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Sustaining Environmentalists

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE, 28 August 2002 - For the first Earth Day in 1970, overpopulation guru Paul Ehrlich wrote an article presenting an eco-gloomster's portrait of the U.S. in 2000. The population had fallen to 22.6 million, 8% of the current population, and the diet was less than the daily calorific intake of an African. By 1974, Mr. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, worried that "global cooling" would diminish agricultural output -- that the world was becoming unsustainable.

As they say, the more things change: Americans these days fret about "global warming," not "global cooling," and are more concerned about fat than about general starvation. Grain production has increased 53% since the 1970s when Mr. Ehrlich wrote his treatise. But no matter, in Johannesburg on Monday, some 40,000 arrived for the World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002. As Nitin Desai, the summit's Secretary-General declared last week: "Development is now as sexy as the environment, absolutely."

For 40 years, environmentalists have peddled disaster story after disaster story. Since the publication of "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson's book on environmental pollutants in the early 1960s, the eco community has aimed to usurp the primacy of economics by the imperative of an ecological veto. In the late-'80s, global warming and biodiversity became catchphrases, morphing, in the '90s, to enhanced holisitic concepts like "ecosystem services" and "gaia."

They have all been shown to be false prophets. Why on earth should we believe them any more?

This concept of "sustainability" has become enshrined in the environmentalist litany since 1987. But it is an empty word: It can be filled by the user with whatever sense provides advantage. For academics, it invariably translates as cash for research to save the planet; for politicians, your Al Gore vote; for business, it is powerful PR and so-called ethical investment. No wonder Enron was a big player in trading wind power.

But for many environmentalists, it is the same old story. It signifies either a complete ecological veto over growth, with a return to the gingham dress of Dorothy's Kansas, or development that is approved of by an eco-elite: biotech crops, no, organic crops, yes; nuclear power, no, solar energy, yes. (Despite the fact that most photovoltaic cells take more energy to produce than they will ever generate in their lifetime.)

Sustainability has become a catch-all word for a block on growth and development, inferring that change should always be such that it achieves harmony, balance and equilibrium, whatever they are.

But we do not live in a "sustainable" environment. Volcanoes erupt and earthquakes quake -- unpredictably; climates change with or without human assistance; pests and diseases prick our human complacency; and the biodiversity of the stock market moves from bulls to bears at the flicker of a screen. Harmony, balance and "sustainability" are unachievable goals in an innately, non-equilibrium world. What is required is flexible development, the basic characteristic of all strong economies, so that we can adapt to whatever comes, hot, wet, cold or dry, earthquake, fire or flood.

Instead of a litany of gloom, we should remember that economic development through growth has been widening our options and opportunities since the first farmer planted a crop and the first miller ground corn. Development is not the wicked witch of the West, and "sustainability" is no yellow brick road.

"The Earth Summit 2002" is potentially dangerous for the developing world. Developing countries are more aware of this than we credit them and they have rightly tried to turn the focus away from the neurotic eco-chondria of the rich countries to the desperate need for trade, growth and measurable economic development. At the opening ceremony on Monday, South African President Thabo Mbeki above all called for solidarity with the poor.

U.S. President George W. Bush has no plans to attend the summit. With 106 heads of government, 10,000 officials, 6,000 journalists, 20 U.N. bodies, and 12,000 lobbyists signed up for a parallel meeting, there is no guarantee he would be heard above the doleful brouhaha.

But, whatever he does, Mr. Bush will need to step up in the near future and create a hard line that the U.S. will support growth, trade and development and will not cave to the PR vetos of utopian environmentalists. Unattainable agendas, like the Kyoto Protocol on climate change will do nothing to help the poor and the afflicted and, even more galling, will do even less to manage chaotic and unpredictable climate. Such well-meaning and ill-judged protocols cost billions of dollars that could be far better spent on genuine problems.