Article published exclusively on the Institut économique Molinari’s website.
Sustainable development week took place in France from 29 May to 4 June, under the auspices of the ministry for ecology. These celebrations are certainly the occasion to reflect on the significance of the concept of sustainable development and on its practical implications.
Sustainable development week took place in France from 29 May to 4 June, under the auspices of the ministry for ecology. These celebrations are certainly the occasion to reflect on the significance of the concept of sustainable development and on its practical implications. It provides all the more material to reflect on, as it is sufficiently broad and vague to include any human activity. Nevertheless, recent fears relating to the rise of oil prices and the prospect of its exhaustion, invite us to focus on a particular field of these activities: the problem of the use of non-renewable natural resources. Can the concept of sustainable development help us to find solutions or simply to better understand the problem? Nothing is less certain.
The definition of sustainable development considered as a reference today was adopted in 1987 by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development. The Brundtland report, by the name of the president of the commission at the time, indicates that sustainable development is a development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Not compromising the satisfaction of future generations’ needs implies of course conserving oil.
The presumption is that future generations will need oil. So be it. It seems then that the pursuit of a sustainable development requires on the part of everyone, including political decision makers, a restriction of power consumption derived from the precious fuel. But the consumption of a non-renewable resource leaves by definition its stock irreversibly decreased. Consequently, any satisfaction of present needs implying a consumption of oil, be it of only one barrel, decreases possible future consumption. And the safeguarding of a quantity of oil for the benefit of future generations necessarily excludes meeting certain “present needs.”
Rigorously speaking thus, sustainable development, taken in its strictest meaning, is impossible with non-renewable resources. One cannot respond to present needs without “compromising” those of the future and vice versa. This established fact does not depend on institutional factors and is thus not changeable.
Let us suppose nevertheless that future needs must be regarded as priorities in present decisions concerning the exploitation of the resource, even if the definition of sustainable development does not indicate to us truly which trade-offs should be chosen. We find ourselves then faced with a paradox that those who pay lip-service to the defense of future generations could meditate on. If the present generation abstained purely and simply from using oil, the following generation would not see any of its needs for oil sacrificed by ours. Except that the problem would arise again for this future generation. Should it not also abstain from exploiting the oil reservoirs, to the profit of the following one?
One thus arrives at the absurd idea according to which a resource whose use is precious for everyone should never be used by anyone. When does the week of sensible ideas take place?
Xavier Méra, associated researcher at the Institut Economique Molinari.