May 5, 2008

Kevin Duffy on sustainable development

The whole idea of “sustainability” is a bit off kilter. I remember listening to Austrian economist Walter Block talk about the environment. He said he thinks of the earth like a bus, i.e. that it temporarily takes us from point A to point B. At some point, the earth will be sucked into the gravitational pull of the sun and explode (or burn up, or something to that effect). The key is for man to accumulate enough knowledge and build the means to save himself from destruction (admittedly, eons away – enough time for man to self destruct).

The secrets to solving this puzzle are out there in the universe, but require discovery. And what is the most powerful, efficient discovery process known to man? The free market! And of course private property is the cornerstone of that system.

There has been a long running debate amongst economists regarding “natural resources.” Are we in danger of running out? Do we need some kind of government controls to prevent such a catastrophe? This debate is between the resource depletionists (like Thomas Malthus, 1766-1834) and resource cornucopians (led by Julian Simon, 1932-1998). The abundance argument – to which I subscribe – is that resources are simply nature’s materials (virtually unlimited) stamped with man’s ingenuity (which is only restrained by economic ignorance and the resulting state intervention). The Malthusians have been constantly proven wrong in their predictions, e.g. that oil would run out or that the world is overpopulated and incapable of feeding significantly more people. Yet every year the earth yields more food and man discovers more proven (i.e. economic) fossil fuels.

So how should each of us focus our efforts? On conservation or creating greater abundance? Or will that be different for each of us depending on the resources at our disposal – not just our property, but also our drive and creativity? Life is about making tradeoffs in a world of scarcity. The scarcest resource, however, is our time on this planet.

~ Kevin Duffy, May 5, 2008

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