The Poverty of Thinking About Poverty

The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg is, as expected, contemplating numerous bold promises, but the meeting itself is doomed to be an exercise in futility. For if we mean by `development' human development in its widest sense, the only development that is sustainable is one that enables people to live together in peace and with respect for basic human rights.

There is very little scope for international action to eliminate the violation of these rights in many - if not most - countries of the world today, particularly those that are trying to turn the `Earth Summit' into a sounding board for criticism of the failure of advanced countries to do more to eradicate world poverty or to protect the environment.

At least we should welcome the fact that these two topics - poverty and the environment - are the two main themes of the Earth Summit. This is a retreat from the usual fixations of the earlier sustainable development pressure groups, such the supposed exhaustion of raw materials for growth, or the sheer technical inability of the world to feed its expanding population, or biodiversity.

The wild exaggerations of environmental activists are at last being seen through by most informed commentators. The laws of economics state that when the demand for a commodity begins to outstrip supply the price will rise. Leaving aside short-term speculative markets, demand will then decrease and supply (including the supply of substitutes) will increase. These laws have ensured that none of the doomsday scenarios of the 1960s and 1970s - remember the forecasts of the "Club of Rome"? - have come to pass. Indeed, in the long run, prices of almost all minerals have followed a downward trend. The world can never run out of any mineral resources.