Free Markets = Sustainable Development. Without capitalism, true sustainability is impossible.

Ronald Bailey.

“The current global development model is unsustainable.” That is the conclusion of the High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, appointed earlier this year by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to outline the economic and social changes needed to achieve global sustainability. The Panel urged the world leaders who will gather in Rio de Janeiro next week for the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development to embrace “a new approach to the political economy of sustainable development.” 
The Panel’s report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing [PDF], specifically cited the definition of sustainable development devised in Our Common Future, another U.N. report from an expert panel of headed by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harland Brundtland issued in 1987. “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” declared the Brundtland report.
It turns out that the only form of society that has so far met this criterion is democratic free-market capitalism. How can that be? Let’s take a look at the two terms, sustainable and development. With regard to most of human history there has been precious little in the way of “development.” The vast majority of people lived and died in humanity’s natural state of disease-ridden abject poverty and pervasive ignorance. Economic historian Angus Maddison calculated that per capita Western European incomes in 1 A.D. averaged $600 and rose by 1500 to $800 reaching $1,200 by 1820. In China average per capita income was $450 in 1 A.D. rising by 1500 to $600 and reaching $700 by 1820. And the rise was anything but steady, e.g., income in Western Europe fell from the early Roman Empire average to $425 by 1000 A.D.
And what about the other term, sustainable? Again, looking across history and the globe, we know for a fact that there have been, until now, no sustainable societies. All of the earlier civilizations in both the Old and New Worlds collapsed at various times, e.g., Babylonia, Rome, the Umayyad Caliphate, Harrapan, Gupta, Tang, Mayan, Olmec, Anasazi, Moche, just to mention a few. Of course, collapse in this context doesn’t mean that everybody died, but that their ways of life radically shifted and often much of the population migrated to other regions. In other words, history provides us with no models of sustainable development other than democratic capitalism.

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