ultimately harmful to business performance. It represents a denial of the realities of doing business in a multinational, interconnected world in which national priorities increasingly emphasize sustainability and governments turn to corporations for support and expertise.

He believes that "Accumulating evidence supports a positive correlation between performance on sustainable development and performance in the stock market. ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch/Shell all have high market capitalization and strong commitments to sustainable development, albeit expressed in different fashions. Among investors, success in addressing sustainable development is becoming an important proxy for management quality.

Sustainable development," claims Miller, "offers new avenues for growth and value creation--but only for companies that can adapt their business designs to respond to the new realities. A few companies have started down this path, making major strategic commitments to the principles inherent in sustainable development. While it is early in the game, these companies have an advantage of several years over their competitors, who may not be able to catch up if they wait much longer" [Jim Miller].

By their very nature energy firms must be both large and multi-national, and the nature of their operations means that they are particular targets of environmentalists. As a result, they are often the subject of environmental regulation.

Unlike large, multi-national corporations, small- and medium-sized business have shown little interest or involvement with sustainable development. They, of course, face barriers in tackling sustainable development not experienced by their larger peers, as they lack their resources and skills. [World Business Council for Sustainable Development] Also, in contrast to small- and medium-sized firms that operate entirely within the United States, American multi-national corporations have to deal with governments in Western Europe that are far more demanding than in the U.S. government in terms of sustainable development. 

The introduction by Dow Jones in 1999 of  the world's first global indexes that rate  sustainability-driven,  multi-national companies on their economic, environmental, and social performance performance worldwide suggests the importance sustainability has achieved among the top management of some major corporations. PPG Industries' vice president of environment, health, and safety said that .the naming of his company to the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index "...reflects our progress toward fully integrating environmental, health and safety issues and considerations into our business strategies and decision-making. Our EHS efforts are an integral part of PPG's overall business efforts and performance. Investors and lenders evaluate businesses and make determinations that consider environmental market opportunities as well as risks. As a result, more businesses are seeing the benefits of moving beyond regulatory compliance into sustainability--which has long been part of PPG's business strategy to create long-term value for our shareholders"  [Collision Industry Repair INSIGHT].

According to the Dow Jones and Sustainable Asset Management (SAM) index, "Companies with an eye on their 'triple bottom line'--economic, environmental and social sustainability --outperform their less fastidious peers on the stockmarket  [sic]....The world's top 200 sustainable firms, which appear in the index, outperformed the rest of over 3,000 companies included in the Dow Jones global index, particularly those in technology and energy"  [UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs].

In the United Kingdom, where sustainable development has made greater inroads into the business community than it has in the United States, the government says that: "...sustainable Development has a simple idea at its heart - ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come. It means maintaining high levels of economic growth and employment, while protecting the environment, making prudent use of natural resources and achieving social progress which recognises [sic] the needs of every member of society. It asserts that  sustainable development offers businesses both opportunities and challenges:

The opportunities

The challenges

Furthermore, claims the U.K. government, "Growth, rising prosperity, expanding global population, the globalization of markets and greater pressure on natural resources means that the context in which business operates is constantly changing. Growth in world trade and the potential of rapidly expanding markets in less developed countries offer opportunities for UK businesses and employment, but with those opportunities come increasing responsibilities and greater need for accountability. A sustainable business is on the leading edge of responding to these forces for change, anticipates pressures on its supply chain, and on resource use, and the needs and expectations of its customers, investors, employees and the community in which it operates. Although the priority of a business remains creating shareholder value, to achieve that it must pay increasing attention to the political, environmental and social context in which it operates" [Government of the United Kingdom] .

In  Walking the Talk: The Business Case for Sustainable Development, Holliday, Schmidheiny, and Watts claim that there are ten building blocks of sustainable progress. They are:

  1. Remove the constraints on achieving a truly free market.

  2. Practice eco-efficiency by creating more value with less impact.

  3. Become socially responsible by working with employees, their families, the local community, and society at large to improve their quality of life. Make sustainable development a strategic corporate objective.

  4. Work in partnership or alliance with other companies, government, and civil society.

  5. Supply consumers with information on the social and economic effects of their choices.

  6. Find new ways to meet society's needs with markedly lower reliance on materials, energy, labor, and waste production.

  7. Assign financial values to the Earth's resources to facilitate market-based mitigation of environmental degradation.

  8.  Enable full access to effective markets.

  9. Spread consumer purchasing power.

The "Watermelons"

"At first glance the relationship between environmentalism and freedom would appear direct and straightforward: an increase in the one leads to a decrease in the other, and vice versa. And,  indeed there is strong evidence for an inverse relationship between the two. 

