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The political heritage of modern environmental thought

By David Rothbard and Craig Rucker
web posted February 16, 2004

This month, thousands of official delegates, environmental activists, and media will be gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a major United Nations' conference on biological diversity. There, organizers will be seeking to advance something called "sustainable development" that is often billed as a panacea for some of the world's most pressing human and environmental concerns.

But while the direct roots of these proposals can be traced to earlier international environmental discussions that took place in Stockholm in 1972, and the more-famous Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the actual genesis of "sustainable development" ideas goes back not three decades, but three centuries.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Rousseau

That's because the real issue up for grabs in Malaysia – and in the contemporary environmental debate in general – is not whether we are going to cure world poverty, save endangered species, or achieve clean air and clear water, but rather, whether John Locke's "individual rights" or Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "general will" will be advanced as the world's defining political principle for decades to come.

As explained in a fascinating CFACT monograph by Dr. Kenneth Weinstein and Dr. Michael Coffman, the area of environmental regulation is one of the principal ways Rousseau's ideals are continuing to gain tremendous ground over those of his intellectual rival.

While Locke praises as "wise and godlike" those leaders who "by established laws of liberty...secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind, against the oppression of power," Rousseau attacks limited-government liberalism in the name of the wholeness of man.

As Weinstein observes, "Whereas Locke uses a minimal state to protect the individual and his property, Rousseau attempts to create a selfless attachment to the common good because of his thoroughgoing distrust of individual concerns, including private property."

Indeed, Rousseau sees the invention of private property itself as one of the worst frauds ever perpetrated, and warns, "You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one."

With such thinking, Rousseau would certainly be proud of what's being put forward in Malaysia.

The centerpiece of the U.N.'s "sustainable development" plan is a document called Agenda 21. This global agenda for the 21st Century, which was agreed to as a non-binding, "soft-law," document in Rio, is nearly 300-pages long. It describes in detail how national governments are supposed to ensure sustainability by more strictly regulating education, transportation, land and energy use, economic production and consumption, markets, labor, trade, policy making processes and even people's daily lives.

Agenda 21 would transform societies everywhere, under a centralized system that would be monitored and enforced through the United Nations and global environmental groups or NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

Aided by the "precautionary principle" and calls to save our planet from every imaginable kind of ecological catastrophe (most notably, the questionable theory of "global warming"), it would impose on individuals and communities the kind of policies that failed so miserably in the Soviet Bloc and everywhere else they were tried.

Environmental groups that will dominate debate at the Malaysian conference claim
" sustainable development" will "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," by integrating "development, environmental protection and social equity." This vague, grandiose concept may sound appealing and worthy of everyone's support. In reality, though, it would result in a catastrophe of unprecedented global proportions.

All of us want sustained economic growth, environmental quality, agriculture, health and opportunity. But the only proven way to get this is from Lockean principles of decentralized ownership and control of private property and natural resources, the rule of law, and the right of sovereign nations and communities to make their own decisions.

These are the principles upon which America was founded. And these are the principles upon which our nation has led the way in promoting freedom, prosperity, and yes, even sound environmental stewardship.

But don't tell that to Rousseau's intellectual offspring who, as exemplified in Agenda 21, want to subordinate the individual to the whole, no matter what the cost.

Rothbard and Rucker serve respectively as president and executive director of the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), a Washington-based non-profit organization they co-founded in 1985 which promotes free-market and safe technological solutions to current consumer and environmental concerns. CFACT can be found on the web at www.cfact.org.

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