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Prudence Over Sustainability

For two centuries, free people have been proving the resource pessimists wrong. Now that economically constraining principles of sustainability are becoming the new orthodoxy, we risk throwing a wrench into an industrial engine that could propel us out of today's environmental problems.

CHICAGO – “Sustainability” is an increasingly popular term used to signal one’s virtue in contemporary public discourse, but it is a poor basis for sound public policy. It conveys a biologist’s view of the economy without any of the prudence that economists favor.

The biologist Paul R. Ehrlich gave exceptionally imprudent advice in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, in which he suggested that humanity was heading for acute resource scarcities and mass starvation. What happened instead is that world income kept rising, as it had been doing for two centuries, and as it shows every sign of continuing to do. Pessimism has been a poor predictor.

As the British historian Thomas Macaulay presciently asked in 1830, “On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” It was a good question then, and it is an even better one now. Environmental fundamentalists who insist that “this time is different” are defying both logic and the historical evidence.

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