For example, there is the Marxist and even communist background of some advocates of environmental concerns. People like these come to the ecological movement with an axe to grind. Their real interest is with power: running the lives of others, whether for their own good, for the good of society, or for the good of the unstoppable 'forces of history.'....

Then, there are the real greens. They see environmentalism not as a means toward an end, but as the very goal itself. The most radical of them are very forthright. They see man as the enemy of nature, and would, if they could, destroy the former to save the latter" [Block, "Environmentalism and Economic Freedom..."].

Whether of not you agree with Christopher Archangelli's claim in Front Page Magazine that the Green Party has "...created a succulent fruit for the far-left movement: the watermelon. Green on the outside and red on the inside, the watermelon became the perfect metaphor for the Green Party with its deeply Marxist philosophy hidden underneath a thin environmentalist facade," it is clear that the sustainable development movement has become deeply involved in politics, particularly in Western Europe.  If Archangelli is right, this is ironic, because the industrial and agricultural policies of centrally-controlled, communist Eastern Europe caused far more environmental damage than did those in Western Europe. The Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union is a prime example of the extremely poor environmental record of a government that professed to use its dictatorial powers to assure the well being of workers, rather than greedy, exploitative capitalists like those found in the West.

Alan Savory of The Alan Savory Center for Holistic Management claims that our " love affair with high technology" has led us to commit  "a vital error" in believing we can defy the four foundation blocks that support all life on this Earth: "...water and mineral cycling, biological community dynamics and solar energy flow.... So greatly have we damaged their functioning on our croplands, in our forests, and on our rangelands, that we are witnessing ever-mounting floods and disasters, and now global climate change, not to mention the social costs. In fact, worldwide desertification and global climate change, with its associated biodiversity loss, is the greatest problem now facing humans....Since the ultimate capital is natural capital as represented by the four foundation processes, it is clear we are breaking the most fundamental rule of capitalism--eroding our capital--in our love affair with technology and fire...Capitalism is collapsing no matter what Wall Street says. It is agriculture that sustains Wall Street, all our large and small corporations, governments, communities, and, in the end, civilization" [Savory].

Communists infiltrated the labor movement in the United Stated during the depressed 1930s. The union movement provided them a way to harass privately-owned businesses and influence union members who probably would not have joined the communist party. Clearly, today the environmental movement provides collectivists of all types a way to harass privately-owned businesses. Unions can, as is thought to have been the case with Eastern Airlines, bring down a business by raising its labor costs or through conducting a  prolonged strike.

People who want to end the private ownership of the nation's productive resources are going to want to believe that a negative externality of the production process: greenhouse gases, is going to cause horrendous damage to the Earth. Believing this enables them to replace Karl Marx's claim that capitalists for destroy the economy through over production with the claim that capitalists are destroying spaceship Earth. Leftists' support for sustainable development may predispose supporters of private enterprise to be skeptical of it. 

Collectivists can  argue that all goods and services must be produced by the government because, unlike private businesses, through taxation, it can force the public to pay enough for goods and services to cover both the explicit and implicit costs of production.

The Green Party supports democracy. However, achieving sustainable development provides it with an excuse in the future for imposing a  dictatorship of the enlightened elite if it turns out that the masses cannot be induced to accept the necessary costs.  It provides an excuse, too, for redistributing income within and between countries so that the poor will not have bear any of these costs; thereby increasing support for the policies necessary to achieve sustainable development. 

Sustainable development is only one of several aspects of the status quo that the world's Green parties wish to change. At a meeting prior to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) the Greens proclaimed that:

 " We come from both the North and the South of the planet, whose peoples are increasingly being set against each other by deepening social and ecological crisis. The world Greens condemn all forms of racism and ethnocentrism that divide human beings, generate wars and justify the discrimination, the exploitation and sometimes the extermination of peoples. As heirs of the fight for equality, one of the most important banners of the history of mankind, we call for all peoples to live together in peace. We thus appeal to the peoples of all the world, especially those involved in wars and ethical conflicts, to put down their weapons and let the XXIst century be born under the sign of respect for ethnic, cultural, sexual and other differences"  [Green Parties, "Final Statement..."] .

According to the Greens governments do not take environmental problems seriously until people vote for environmental parties. 

Economists like Milton Friedman, who calls himself an eighteenth-century liberal to distinguish himself from those well to his left who are today called liberals, have reason to oppose another environmental group, Greenpeace, which certainly doesn't agree with Holliday, Schmidheiny, and Watts that sustainability is compatible with removing  the constraints on achieving a truly free market, for according to Greenpeace:

"The WTO [World Trade Organization] puts free trade before sustainable development. Although the WTO agreement requires that its members use the world's resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development, in practice, free trade wins every time. 

