Rio’s Unsustain – able Nonsense

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New York – If George Orwell were alive today, he would be irritated, and then shocked, by the cynical way in which every lobby with an axe to grind and money to burn has hitched its wagon to the alluring phrase “sustainable development.” In fact, the United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development is about pet projects of all and sundry – many of them tangential to the major environmental issues, such as climate change, that were the principal legacy of the original Rio Earth Summit.

Thus, the International Labor Organization and trade-union lobbies have managed to insert “Decent Jobs” into the seven priority areas at the Rio conference. I would love for everyone, everywhere, to have a decent job. But what does that have to do with either the environment or “sustainability?”

No one should pretend that we can magically offer decent jobs to the huge numbers of impoverished but aspiring workers in the informal sector. Such jobs can only be created by adopting appropriate economic policies. Indeed, the really pressing task facing many developing economies is to pursue policies that promote economic opportunities by accelerating growth.

The flavor of the week in Rio is “sustainability indexing” for corporations, by way of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Such indexing is being compared to accounting standards. But the latter are “technical” and gain from standardization; the former are not and must reflect variety instead.

Corporations can, of course, be asked to conform to a “don’t” list – don’t dump mercury into rivers, don’t employ children for hazardous tasks, etc. But what they practice as “do’s” by way of altruism is surely a matter of what they consider virtuous to spend their money on.

The notion that a self-appointed set of activists, in conjunction with some governments and international agencies, can determine what a corporation should do by way of CSR contradicts the liberal notion that we should ask for virtue to be pursued, but not in a particular way. At a time when the world is emphasizing the importance of diversity and tolerance, it is effrontery to suggest that corporations should standardize their notion of how they wish to promote good in the world.

Even when the Rio+20 agenda includes something more properly “environmental” – say, the supply of water – platitudes predominate. Thus, the availability of safe drinking water is now to be enshrined as a “right.” We have traditionally distinguished in human-rights conventions between (mandatory) civil and political rights, such as the right to habeas corpus, from (aspirational) economic rights, because the latter require resources. Blurring that distinction – thereby disregarding the problem of scarcity – is no solution.

After all, “availability” can be interpreted according to many criteria and thus in myriad ways: How much water? At what distance from different households (or by pipe into each house)? At what cost? These decisions have different implications for the availability of water, and they must compete, in any event, against other “rights” and resource uses.

In the end, therefore, water availability cannot properly be called a “right.” Rather, it is a “priority,” and countries will inevitably differ in the sequence with which they pursue it relative to others.

While these are “sins of commission,” the “sins of omission” at Rio+20 are even more glaring. For a conference that is supposedly addressing “sustainability,” it is worth lamenting the absence of a heroic effort to agree on a successor treaty to the Kyoto Accord. If the cataclysmic scenarios implied by neglect of climate change are valid – and extreme estimates, it must be said, could backfire politically by looking implausible or, worse, by producing a “Nero effect” (if Rome is burning, let’s party) – Rio+20’s lack of action should be regarded as an historic failure.

But a matching omission is that prompted by our societies’ increasing political unsustainability, not because of the immediate financial problems like those afflicting Europe and threatening the world, but because the modern media have made visible to all the disparities in the fortunes of the rich and the poor. The rich should be urged not to flaunt their wealth: extravagance amid much poverty arouses wrath.

The poor, meanwhile, need a fair shot at raising their incomes. That can only come through access to education and economic opportunity, both in poor and rich countries.

“Less Excess and More Access”: only a policy mix based on this credo will guarantee that our societies remain viable and achieve genuine “sustainability.”


Jagdish Bhagwati
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Jagdish Bhagwati, Professor of Economics and Law at Columbia University and Senior Fellow in International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of In Defense of Globalization.

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