I have bad news and good news about this week's Rio+20 summit on sustainable development, which has been billed as the biggest United Nations conference of all time. The bad news is that it will accomplish nothing. The good news is that it will accomplish … nothing. That is a relief, since what the summit is demanding would be bad for poor people.
Although everybody knows that Rio will accomplish nothing, there will be lots of news coverage about it. That's because about 130 world leaders are expected to show up, as well as 50,000 delegates, observers, NGO types, indigenous people and protesters. Like the G20, Rio is a pointless event that's too big to ignore. Like all its predecessors, it will propose hopelessly unworkable solutions to intractable problems, accompanied by dire warnings that we're doomed if we don't implement them.
Twenty years ago, the first Rio summit put the phrase "sustainable development" on the map. Its mastermind was Canadian businessman Maurice Strong. According to him, our consumption-based economic model is driving us toward oblivion and the only way to save the planet is to let the UN run the world economy. (Why the UN would be able to run the world economy any better than the Europeans can run the European economy is a question worth pondering.)
Fortunately, our consumption-based economic model has done more to alleviate human misery than all the world's environmental treaties laid end to end. In the past 20 years, poverty and hunger have been in sharp decline. Despite our soaring global population, people are better fed and live longer than ever before. That's not to say we don't face urgent environmental problems – we do. But they're not the ones the people who attend UN summits think they are.
Take pollution. Indoor air pollution kills at least 1.4 million people a year, mostly women and children. Outdoor pollution kills another million. They die from the smoke emitted by dung, cardboard and other cheap but noxious fuel. About three billion people still depend on this type of fuel to cook their food and heat their homes. A billion and a half people still lack access to electricity. As contrarian environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg argues, what the poor really need is access to cheap, reliable power, even if it's supplied by fossil fuels.
But sustainability activists are resolutely opposed to any further use of fossil fuels. They're like environmental versions of Marie Antoinette: Let them heat with solar panels. As Mr. Lomborg writes, "There is a deep and disturbing disconnect between the mighty who walk the plush carpets in the UN arena and what the majority of the world's inhabitants need."
The poor people of the world do not need more organic farming and electric cars. They need more technology and human ingenuity. Fortunately, they're getting it. Brazilian scientists have figured out ways to grow wheat, soybeans and other temperate-zone crops on formerly unproductive land. Most of the world's soybean crop is now genetically modified (cue the boos), despite long opposition from the greens. GM crops boost yields, cut pesticide use and are generally friendlier to the environment.
What the UN delegates should really worry about is not the sustainability of the planet. It's the sustainability of these bloated gabfests, which get bigger and bigger and produce less and less. This time, negotiators have spent months deadlocked over the wording of the final document. They can't decide whether it should call for "green economy policies" or "policies for a green economy." For the wretched of the Earth, that's a good thing.