Twenty years ago, the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit proclaimed that fossil-fuel-induced climate change had brought our planet to a tipping point, civilization to the brink of collapse, and numerous species to the edge of extinction. To prevent these looming disasters, politicians, bureaucrats, and environmental activists produced a Declaration on Environment and Development, a biodiversity treaty, Agenda 21, and a framework for the Kyoto climate-change treaty.
In developed nations, government responses to the purported crisis sent energy prices soaring, which increased the cost of everything we make, ship, eat, and do — crippling economic growth, killing jobs, and burdening families by restricting access to affordable fuel. In developing countries, governments limited access to electricity and other technologies, forcing the world’s poorest families to eke out a subsistence living the old-fashioned way: turning forests into firewood, cooking over wood or dung fires, and living with rampant disease.
This year, recognizing that the public is no longer swayed by claims of climate cataclysms, the organizers of Rio+20 repackaged their familiar agenda to emphasize “sustainable development” and the need to preserve “biodiversity.” To garner support, they profess a commitment to poverty reduction, “social justice,” and the right of all people to “fulfill their aspirations for a better life.”
However, environmental concerns that are mostly far-fetched or exaggerated remain the organizers’ focal point, and they are willing to address today’s pressing needs only to the extent that doing so will not “compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
Of course, no one can foresee what technologies future generations will develop, or which raw materials those technologies will require. Sacrificing the needs of the current generation for the sake of unpredictable future needs makes little sense. Moreover, preventing energy and mineral exploration in millions of acres of wilderness, parks, and other protected areas today could foreclose access to raw materials that will be vital for the technologies of tomorrow — itself a violation of sustainability dogma.
It is equally difficult to determine which resource uses are “unsustainable.” If changing economic factors, new discoveries, or new extraction methods (such as hydraulic fracturing) mean that we now have 100 to 200 years of oil and natural gas, for example, hydrocarbon use may prove to be quite sustainable — it will last at least long enough for innovators to develop new technologies and sources of vital raw materials.
By contrast, “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” may be incorrect designations for wind, solar, and biofuel projects: They affect millions of acres of wildlife habitats, require converting millions of additional acres from food crops to biofuel production, and kill millions of birds and bats.