As countries compete to trade more, production and the use of natural resources are spiralling [sic] in one direction--up. Resources are being used up faster than they can be replenished. The oceans are being emptied of fish, ancient forests are being destroyed, and river basins are being sold off one by one to private drinking water companies. Huge oil, gas, mining, pharmaceutical and agri-business multinationals keep expanding their operations at all costs, creating more and more pollution. Their sole goal--to make money, not to take care of our planet and health, now or for future generations" [Greenpeace].

Greenpeace claims that the "current form" of globalization is increasing corporate power and that business is behind the United States' attempt to use the WTO as a tool to "force feed the world genetically engineered food.  "So called"  free trade, it says, is speeding up the use of natural resources.  [Greenpeace].

Recently Greenpeace's co-founder, Patrick Moore complained that "The environmental movement I helped found has lost its objectivity, morality and humanity. The pain and suffering it is inflicting on families in developing countries must no longer be tolerated. Eco-Imperialism is the first book I've seen that tells the truth and lays it on the line. It's a must-read for anyone who cares about people, progress and our planet" [Drissen, "Affluent Activists..."].

In his book, Eco-Imperialism, Paul  Drissen writes that "...the ideological environmental movement--essentially comprised of wealthy, left-leaning Americans and Europeans--wants to impose its views on billions of poor, desperate Africans, Asians and Latin Americans." [Milloy]  Drissen quotes a senior official in Uganda who says that "If people don't have electricity, they will cut down trees, and Africa will lose its wildlife habitats and the health and economic benefits that abundant, reliable, affordable electricity brings" [Drissen, "Affluent Activists...].

Drissen points out  that "Dams in Uganda and Gujarat Province, India, could provide electricity and safe drinking water. But First World radicals oppose their construction and are pressuring international aid agencies to withdraw funding. These countries shouldn't make the same 'mistakes' we did by building mammoth hydroelectric projects, the activists insist. They should opt for wind turbines, or solar panels on huts. They mustn't dam up good kayaking rivers or use fossil fuels.

An additional 14 million Africans face imminent starvation. Modern science could reduce their anguish – through seeds and crops that have been genetically modified, to make them resistant to drought, salt and insect pests, reduce the need for pesticides, and save wildlife habitat by enabling farmers to grow more food on less land. The U.S. has shipped African countries thousands of tons of genetically modified corn – the same corn that Americans have been eating safely for years. But environmental radicals and the European Union are screaming "genetic pollution" and threatening to withdraw aid and ban agricultural exports from any countries that plant or distribute the grains" [Drissen, "Affluent Activists"] . 

Hundreds of millions of people suffer from malaria every year that DDT could prevent. Millions, many of whom are children, die. "Half a billion women and children in Africa, Asia and Latin America currently spend their days collecting firewood, or squatting in mud laced with animal feces and urine to collect, dry and store manure for use as fuel... "For the sake of the world's poor," he concludes, "it's time to ask the eco-activists, bureaucrats and Hollywood elites exactly how their anti-energy, anti-biotech and anti-people policies are moral, compassionate, sustainable or socially responsible" [Drissen, "Affluent Activists"]. 

Sustainable Consumption

Sustainable development is concerned with production. Its objective is to shift the supply curve upwards so as to increase the equilibrium price so that it will cover social (implicit costs of production) as well as businesses' costs (explicit costs of production). This will also reduce the quantity produced, as with a given level of demand, the higher is the price, the less that will be purchased. The objective of sustained consumption is to shift the demand curve upwards for goods and services produced in conformity with sustainable development; thereby raising the price consumers are willing to pay at every level of output. Some of its proponents claim that:

"The emergence of cities has broken the links between consumption and production. And what you don't see you don't care about, isn't it? So should cities be abandoned all together? A ridiculous question since cities have so many beneficial effects as well, being the centres ]sic] of employment and cultural exchange. All people returning to the country side and living in harmony with their own cattle may sound appealing to some romantic souls, but would not be feasible nor fit in today's society. A way forward would be to combine the best of both worlds. Cities should be places in which modern society can live together while at the same time keeping the connection to nature. Far more attention need to be paid to physical planning items such as green and 'blue' spaces--parks, city forests, water--and attractions such as city farms, where children and students can re-discover the connection. Moreover, modern technology can help to keep mankind and his surrounding together. Information tools in the super market, such as logos and labels on products or screens, can visualize the 'world behind the bottle of milk'. In this increasingly virtual world, the Internet and other communication techniques certainly have a lot to offer to visualize the impacts of our consumption patterns to the world around us. Imagine your portable phone advising you what brand of coffee to choose" [deLeeuw].

