How sustainable is the idea of sustainability?

Helen Clark is in her element this week: summiting with “world leaders”, this time in Johannesburg to save the world’s poor and the environment by way of “sustainable development”. This is social democracy on a very grand scale.

Clark is in interesting company: protesters against that paramount evil, “globalisation”, who now bedevil every conference of “world leaders”. Their thesis is that rich countries and their corporations are enslaving the world and wrecking the environment through free trade.

There are even semi-official overtones back home. In a fat report coinciding with the summit the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment names globalisation as one of a range of factors that pose risks to “our future environmental sustainability”.

That is because it exposes us “to a web of international commitments and outcomes over which [we] may nor may not have direct control or influence”. Translation: it may force us to be environmentally dirty (to which protesters would add socially destructive).

What would the commissioner have us do? He cites approvingly a view that sustainable development “requires constraints on market forces and the democratic planning of production”.

A century ago Fabian socialists argued for such planning in the name of social justice and economic efficiency. In the hands of Sir Robert Muldoon it gave us “think big” heavy industrialisation in the early 1980s, environmentally unfriendly and economically costly.

But what is “sustainable development”?

To some it means economic growth we can sustain. The early part of last week’s Speech from the Throne had that tone to it.

To others sustainable development means not using up resources faster than they are replaced, so the next generation can live comfortably.

Then there is the holistic version. Sustainable development rests on three pillars: the economy, society and the environment. Any move in one affects the other two, so we must move on all three fronts at once.

That is a recipe for paralysis, former Environment Minister Simon Upton, now heading a programme on the topic at the OECD, argues in an incisive and sensible critique of the commissioner in his latest newsletter: “We risk emptying sustainable development of content by seeking to extend it to everything”.

A year ago in her Knowledge Wave conference summing-up Clark seemed in the three-pillars camp. But the four priorities in the government’s official approach announced last week are: “creating more innovation, more skills, more wealth; improving the wellbeing of our children; improving participation by Maori and Pacific peoples; and reducing our negative impact on the environment and understanding our natural resources.”

Note the prominence of economic growth. We should try not to rape the environment but we should definitely grow the economy. The government does not put preserving the environment ahead of economic growth.

And how do we grow? By getting smart enough to get the most out of the global economy. Clark is a realist and realists live in the globalising world.

Her formula is one business can generally live with — at least one the Business Council for Sustainable Development can live with. That council now includes some otherwise crusty capitalists, notable among them Kim Ellis of Waste Management.

This puts her poles apart from the protesters — and the Greens back home.

Protesters say globalisation has made the richest fifth of nations richer and the poorest fifth poorer. Globalisers point the finger at rulers who wreck their nations, such as in Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, and say the middle three-fifths of nations have got richer this past decade. Good government does the trick.

But protesters and globalisers agree on one thing: that rich nations block imports from poor nations because they cost jobs in rich nations. Our steel workers and dairy farmers know that. We tax textiles in turn.

Rich countries, including this one, have also got a lot stingier with aid. Social democratic redistribution reaches only so far.

Such self-interest will ensure the Johannesburg conference will do little to end environmental degradation or poverty. But the words will be imposing. Which is what makes summits such fun for “world leaders”.