Panelists focus on knowledge as key to sustainable development

Three experts addressed the question, “Sustainable Development: Must We Change the Present to Preserve the Future” on Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m. in Brooks-Rogers. The discussion was the last policy component of the “Justice Across Generations” forum.

Kai Lee, Professor of Environmental Studies, moderated the debate and began by noting that while he had been disappointed by the lack of student participation and attendance at the discussions, he was pleased to see many students in attendance. Approximately 100 people were in attendance at the discussion.

The concept of sustainable development deals with, in Lee’s words, “how we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” A significant aspect of the discussion deals with the role of the environment and how humans care for it.

Lee described that he expected the three panelists to have “strikingly different views.”

The three were: Mark Sagoff of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, David Vail, Director of Environmental Studies at Bowdoin College, and Richard Stroup of Montana State University.

Sagoff spoke first, giving his own views and setting up the basic terms of the discussion. He began by noting, “An economy produces objects of value. A sustainable economy applies knowledge.” That knowledge is used to maximize the valuable and minimize the invaluable. Therefore Sagoff pointed out, “The greatest resource we have is knowledge. Our question then becomes: how do we best make our materials and political institutions work?”

He described three prevalent views of how to preserve a sustainable economy. The Malthusian view, which was very popular in the 1970s, held that humans have to consume less now so that future generations will be able to consume more. The basic theory behind this view is that the biosphere puts a physical limit on growth.

The second, cornucopian view held in Sagoff’s words, “the free market will lead to heaven on earth.” This view placed greatest importance on human knowledge.

The third view, which Sagoff described as “in the middle,” held that essentially the key to a sustainable economy is up to us. He said the key to this view is the use of deliberative counsels to decide what sort of world we want. Sagoff mentioned that the technology exists to create a non-polluting car. The question then evolves into whether society wants to put the resources into investing in that technology.

David Vail spoke after Sagoff. He began his remarks by saying, “What I have to say is simply a footnote to Mark’s presentation.”

Vail underlined the importance of deliberative counsels and especially the idea of organizing within communities. He used the example of Maine’s recent problems with ice and how communities banded together to help each other.

Vail also noted that the idea of creating a sustainable economy brings about “an ambiguous moral obligation.” For instance, if we are not meeting the needs of all people now, why should we be worried about future generations. He addressed the two ways in which, given that creating a sustainable economy is a worthwhile goal, that economy might be brought about.

The first, the free market approach, based itself on the idea that capitalism can adjust to the economy’s and the environment’s needs, and that self-interest, competitive markets and private property would bring about favorable conditions.

The second approach, which involved state involvement, held that markets were too myopic to be concerned about future generations. Vail favored the second approach.

He felt that communities are instrumental in fulfilling the obligation to future generations. Communities were best defined as patterns of social relationships. Vail said, “most environmental degradation is local, and because markets and politics look short term, we need communities to look to the long term. Most of our activities are based on our immediate surroundings. The problems arise then, from homogenous markets and global corporations that are not tied to any specific local.”

Richard Stroup believed that the most important things that we can leave future generations is an institutional legacy. “We must keep our civil society civil.” He spoke strongly about the importance of private property rights and securing private property against theft and pollution. “If private property is secure then we have the economic opportunity to act.”

Stroup also pointed out, through the use of various charts, that the richer the economy and the individuals in that economy become, the safer individuals are and the more environmentally conscious they are. He also noted that trampling on property rights tends to harm the environment.

After Stroup spoke the three panelists and Lee took time to discuss what each other had said.

Both Sagoff and Vail pointed out to Stroup that property rights are artificial constructs and that there need to be political regulations to define property rights. Stroup responded that while the government does have to define property rights, that role is one of the government’s most important roles.

A question and answer period followed.

One question dealt with the fact that certain tribal communities never made decisions without considering how future generations “a 1000 years hence” would be affected. All three panelists felt that it was arrogant to look too far into the future because it would be wrong to create institutions that were static.

Another question raised the interesting view of seeing sustainable development as a form of colonialism imposed upon the poor members of society and those who weren’t in power to make far reaching decisions.

Afterwards when asked what he thought of the discussion, Lee remarked, “The striking thing was that everyone agreed that we didn’t have to hold down our use of resources. Each believed in the human capacity to preserve resources. For example, no one came to the defense of the rain forest. Another big focus was the importance of small scale human institutions for solving problems and the large scale threat that international corporations pose. I also would have liked to have seen the speakers describe what we should actually do.”

Stroup felt, “the question of ’Compared to What?’ was under-considered. The question of specific situations was not brought up. We always have to ask what situation are we dealing with?”

Lincoln Pan ’98, who had asked a question about how the powerless were to be counted in any idea of sustainable development said this of the panel, “I found the panel adept in engaging methods toward achieving environmental obligations to future generations. Unfortunately, there were equally adept at avoiding important questions about justice for current generations. The choice for sustainable development rests in the privileged hands of developed nations and an educated elite. Whether those decisions can potentially create injustice for individuals and nations outside the decision-making process remains a deeply troubling and unanswered question.”