For Sustainable Development

armstrongfoIn this first edition of “Face-off” on Glimpse From the Globe, I will respond to my colleague Luke Phillips’ argument against sustainable development. Please read his compelling piece before you continue.

Luke and I agree on several points. First, the term “sustainable development” is nebulous. Second, the growth of past prosperous civilizations was fueled, in part, by consumption of natural resources. And third, I question humans’ ability to stop global climate change, not because of global disinterest, but because of the damage already done. However, I disagree with Luke on two points: (1) his justification for the need for continued resource consumption, and (2) his notion of progress.

A historical justification for the continued degradation of the planet is counterproductive and false. Luke correctly asserts: “the prosperous periods of Chinese, Islamic, and European Civilization all mark their periods of intense and unsustainable resource use…” In the past, imperial expansion was fueled – and funded – by the consumption of silver, water, coal, etc. Therefore, according to Luke, human growth and prosperity depend on “unabated resource consumption” and that any contemporary attempt to deviate from this historical pattern will stall human development. This proposition has two issues. First, a historical justification disregards human ingenuity and/or invention. Past civilizations discovered new ways to turn resources into wealth. For instance, the growth of industrial England was fueled by the use of coal in electrical and transportation infrastructure. What is to say that a contemporary society could not discover a new method (e.g., solar, nuclear, geothermal) to fuel growth in an environmentally sustainable way?

Yes, growth depends on the consumption of natural resources, but history should not shackle future human growth to the harmful consumption of natural resources. Scientific advancements and an environmentalist spirit have the potential for societal development, a fact not acknowledged in Luke’s argument. Indeed, there are contemporary examples that prove economic growth is possible with sustainable resource use. One such example is in the “green growth” of the Southeast Asian cities of Da Nang, Vietnam, Surabaya, Indonesia, and Cebu City, Philippines. A World Bank study concluded that investment in sustainable solutions, such as gas-capture landfills and wastewater-treatment facilities, led to economic growth due to “productivity gains, reduced pollution, and more efficient use of resources.” And the results are not confined to Southeast Asia. The World Bank found a worldwide correlation between GDP per capita growth and increased energy use efficiency. Sustainable development is not just possible, it is happening.

Luke’s argument also rests on the oxymoronic nature of sustainable development. In his eyes, sustainability reflects a sense of permanency, whereas development underscores constant change. When combined, sustainability will stall development, and societal progress will stop. However, sustainability and development are – and must be –compatible for the future health of the planet and its people. I define sustainable development as human growth that consumes resources at or below environmental equilibrium (i.e., the amount of resources the natural environment is able to replenish). This is not an equation for zero growth—it is an equation for the use of renewable energies and limited use of non-renewables to further fuel economic growth. It is a notion of progress that does not depend on the continued destruction of the planet. Further, it is a notion that must be embraced and perfected in order to protect the planet and its people. Continuing “to accept that growth brings with it a heavy price to nature” is a recipe for causing a level of climate change that may irrevocably damage, or worse end, future human growth.

In sum, Luke’s argument against sustainable development is defeatist as its logic precludes any hope of environmentally responsible human growth or innovation in green development. Luke contends that the best humanity can hope for is “preservation where possible amidst economic growth.” However, this pessimistic and faux-realist attitude ignores evidence of sustainable growth in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world that lend credence to the prospect of future sustainable development. Thus, Luke’s argument is unduly destructive. Yes, a transition to sustainable development will be a tremendous challenge, but I believe – and evidence shows – that it is possible.

Against Sustainable Development

Face Off: Luke Phillips and Thomas Armstrong Debate Sustainable Development.

Face Off: Luke Phillips and Thomas Armstrong Debate Sustainable Development.

At any reasonably civilized and well-attended international affairs conference, one of the issues bound to make an appearance is the concept of “sustainable development.” A controversial and nebulous term, most supporters of sustainable development generally agree that human development ought to be reconciled with resource conservation, ultimately to the point that no resources are used in excess or wasted. Harmony between society and nature is to be treasured, and it is expected that a society run on sustainable development will find that harmony.

