Monday, March 21, 2005

Impulsive Behavior, Free Enterprise, and Sustainability

Todd Schorr
“The Hunter Gatherer"
“We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by weather, calamity, and plague. Now the pressure comes from our biologic success as a species. We have overcome all enemies but ourselves.”

-John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 1962
I read about an “impulsiveness” study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota a few weeks ago. It’s a good example of “Duh science,” one of those experiments that must be executed in order to prove an already widely accepted hypothesis. Of course impulsive behavior is connected to our animal antecedence; before modern conveniences and health care, split-second decisions literally meant the difference between life and death. Whether electing to gorge on berries when available or to flee from the serpent-like shape in the grass, Homo sapiens increased their likeliood of survival and genetic legacy by being thoughtlessly reactionary. But that was 12,000 years ago. Today, although such instinctive actions won't typically decrease our reproductive success, we are often better rewarded via a more considered approach. The University of Minnesota study only confirms this obvious fact.

But is it so obvious to everyone? I read Paul Driessen’s article, “Sustainable Development=Sustained Poverty,” in CNS News yesterday (thanks to Creek Running North). Driessen, a senior fellow with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, argues that:
“Environmentalists airbrush and sanitize, ‘sustainable development,’ dressing it up in fancy verbal raiment about pristine nature, indigenous cultures and future generations. But the result remains unchanged. ‘Sustainable development,’ is being used to justify blocking energy and economic development, and keeping the world's most destitute people mired in misery.”
He concludes,
“For its part, the environmental movement needs to do some serious soul-searching, and began to abide by the same rules of honesty, transparency, morality, accountability - and concern for people's lives - that it demands of everyone else.”
Honesty? Transparency? Morality? Accountability? Given the current political climate, Driessen must be terribly deluded to write such an article. The environmental movement is no paragon of virtue – it attracts as many ciphers and radical morons as any vaguely religious movement – but free enterprise crusaders are infamous for back-room dealings, dishonesty, and moral narcolepsy.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a man who calls the Kyoto Protocol “draconian,” as Driessen does, also believes that “poor countries need sustained development, not sustainable development.” (Emphasis mine.) The principal difference between sustainable and sustained development is the time horizon. A time horizon is “the interval during which an investment program is to be completed. An investor's time horizon is very important in determining the types of investments that should be selected.” So, whereas sustainable development concerns itself with reducing individual and societal impact to lessen the energy burden and improve future odds of success, sustained development seeks immediate return upon which to build more infrastructure so that one can generate yet more immediate return. The former is a model of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain, the latter a regular addition of short-term gain to short-term gain, always on the look out, so to speak, for the next tasty berry, and without regard for what may come of too much berry eating. Both approaches have eloquent champions and, sadly, those firmly entrenched on the sustained development side of the line will need more than informed debate to be convinced that their eternal-present, Pleistocene approach is fundamentally unethical and practically untenable.

Driessen does ask a tough question of the sustainable development camp, though. How can we begin to convince the people of “developing countries” (another term I’m not particularly fond of) that their short-term gain will come at too great an economic and ecoogical cost generations from now? It’s not an easy question to answer and it reminds us that the sustainable lifestyle must start right here at home, where our challenges and goals won’t be interpreted as subjugation or eco-colonialism.

Image credit: ripped from

Note: Definition of "time horizon" from "Wall Street Words," copyright 2003

1 comment:

Mikhail Capone said...

What a bunch of crap! After reading The War Against the Greens, I'm very curious to know that Driessen guy's credentials.

Ties to big industry? Coming from a right-wing think tank?

It's a PR war out there.