History doesn't suggest that a close tie between consumption and production will protect the environment. Back when the overwhelming majority of Americans lived on farms, and many of the rest lived in towns closely associated with agriculture, hunters drove the passenger pigeon to extinction, and hunters failed to kill only a relatively few buffalo. Also, modern farmers are blamed for much of today's pollution: air pollution from farm equipment and water pollution from livestock wastes.

Advocates of sustainable development  have a problem with privately-owned businesses because what people are willing to pay for their products and services is normally determined by the value they gain from their consumption. Environmentalists hoping to change this who, perhaps, have been inspired by jeans makers success' in raising the price they can sell their jeans for by placing a "designer" label on them, believe that by educating consumers they can cause them to be willing to pay more for products produced in an environmentally-friendly manner. 

A new strategy, says Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme [sic], is needed today to sell sustainable consumption because " Messages from governments, exhorting people to drive their cars less or admonishing them for buying products that cause environmental damage, appear not to be working. People are simply not listening. Making people feel guilty about their life-styles and purchasing habits, is achieving only limited success". [United Nations] Studies indicate that in Northern countries--the industrialized countries responsible for reducing greenhouse gas emissions--only five percent of the public embraces what are called sustainable life styles and sustainable consumerism. "So," says Toepfer,  "we need to look again at how we enlist the public to reduce pollution and live in ways that cause minimal environmental damage. We need to make sustainable life-styles fashionable and 'cool' as young people might say. We also need to make it clear that there are real, personal, benefits to living in harmony with the planet" [United Nations]

Some advocates of sustainable consumption believe that partnerships between consumers, business, and government to deal with minimizing waste are preferable to a command and control approach. They advocate mobilizing society as a whole, including religious groups, to promote sustainable lifestyles and livelihoods. Also advocated is recruiting the major media to conduct education campaigns. Supported by them are labeling schemes and consumer movements.

"Sustainable" has also been attached to several other aspects of life. The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is financing a five-year research program on integrated product policy that began in November 2003. It will focus "...around life cycle thinking within industry, environmental management in supply chains, life cycle considerations within environmental legislation, environmentally driven procurement, integrated environmental information systems and corporate strategies for end-of-life management" ["Swedish..."].

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Articles on the same subject as this one is that appear in this year's issue of B>Quest:

"The Invisible Hand at Odds with Environmentalists "Affected to Trade for the Public Good"

"Incorporating Environment Excellence in Service Industries"


Several of the quotations in this article use British, rather than American, spelling.

The ancient Mayan civilization collapsed. This has been attributed to warfare as well as the factors mentioned in this quote.

In the United States the Green Party has the allegiance of a much smaller share of the electorate than it does in Western Europe. The history of third-party movements in the United States indicates that if its vote getting power becomes a threat to either or both the Democrats and the Republicans one or both of them will co-opt its positions.

The Greens have been accredited by the United Nations to attend conferences such as the one in Kyoto, Japan whose purpose was to get the nation's of the world to sign a treaty that would commit them to reducing carbon dioxide (a "greenhouse" gas)  emissions. Non-profit,  non-governmental (NGO) organizations like it claim to represent the public and to be objective because they are independent of both government and business. However, NGOs may be the recipients of government contracts and grants. They may take either a government agency or a business to court, charging them with not obeying environmental regulations.

An example of NGO influence from a 2002 international conference on sustainable aviation: "Experiences in the oil sector show that sustainability can provide new business opportunities," said Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel, Assistant to executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. "In fact, if companies want to be sound businesses in the long run, they need to listen to NGOs and take environmental challenges seriously." ["Final Boarding Call"]

The precautionary principle requires that companies to halt any activities that may threaten human health or the environment.

Ralph Nadar, the Green Party's  candidate for for president of the United States in 2000, included in his platform the following: "Greens advocate direct democracy as a response to local needs and issues, where all concerned citizens can discuss and decide questions that immediately affect their lives, such as land use, parks, schools and community services. We would decentralize many state functions to the county and city level and seek expanded roles for neighborhood boards and associations....We support the right to non-violent direct action that supports green values. We call for the implementation of Children's Parliaments, whereby representatives elected by students to discuss, debate and make proposals to their city councils and school boards....Green politics does not place its faith in paternalistic “big government.” Instead, we believe face-to-face interactions are essential to productive and meaningful lives for all citizens."

In "The Population Bomb" Ehrlich said that worldwide famine was inescapable. It did not happen when he forecast it would. This has been attributed to a bio-tech innovation labeled the "Green Revolution".

Today some express concern over a further erosion of private property rights by local governments  using their power of eminent domain to take private property from some businesses and individuals for the construction of shopping malls or business establishments that will produce more taxes, justifying this on the basis of increasing tax revenues being in for the public good.


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