Paul Driessen is a senior fellow with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. He is the author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death. This article was adapted from a speech given at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Let me begin with a somewhat simplified summary of how we got to where we are today.
Twenty-five years ago, the Club of Rome, United Nations Environment Programme, and allied organizations concluded that - to gain political power, dominance and control - the environmental movement needed to identify common enemies against which they could unite.
Thus, for over two decades, one of their greatest unifying principles became imminent catastrophic manmade global warming, which they said was the greatest disaster ever to face humanity, wildlife, and planet - once the global cooling panic had subsided.
But a curious thing happened. This year, as they prepared for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, organizers realized that few people and legislators around the world wanted to talk about this issue. It had lost its panache and credibility. It had become too polarizing, even toxic.
And so they changed their focus. Instead of a climate cataclysm, they emphasized the idea that humanity, wildlife, and planet now face an imminent sustainable development calamity.
Our lifestyles, energy systems, economic growth, and living standards are not sustainable, we were told. They are still causing global warming, global climate change, global climate disruption, and weird weather. But now the real problem is a looming sustainability crisis.
We face ecological devastation, the mass loss of plant and animal species and biodiversity, the depletion of natural resources that poor people and future generations are going to need.
Among their demands were an intergovernmental panel on global sustainability, new UN agencies, expanded budgets and powers, greater UN and activist control over energy and economic development and "genuine global actions" by every nation and community.
All this, they said, would foster "social justice" and "poverty eradication" - but only in the context of climate protection, biodiversity, "green growth," renewable energy, and an end to "unsustainable patterns of consumption and production."
These concepts - and the implementation of programs to bring them about - would be defined, evaluated, and carried out by UN-approved scientists, regulators, and activists, assisted largely by computer models.
To ensure that they would have sufficient funds to implement their agenda - the Rio+20 organizers also called for contributions from FRCs - formerly rich, formerly solvent countries like the United States, Spain and Great Britain, set at 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product, which works out to $105 billion per year for the U.S.
In addition, they also wanted the power to tax global financial transactions and other activities - with revenues flowing directly to the United Nations, to be given to activists or otherwise used as its agency directors see fit.
While these regulators and activists met in Rio de Janeiro to set up national and international programs, other organizers were meeting in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. They were devising new strategies to implement sustainability programs at the local level: through laws and ordinances that create "carbon neutral" communities and promote renewable energy, restrict energy use and economic development, and place restrictions on personal freedoms, property rights, and living standards.
To garner support for their plans, those activists also expressed a commitment to poverty reduction, "social justice" and the right of all people to "fulfill their aspirations for a better life." However, once again, this would have to happen within the context of sustainable development.
In the end, the mandates metamorphosed into amorphous "goals," and efforts to achieve a binding agreement fell short. The summit ended with promises to convene again in other exotic locations, to pursue the same agenda, in the name of ensuring that future development will be more "sustainable."
The breakdown resulted largely because a lot of poor countries began to realize that "social justice," "poverty eradication," and "aspirations for a better life" would be permitted only or mostly in the context of "sustainable development" - under guidelines that really mean much more limited development, justice, and poverty eradication than those countries are willing to accept.
But with all this as background, let's get to the nub of this issue - the very notion of sustainable development, as promoted in Rio and elsewhere, and as distinguished from what every person, company, and community should do to protect the environment, conserve resources and improve people's lives.
Probably the most-quoted definition is the one coined by former WHO director Gro Harlem Brundtland. She said sustainability means we may develop, and meet the needs of current generations, only to the extent that doing so "will not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs."
As you might guess by now, I'm not at all persuaded that this definition is sensible or workable - or means anything at all. It's almost right out of Through the Looking Glass, where Alice meets the Cheshire Cat.
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice protested.
"When I use a word," the cat replied, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," replied the cat, "who is to be master - that's all."
Master, and subjects. Which is why I think President Obama's science advisor, John Holdren, is on target when he says you cannot talk about sustainability without talking about politics, power, and control.
Let's examine this UN/Brundtland definition more closely. It says we can meet the needs of current generations, only to the extent that doing so "will not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs."
So, how many people - at least five or ten years ahead of time - predicted that electricity would safeguard and enhance our lives and economy the way it does today?
How many predicted natural gas electricity generation and home heating? The Apollo moon landing? Laptop computers? Fiber optic cables to replace copper? Al Gore's internet? Mobile phones?
Closer to our era, how many of you predicted flash drives? Digital photography? Cell phone cameras?
Exactly. And we've barely scratched the surface. In fact, the pace of technological change has become mind-numbing.