Beyond this, the definitions are as varied as the proponents of the movement. Some campaign for sustainable development in developing countries such as India and Brazil hoping that, in turn, these countries can bypass the polluting industrial periods the West went through. Others support the placement of sustainable development measures in advanced industrial economies to balance out their resource intakes and pollution outputs by national or international policy. Still others are in favor of a far more organic role, with sustainable development occurring locally at the level of businesses and communities and working its way up the ladder of necessity on an ad hoc basis. In short, the practices mentioned above are as varied as the imposition of taxes on emissions and carbon caps, land preservation efforts, and everything in between. Sustainable development borrows much from the principles of environmental protection established earlier in the 20th Century and seeks to apply them directly to economic growth.

Regardless of the nobility and desirability of such a silver bullet to save the Earth, the truth of development is nowhere near as simple as depicted by sustainable developers. Consider the notion that sustainable development is in fact a paradox, or rather an oxymoron.

Sustainability implies a sense of permanency and renewability, and brings to mind small villages rotating crops around various fields bringing in a steady crop and thus a steady income supply. This same idyllic picture can be applied to almost any other commodity, from fish to timber to fruits to cattle. This example cannot, however, be applied to the nonrenewable resources of the interior of the Earth, including fossil fuels and precious minerals. Not surprisingly, the nonrenewable resource policies sustainable development supporters advocate border on complete abstinence.

In marked contrast to this is development. Development implies a sense of forward-moving change, of increasing utility and complexity, of expansion. A brief survey of history seems to reveal a general and sensible pattern; those nations and peoples who were the most powerful, prosperous, and healthy were those who expanded and developed, either in terms of territory, societal and political complexity, or status. And in every case, this growth was fueled by the efficient consumption of natural resources. The prosperous periods of Chinese, Islamic, and European Civilization all mark their periods of intense and unsustainable resource use; yet these also marked those societies’ eras of political consolidation, golden governance, high culture, prosperous markets, and general national greatness. Undoubtedly innumerable issues are at play in the development of a golden age, but underlying all must inevitably be a stable resource base and the productive use of it.

This may seem to be a materialistic analysis devoid of reference to the human spirit. I believe that it does seem to be true that the quality of life of any nation is, to a large degree, controlled by its observance of the abstract ideas of freedom, tradition, and innovation. However, there is a quantitative material foundation which must be set before any of these great social virtues can be observed, and so long as that quantity does not spill into decadence, its continued ascendance assures a better quality of life for citizens.

Sustainable development advocates will argue that society need not continue progressing, that a balance and harmony can be wrought out, and humans can continue to advance on the efficient use of resources alone. While this may be true of communities at the smallest level, I highly doubt that it can be applied at anything higher than the individual or, at most, the nuclear family unit. History seems to tell us that the nature of man is to expand – to improve – and from this expansion, all the dramas and stories of human life flow.

Indeed, when considering the implications of zero growth, an eerie economic picture comes to mind. So far as can be told, it appears that every human polity with a successful history has been based on growth and expansion of some sort, and therefore of continued and unabated resource consumption. But sustainable development, in its perfect model, demands the complete efficiency of resource use, a social harmony with nature recycling all. Thus there is no growth in wealth, as nothing more than is needed for survival is used; and no growth in wealth, in economic terms, is stagnation. In a period of stagnation, societies do not advance, do not grow, and do not improve the lives of their members. They merely exist from day to day. If we direct our policies towards sustainable development, we essentially steer our plans with a golden ideal of zero growth as our guide.

All this being said, I am very much an environmentalist. Once upon a time as a kid, I drew up a proposal for the federal government to buy up all remaining undeveloped private land, fence it off, and call it “America National Park.” Boy Scouts does that to you.

In all practical matters, however, I support environmental protection and conservation 100%. I like the system of management practiced by agencies such as the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, and think we ought to continue and expand it into light international law, particularly for fishery preservation. I favor many of the environmental movement’s earliest endeavors, from the Clean Air Act to legislation against riverine pollution to the Endangered Species Act to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. I am not sure that I believe as passionately in our ability to stop global climate change as many of my colleagues, but I look forward to the day when every vehicle runs on electric power generated at clean nuclear plants. Ecology enchants me, tree-planting and trail-building service projects excite me, and there is nowhere I love to be more than a national park.

