Monday, January 12, 2009

Thoughts on Taylor Part I

Problems start in the executive summary:

The current Western system of free markets, property rights, and the rule of law is in fact the best hope for environmentally sustainable development.
Taylor has built up quite the strawman here. Are we to think that advocates of sustainable development are trying to institute state run communist economies without laws? He may have some interesting points, so I will attempt a complete review later on, but it seems clear that Taylor is not arguing in good faith in this article.

Moving into the actual article it doesn't get better.
The UN Commission on Economic Development in its landmark 1987 report titled Our Common Future defines sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”2 But that definition is hopelessly problematic. How can we reasonably be expected to know, for instance, what the needs of people in 2100 might be?
This is a ridiculous critique of the Our Common Future definition. I don't know what I'm going to need when I'm 65, but that doesn't that mean I can't plan for retirement. We generally know what human beings need in order survive, and we can certainly attempt to ensure that those needs can be met by future generations. We may miss a few things, but we know clean air, clean water, and food are essential. We should also try to provide a livable climate. Those seem like reasonable assumptions to me.

Taylor does elaborate on this critique, but not in an informative way.

Moreover, one way people typically “meet their own needs” is by spending money on food, shelter, education, and whatever else they deem necessary or important. Is the imperative for sustainable development, then, simply a euphemism for the imperative to create wealth (which, after all, is handed down to our children for their subsequent use)?
This misses the point altogether. If the air is unbreathable (I know it's extreme), or water undrinkable (not a stretch in many places), or if extreme droughts prohibit growing enough food then people won't be very concerned with spending their wealth. Sustainable development is about ensuring that future generations are capable of creating real wealth that they can spend freely. From these few sentences Taylor concludes that the UNCED definition is functionally meaningless, but his hand-waving is unconvincing.

Taylor moves on to define "strong" and "weak" sustainability. He does not actually quote advocates of sustainability, but instead leaves the reader to look it up in the end notes. This is a shame because I get the sense that Taylor is setting up another strawman with his definition of strong sustainability.

Many advocates of sustainable development are defining regimes in which the natural resource base is not allowed to deteriorate.5 This category is generally known as the “strong” definition of sustainability.
He then goes on to easily destroy the shoddy reasoning behind strong sustainability.

Subscribers to the concept of strong sustainabilty (sic) are implicitly suggesting that the world is somehow a poorer place because past generations drew down stocks of oil,iron, and various other minerals and metals to make advanced satellites, modern industry, and—through the wealth thereby created—advanced medicines and dozens of other life-enhancing technologies and practices.
This clearly is ridiculous. Are serious academics and policy-makers actually suggesting this? Well, 10 minutes of googling and a quick web-of-science search tell me that Taylor did indeed setup another strawman. Strong sustainability is about protecting critical natural resources. From Pearce et. al. (1994)

Second, since natural capital has to be interpreted widely, many assets are essential to human survival, at least in the longer run. The basic biogeochemical
cycles--such as the Carbon cycle, the hydrological cycle, and the nutrient cycle--are examples of essential natural assets (79).
Pearce et. al. explicitly state that strong sustainability is not about preserving natural stocks of aluminum and copper, but instead it is about preserving essential natural resources for future generations. Taylor appears incapable of honestly portraying those who disagree with his thesis.

That's all I have for now. I'm only on page 3.

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