Rio’s Unsustainable Nonsense

NEW YORK – If George Orwell were alive today, he would be irritated, and then shocked, by the cynical way in which every lobby with an axe to grind and money to burn has hitched its wagon to the alluring phrase “sustainable development.” In fact, the United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development is about pet projects of all and sundry – many of them tangential to the major environmental issues, such as climate change, that were the principal legacy of the original Rio Earth Summit.

Thus, the International Labor Organization and trade-union lobbies have managed to insert “Decent Jobs” into the seven priority areas at the Rio conference. I would love for everyone, everywhere, to have a decent job. But what does that have to do with either the environment or “sustainability?”

No one should pretend that we can magically offer decent jobs to the huge numbers of impoverished but aspiring workers in the informal sector. Such jobs can only be created by adopting appropriate economic policies. Indeed, the really pressing task facing many developing economies is to pursue policies that promote economic opportunities by accelerating growth.

The flavor of the week in Rio is “sustainability indexing” for corporations, by way of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Such indexing is being compared to accounting standards. But the latter are “technical” and gain from standardization; the former are not and must reflect variety instead.