But all this being said, prudence and moderation is necessary, for we cannot simply pick environmental protection over economic development, as this goes against the human work ethic, and indeed all of history. And we cannot knowingly take a contradiction in terms that cannot be made to work, and then attempt to make it work. Sustainable development is this type of term – a chimera – and the fact that its successes are scant seems to attest to its impotence. It would be preferable for humans to seek balance with the environment in another way: to accept that growth brings with it a heavy price to nature, and to offset that price not by ceasing growth, but by actively improving nature where possible – through greening projects, resource conservation, environmental protection, and preservation where possible amidst economic growth. These represent the only types of sustainable development compatible with the basic, fundamental human condition.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

The Amazon on Life Support?

Deforestation in the Amazon as seen by satellite (by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons).

Every minute, an area the size of 50 soccer fields is destroyed in the Amazon Rainforest.  Over the past 40 years, nearly 20% of the forest has been destroyed – an area roughly the size of Alaska. Simply put, in less than half of a century more of the rainforest was destroyed than in the previous 450 years – combined.  High-resolution satellite images tell a story of devastating deforestation in the planet’s largest and most diverse rainforest. Many areas that were once a sea of lush greenery have been transformed into a barren, muddy landscape.

The Amazon represents more than half the remaining rainforest on the planet.  Humans depend on these ecosystems as a source for the planet’s carbon, water, and climate systems. Thus, it isn’t surprising that losing 2.3 million square kilometers of forest in a mere 13 years, as new research indicates, is of great concern to both environmental groups and national governments. While the majority of the Amazon is located in Brazil, the forest expands across nine countries making deforestation an international crisis.

With 20% of the forest already cut down and another 20%, as expected by scientists, to be on the chopping block over the next two decades, it is only a matter of time until the Amazon’s ecology will begin to collapse. Adding global warming to the mix makes the outlook seem worse. Over 100,000 miles of illegal roads, forged by loggers who aim to reach the prime hardwood trees deep in the forest, snake through the labyrinth of vegetation. Consequences of these new roads turn out to be equally as destructive as the actual logging. Land sharks slide in unnoticed and claim the land making land thievery a common crime. As is the case with many lucrative businesses, with high profits comes violence and corruption. Armed guards, hired gunmen, and corrupt government officials all help to facilitate these illegal activities.

It isn’t all bad news for the Amazon, however. Since the devastating revelation in the early 2000s, Brazil and other South American countries have committed to reversing the damage. New data shows that while Brazil still suffers from very high rates of forest clearing, the country has cut the annual rate of forest loss to half of what it once was. In turn, many of the strategies that Brazil has implemented as a deterrent to deforestation will help policymakers in other countries respond to the troubling rates of forest decline.

Nonetheless, the deforestation rates of 2013 were far from encouraging. It is clear that changes have to be made, as deforestation is threatening the local populations’ basic needs. In the most recent Amazonia Security Agenda, it was reported  “compromising Amazonia’s ecosystems, deforestation is now threatening not only the wellbeing and rights of the region’s people, but also the economic sustainability of the very industries that it has enabled.” Scarcity of food, water, and even energy are all threatened by exploitation of the Amazon.

Escalations in forest clearing are primarily being blamed on the weakening of legal protections in the Brazilian Forest Code that were passed under Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The reform was riddled with controversy, and was heavily supported by members of the farmer’s lobby known as the ruralists. In Brazil, where agriculture accounts for 5% of the country’s GDP, lobbyist influence has indirectly led to increased deforestation by loggers and farmers. At the United Nation’s Summit on Climate Change, the environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, chose to focus on Brazil’s triumphs, noting the overall trend was has been positive. She attributed the elevation in deforestation to organized crime and acknowledged that the government had taken steps to fight back, saying: “What is happening are crimes, we have 3,921 police investigations, some of them involving civil servants. We are cutting into our own flesh.” Teixeira strongly emphasized that eliminating illegal deforestation remained the goal in the eyes of the government and the crimes of loggers would not be tolerated. Going forward, it is up to the Brazilian government and their counterparts, as well as the global community, to secure the future of the world’s most important forest.

