We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

The myopic and imprudent talk of ‘sustainability’

35 2 0

CHICAGO – “Sustainability” is an increasingly popular term used to signal one’s virtue in contemporary public discourse, but it is a poor basis for sound public policy. It conveys a biologist’s view of the economy without any of the prudence that economists favor.

The biologist Paul R. Ehrlich gave exceptionally imprudent advice in his 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” in which he suggested that humanity was heading for acute resource scarcities and mass starvation. What happened instead is that world income kept rising, as it had been doing for two centuries, and as it shows every sign of continuing to do. Pessimism has been a poor predictor.

As the British historian Thomas Macaulay presciently asked in 1830, “On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” It was a good question then, and it is an even better one now. Environmental fundamentalists who insist that “this time is different” are defying both logic and the historical evidence.

In terms of real (inflation-adjusted) income, the rate of “improvement behind us” has been about 2% per year on average. That might not sound like much, but it is a rate that produces astonishing results over the long run. It means that our great-grandchildren in 2100 will be over four times better off than we are today.

As such, economic prudence dictates that some resources, like oil, should be used as much as is profitable at the prevailing opportunity cost of extraction plus a carbon tax for spillovers. Other resources, such as hardwood, should be used now at a high “unsustainable” rate, because they will be worth relatively less to our much richer great-grandchildren. To deny today’s poor the hardwood to build their houses (or the income from........

© The Japan Times

Get it on Google Play