“The Fashionable Oxymoron of ‘Sustainable’ Development”

A reader sent me a link to the article below and it was so powerful that I am reprinting the entire piece for my readers. It was written by University of Georgia Professor Emeritus R. Harold Brown, an Adjunct Professor with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, and permission is granted for my use of the material on their website here.

The Fashionable Oxymoron of ‘Sustainable’ Development

By Harold Brown

What is so attractive about concepts that defy definition? The concept du jour is “sustainable,” a fashionable adjective for many objectives, an umbrella for many agendas.

“Sustainable” development is the ecologist’s goal, the new urban trend, the green way to build. A “sustainable” world is the promise of salvation for future generations. The U.N. Millennium Declaration (2000) states, “The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants.” The U.N. 2005 World Summit Outcome contained some form of the word “sustain” 58 times in 38 pages.

Yale and Columbia university centers, which jointly rank countries for environmental “sustainability,” put the United States between Armenia and Myanmar in 2005.

But what does it mean? What are we trying to sustain?

Webster’s Collegiate dictionary has eight meanings for “sustain.” The first is “to keep in existence.” Neither this nor any of the others suit the adjective now tied to environment and development. Sustainable development is an oxymoron. A developed property is not sustained. It’s changed. Development is not meant to keep things the same.

So, is “change” the facilitator or the antagonist of sustainability? If “sustainability” means changing a practice to maintain an existing enterprise, the possibilities are endless and the concept useless. The horse and carriage were changed by eliminating the horse.
The carriage (and a way of life) was improved. Was it sustained or eliminated? That’s the problem: “Sustainability” can justify any course of action if defined carefully.

A Web site for the federal Environmental Protection Agency explains that widespread use of “sustainability” started with “Our Common Future,” a 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. That report defined sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This presumptive definition requires knowledge of the needs of future generations. The notion is ridiculous that we can manage the resources of future generations. Thinkers of five generations ago would have wished for a better horse and buggy or a quieter steam engine.  Had the “sustainability” experts gone to work to forego fossil fuel to “save  the earth,” today’s world would be more impoverished than we can imagine.

Five generations ago, nothing was known  about the potential of petroleum fuels. Today, we know nothing about the fuels five generations hence. It is arrogant and pretentious to claim to know the  needs and limitations of our great-grandchildren’s grandchildren. We ought to  practice preparing this generation for the next, not by teaching and preaching  “cutting back” or “status quo.” Respect future generations enough and advocate  not fear of the future but the noble — and proven — knowledge that humans  have almost limitless potential for innovation to cope in a world of endless  opportunities and possibilities.

Hundreds of developments would be  pronounced “unsustainable” if human ingenuity and innovation were discounted. Take two old examples of coping with the sea. Today’s environmentalists would  scoff at dikes like those on the Netherlands coast begun over a thousand years  ago, but some of the best farmland and 60 percent of the population are behind  those dikes. They would be equally aghast at Venice, Italy, building on wooden  pilings in salt-marsh, beginning 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. These audacious
humans would be mocked by modern ecologists, who are convinced that the sea is  rising at its fastest rate since the last ice age. These two developments are  not “sustainable” by current usage of the word. Yet the Dutch and Venetians  have “sustained” them, securing their future by coping, not by cutting back.  And human ability to cope has advanced dramatically since the Dutch polders  were built and Venice was raised.

Global-warming alarmists stress havoc  from more and stronger hurricanes now and in the future. But 81 percent of all  U.S. deaths from hurricanes occurred before 1930. And the South Atlantic and  Gulf coastal counties’ population is almost seven times the 1930 number.

If “sustainability” is leaving  resources unused for future generations, shut down the industries now.  Thousands of generations will presumably follow. Just how much cutting back now  will satisfy them later?

Humans are infinitely better  qualified today to cope with the world because of our exploitation of resources  as opposed to cutting back, sustaining the “way of life” of previous centuries.  The “sustainability” mindset would have us “maintain” a way of life that pays a
dubious debt to the future. If sustainability means anything about providing for future generations, cutting back is not the way. The answers lie in education, freedom and the inspiration to cope.

University of Georgia Professor  Emeritus R. Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation
(October 3, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

I would like to thank Professor Brown for wriitng this insightful article and allowing me to share it with my readers.

Welcome to Alpharetta… the Devil’s Density

The absurdity of a federal government that can’t balance it’s checkbook lecturing small town America about sustainability never ceases to amaze me. The latest example I would like to point out is the Environmental Protection Agency’s diatribe against suburban life titled “Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Urban and Suburban Zoning Codes”. You can find the whole report here and it is chock full of brilliant insight like this:
(click image to enlarge)

The EPA identifies Satan's lair.

If you wonder why Alpharetta city council does ridiculous stuff like increasing traffic on a corner by 1400% to “reduce traffic” just read through some of the garbage that our federal tax dollars are buying. I don’t know what qualifies a federal government which is currently running unsustainable trillion dollar deficits to lecture Alpharetta about efficiency but I do know what happened when Falls Church, VA made the mistake of listening to the them:
Sound familiar? But to the credit of the EPA they do acknowledge what has made the Devil’s  Density of Alpharetta such an attractive place to live. Even their diatribe against suburbia acknowledges:

“This low-density development pattern has been one of the fastest growing sectors of the housing market, fueled by a variety of factors, including people moving to rural communities for the quality of life”

So that bastion of efficiency known as the federal government spends billions of dollars telling municipalities to change the quality of life that made them fantastic places to live? Are you kidding me?

Next year I guess the federal government will spend billions promoting the Bill Clinton Abstinence program in public schools. Will the Alpharetta City Council fall for that one too?