Should Food Fill Stomachs or Gas Tanks?

Under a new U.S. Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) program, created by the Energy Policy Act in 2005, the US became the world’s largest producer of ethanol fuel. By 2007, a second government mandate, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), was passed which expanded the RFS program requiring 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel be used by 2022.While corn ethanol is not directly outlined under these policies, 98% of the biofuels produced and blended into gasoline in the US originate from corn. This de facto directive for corn ethanol has had negative impacts on global food market prices. In 2012, we experienced the worst global drought of the last half-century. With the US being the world’s largest exporter of corn, and their mandated 40% allocation of its corn for ethanol use, the already pressured corn prices skyrocketed.

In the past decade, prices of oil and food have significantly risen to historic levels. Because of the inextricable link between food and energy markets, the grain market has experienced volatility over the past six years. As a commodity susceptible to weather, it is apparent how much recent climatic events have distorted global grain inventories. This consumption mandate has turned out to be the most significant driver of ethanol demand, corn demand and corn prices as we can see the global food crisis correspond with the US expansion of corn ethanol in 2007. Agricultural commodity prices broke record highs in ’07-’08, in ’10-’11, and again with the US drought in 2012.

The most ethically heated issue with the RFS mandate is that corn is diverted away from the global food supply and towards the US’ domestic energy chain. This policy has had harsh repercussions on developing countries, which spend a much greater portion of their income on food and energy than the developed world. While the world’s wealthy states can substitute higher priced foods from elsewhere, the world’s poor cannot. As a country that sends almost a billion dollars annually in food aid to help the developing world feed itself, why does the US divert food into their energy chain and consequently increase the global price of food? Is putting food in gas tanks an ethical energy policy, food policy, and foreign policy? Pitting food policies against energy policies is illogical and proving to be destructive, thereby increasing vulnerability to weather risks suggesting the EISA/RFS is an unpredictable law.

The RFS/EISA has become a source of debate amongst Americans: some want it repealed; others want it left untouched. There is, however, little discussion on what a repeal would look like apart from a complete shutting down of the policy. Phasing out the RFS year by year – effectually reversing the policy over time – could provide a concrete policy solution.

Powerful industries and advocates have been created under US ethanol production, and with the current rise in vocal opponents of the RFS, these industries and advocates sense a direct threat. Removing newly engrained policies is politically difficult. However, if the US were to phase out the EISA year by year, it would help mitigate the economic and political shock currently felt by corn farmers and ethanol reliant industries. Reducing US ethanol commitments over time, thus reducing the amount of corn in gasoline, would also help alleviate pressures on global food prices.

An emerging development in America’s energy landscape, that poses a legitimate challenge to the use of food in gas tanks, has been the discovery of significant new natural gas reserves. This immense supply has been identified and tapped, subsequently forcing US natural gas prices down to attractive levels relative to both oil prices and international natural gas spot rates. The security, predictability and location of this supply are by far superior to that of global oil.

Already there are industry efforts to convert engines to burn natural gas and establish infrastructure to distribute it. This will take time and investment but represent a kind of phase-in calendar that could offset the phase-out use of ethanol. Moreover, converting vehicles to natural gas would create jobs: drilling, distribution, infrastructure and conversion. It would not encroach on food supply, or on American foreign policy, other than to reduce a reliance on foreign oil.

While there are some environmental concerns, natural gas is the cleanest burning and most efficient of all hydrocarbons and offers an environmentally preferred alternative to higher carbon emitting gasoline. While understanding the recent moratoriums on fracking in certain US states, US shale oil expansion has OPEC members and Gazprom taking notice.

In an energy hungry world, America has the opportunity to phase out ethanol and phase in an abundant, available, cleaner and less expensive fuel that is more secure. It might alleviate pressure on energy for others worldwide, as a gallon of gas not consumed in the US becomes available to others. Moreover, it would return the use of corn to the food chain where it belongs.