Sunday, April 12, 2015

How sustainable is development?

The phrase "sustainable development" has become a sort of word-in-itself.  You can't talk about development without adding the word sustainable.

The trouble is that sustainabledevelopment is really undefined.  There have been noble attempts - everyone remembers the Brundtland story:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Great stuff, but completely useless - you can't dig up something to keep your world going, because that means future generations won't be able to dig it up. The resources of the world are finite, right?

Recently I mulled over the paradox that we never seem to run out of non-renewable things like oil, but we are always running out of renewable things like rhinos and whales and fish and elephant.  There has, of course, been a thesis that we should already have run out of oil - it was called "peak oil" and a man called Hubbard who had worked for Shell developed the theory back in the 1960's. 

 However, in 1945 the world had 25 years of known oil; by 1970 we had used up all that oil, but by then had 30 years left. By 2000 we had used up all the 1970 oil, but by then had 40 years left.  Today we have used up 15 of the 40 years, but we have 55 years left.  What gives?

My resolution of the paradox was that, yes, the renewable resources are indeed finite, but the non-renewable stuff is not measured by the resource but by the reserves, and reserves are something quite different.  They depend on price and technology, and technology is the measure of human ingenuity, so the reserve is flexible and potentially expandable, whereas the poor old renewables have to fend for themselves.

In exploring this in a full-blown paper, I was led to separate sustainabledevelopment back into two words, and ask just what was "sustainable" and just what we meant by "development".  When I tried to publish the paper, one reviewer sniffily reported that I didn't understand sustainabledevelopment, which was rather unhelpful, and another made some useful comments about my economics, but complained I had "merely" used some widely available data, so could not recommend publication.  I am still trying to get the paper published, but recognize how truly politically correct sustainabledevelopment has become.

Of course, its political correctness flows from its being blessed by the United Nations. There are regular conferences on the topic.  One, back in 2000, set up six Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. 15 years down the line, it is gratifying to be able to report on the success:
  • Reduce extreme poverty by half - it has been reduced by over 70% already
  • Achieve gender equality in education - achieved by 2012
  • Halve the proportion of the population without access to improved drinking water - bettered; it has been reduced by 60%
  • Reduce child mortality by two-thirds - only managed a 44% reduction by 2013
  • Reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters - only managed to halve by 2013
  • Universal primary education - up from 80% in 1990 to 92% in 2013
In September this year, there will be another such conference.  You would think that, buoyed by the success of the Millennium goals, they would see the merit of keeping things simple.  But no, this is the United Nations.  The September conference is to consider a new set of SustainableDevelopment Goals - 169 in all! Focused it is not. 

My hero, Bjorn Lomborg and his Copenhagen Consensus have tried to offer some prioritization. They have found 18 of the goals which have some hope of giving real value, mainly simple things like improving treatment of malaria, immunising more children against preventable childhood diseases and wider use of family planning.  

But far too many of the 169 are politically correct globspeak:
By 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of the culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture's contribution to sustainable development.

As The Economist commented, "Try measuring that!" 

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