Monday, September 24, 2012
The End of International Environmentalism
Twenty years ago, the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro marked the arrival of environmentalism as a potent force in international affairs. That 1992 conference produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which aims to set limits on global emissions of greenhouse gases, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, which promotes ecosystem conservation. At the time, Chris Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute crowed, “You cannot go to any corner of the globe and not find some degree of environmental awareness and some amount of environmental politics.” With socialism in disrepute, Flavin said, environmentalism had become the “most powerful political ideal today.”
Two decades later, that ideal is in disarray. A 20th anniversary conference in Brazil last June, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development—nicknamed Rio +20—was an undisguised flop. Greenpeace spokesperson Kumi Naidoo judged Rio +20 a “failure,” while Oxfam Chief Executive Barbara Stocking called it a “hoax.” More than 1,000 environmentalist and leftist groups signed a post-conference petition entitled “The Future We Don’t Want,” a play on The Future We Want, the platitudinous document that diplomats from 188 nations agreed on there. Naidoo lamely vowed that disappointed environmentalists would engage in acts of civil disobedience.
Should the people of the world share the greens’ despair over the “failure” of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development? No. First of all, “sustainable development” is a Rorschach blot. The United Nations defines it this way: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That fuzzy concept can be used by anyone to mean anything he likes. So it is not at all surprising that the representatives from rich and poor nations meeting in Rio could not agree on anything substantive under this heading.
Since that first Earth Summit, the world has experienced a lot of beneficial development. In 1992, 46 percent of the planet’s population lived in absolute poverty (defined as income equivalent to less than $1.25 per day). Today that number is down to 27 percent, in inflation-adjusted terms. During the same period, average life expectancy has increased by three and a half years.
At Rio +20 environmentalists and the leaders of poor countries were hoping to shake down the rich countries for hundreds of billions of dollars in annual development assistance. But most of the development achieved during the last two decades was not the result of official assistance (a.k.a. taxpayer dollars) from the rich to the poor. In fact, a study published in the February 2012 issue of the Canadian Journal of Economics by a team of German development economists found that aid often retards economic growth, having “an insignificant or minute negative significant impact on per-capita income.” Most of the aid is stolen by the kleptocrats who run many poor countries, while the rest is “invested” in projects that are not profitable.
Activists, frustrated at their inability to effect wealth transfers, are now fixated on a particularly puzzling and disturbing goal: to maintain and expand open-access commons, which are unowned properties available to be exploited by anyone. Many participants at the People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice, a parallel Rio gathering of 200 environmentalist groups, advocated a green twist on an old red ideology, even postulating that property is theft...