And yet, under sustainability dogma, we are supposed to predict future technologies - and ensure that today's development activities will not compromise their projected energy and raw material requirements.
We're also supposed to safeguard the needs of future generations - even if it means ignoring or compromising the needs of current generations, including the needs, aspirations, health and welfare of the most impoverished, energy-deprived, malnourished, politically powerless people on Earth.
So, can anybody here predict some of the most important needs and technologies that future generations will have, ten, fifty, a hundred years from now?
Can you at least list some of the most important energy, metal, and mineral resources that future generations will need to manufacture those technologies that you cannot predict - and how much of each resource they will need?
On to a related issue: Can you tell me how many years or decades an energy, metal, or other natural resource has to last, before developing and using it will not be sustainable?
What if a new technology comes along that lets us find and develop new deposits, or make existing deposits last decades or centuries longer? Something like 3-D and 4-D seismic, deepwater drilling and production, metallic mineral analysis gear in a backpack, or horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, for example?
How long must those expanded reserves last, before using them won't be sustainable?
Can someone explain how UN bureaucrats and environmental activists will determine which resources current generations must use less of - and how much of each resource current generations are allowed to use - if they cannot answer any of the previous questions any better than you can?
Can someone explain why or how organic farming is sustainable - whereas biotechnology is not sustainable, even though biotech crops require far less water, land, and insecticides to produce the same amount of food crops, and can even reduce soil erosion, protect against plant viruses and dangerous pathogens, and can incorporate special nutrients that prevent blindness or counteract severe diarrhea?
Can someone explain why oil and gas are not sustainable - whereas corn ethanol and biodiesel are sustainable, even though just this year's U.S. ethanol quota requires 40 percent of our corn crop, corn grown on an area the size of Missouri, plus millions of gallons of water and enormous quantities of hydrocarbon-based pesticides, fertilizers, and tractor fuel, and vast amounts of natural gas to run the distilleries, to produce a fuel that gets one-third less mileage per gallon than gasoline?
Is it sustainable, ethical, or moral for the United States to use so many of the world's oil, gas, rare earth, iron, platinum, gold and other resources - because we refuse to allow exploration and development here in America?
That raises another closely related question.
Can anyone here tell me how much current generations have to sacrifice - so they will not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs, which no one can possibly predict?
Can you tell me how much longer 700 million Africans, 400 million Indians, and another 300 million people in other countries must continue to live without electricity and all its countless blessings, because sustainability ideologues don't like coal, gas, nuclear, or hydroelectric power plants?
Or how long these people must remain destitute, diseased, and malnourished, because the same activists don't like economic development, insecticides, DDT, or biotechnology?
Can anyone cite one instance where future generations gave a spotted owl hoot about our current generations?
Do you suppose human ingenuity, creativity and innovation - our God-given intellect, what my friend Julian Simon called our Ultimate Resource - will suddenly stop functioning, and send us into a new Dark Ages? Assuming no government confiscation of our God-given rights to innovate, create, invest, and build - do you suppose human beings are ever likely to stop doing so? Neither do I.
In a nutshell, then, the fundamental problem with UN/activist "sustainability" is that it is infinitely elastic and malleable. You can never really know what it means. It's always just what they choose it to mean.
And it's the perfect weapon in the hands of anti-development activists. Whatever they support is sustainable, but whatever they oppose is unsustainable.
I think we can safely say it's at least open to question whether UN-style sustainable development has much of anything to do with saving our planet or safeguarding the needs of future generations. or current generations.
For developed nations, it means communities and families must stop being so healthy, prosperous, upwardly mobile, and free to chart their own destinies.
For poor countries, sustainable development means communities and families must accept a foreseeable future that is still rife with disease, malnutrition, destitution, deprivation, and desperation.
For poor countries, it means sharing artificial scarcity. Foreign aid, but nominal electricity and development. Better lives, but only slightly better. Fulfill your aspirations, but keep them small.
Above all, the UN/activist version of sustainable development means unelected regulators would increasingly control energy use, economic growth, wealth redistribution, and people's lives, living standards, health and well-being. Worse, they would do so without the safeguards, checks and balances of robust science, independent courts, democracy, transparency, honesty, integrity, or accountability.
UN-style sustainability means regulators will have nearly unbridled power and authority over our economies and lives - but with virtually no accountability, liability, or penalty, for any harm, disease or even death that they might cause when they screw up, or when they impose decisions that are at best ill-considered, and at worst fraudulent, callous and corrupt. *