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Policy: Sustainable Development: a U.S. Foreign Policy Priority

(Timothy E. Wirth was a U.S. Senator from Colorado from 1987 to 1993 and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1986. Currently, as Under Secretary for Global Affairs with the Department of State, Wirth is responsible for overseeing issues related to the environment, population, human rights, refugees, narcotics and crime. The following remarks are from the United States Information Agency's (USIA) Electronic Journal, "Economic Perspectives, Vol. 1, No. 11, August 1996.)

Sustainable development fundamentally means that the economies of the world should attempt to meet the needs of today's generation without compromising or stealing from future generations. Understood and pursued, the idea of sustainable development can integrate and harmonize the enormously powerful economic and environmental forces at work in today's world. It is a concept rooted in the recognition of the mutually reinforcing nature of economic and environmental progress.

Ecological systems are the very foundation of modern society -- in science, in agriculture, in social and economic planning. Over the long term, living off our ecological capital is a bankrupt economic strategy. At the same time, most peoples and nations aspire to economic growth and scientific and technological progress, which in turn are the essential building blocks of environmental protection.

Unhappily, for far too long, concern about the environment has been regarded as a peripheral, soft issue that can be treated as a luxury in the context of prosperity. Far too many will nod their heads, saying "Yes, I'm for the environment -- as long as it doesn't cost jobs." And it is within this terribly mistaken analysis that we encounter the fundamental intellectual challenge to sustainable development.


The biggest obstacle to the pursuit of sustainable development -- here in the United States and around the world -- is the misguided belief that protecting the environment is antithetical to economic interests. The fact is that the economy is inextricably tied to the environment and totally dependent upon it.

Five biological systems -- croplands, forests, grasslands, oceans, and fresh waterways -- support the world economy. Except for fossil fuels and minerals, they supply all the raw materials for industry and provide all our food:

-- Croplands supply food, feed, and an endless array of raw materials for industry, such as fiber and vegetable oils.

-- Forests are the source of fuel, lumber, paper, and countless other products.

-- Grasslands provide meat, milk, leather, and wool.

-- Oceans and freshwater produce food for individuals and resources for industry.

Stated in the jargon of the business world, the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment. All economic activity is dependent on the environment and its underlying resource base. When the environment is finally forced to file for bankruptcy because its resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, or irretrievably compromised, then the economy goes down to bankruptcy with it.

Is this just a theoretical concept? Of course not. It happened in Central and Eastern Europe, whose profound environmental destruction we are only now uncovering and comprehending. It is, in fact, happening all over the world, even in many of today's headlined trouble spots.

Resource scarcities are a root cause of the violent conflicts that have convulsed civil society in Rwanda, Haiti, and Chiapas. These conflicts could intensify and widen as ever-growing populations compete for an ever-dwindling supply of land, fuel, and water. Professor Tad Homer-Dixon, of the University of Toronto, warns that in coming decades, resource scarcities "will probably occur with a speed, complexity, and magnitude unprecedented in history."

We are learning that environmental capital cannot be measured simply by counting trees, stocks of fish, or ears of corn. It also encompasses complex ecological systems that filter wastes, regenerate soils, and replenish fresh water supplies. Those systems, which we have belatedly begun to understand, form the very basis of life on earth. Ozone depletion, species loss, and the increasing carbon content of our atmosphere are all reflections of the fact that the planet's ecological systems are under great strain.

Our deficit spending of environmental capital has a direct, measurable impact on human security. Simply put, the life support systems of the entire globe are being compromised at a rapid rate -- illustrating our interdependence with nature and changing our relationship to the planet. The security of our world hinges upon whether we can strike a sustainable, equitable balance between human numbers and the planet's capacity to support life.

Why has this new aspect of security only recently been recognized? Two trends tell the tale. First is the exponential growth of the human population. World population has doubled since 1950, and now stands at 5,600 million. Every year, the world gains another 91 million inhabitants -- the equivalent of another New York City every month, another Mexico every year, another China every decade. Ninety-five percent of that growth is taking place in the impoverished countries of the developing world, which are already struggling to provide jobs and sustenance for their people.

At the same time, the industrialized world has developed the capability and consumptive capacity to utilize resources and produce wastes at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. Although they comprise only one-fifth of the world's population, the industrialized countries use two-thirds of all resources consumed and generate four-fifths of all pollutants and wastes.

We are getting ourselves into a terrible fix -- the globe's population is growing at a rate that is matched or exceeded only by our growing capacity to consume resources and produce wastes. This is a completely unsustainable course.


Population must be a top priority of the U.S. agenda for sustainable development. American leadership has been restored in international population policy, and we have helped create an international plan, agreed to in Cairo in 1994, that calls for a comprehensive approach to addressing rapid demographic change. The plan would make family planning and reproductive health services universally available, sharply expand the education of girls, and focus on child survival, male responsibility, strong families, and the engagement of grassroots, non-governmental organizations.

Part and parcel of the U.S. population strategy is the promotion of the social, political, and economic rights of women, who are extraordinarily important resources for growth and agents of change. The return on these initiatives -- in terms of stability, environmental quality, and economic productivity -- will outweigh the costs for generation after generation. This will be a common theme of American foreign policy, and we believe an achievable goal early in the 21st century.

A second priority, the provision of basic health services, is a wise investment for the community of nations and can be achieved at relatively little global cost. The elimination of four major, easily preventable diseases -- measles, tetanus, whooping cough, and polio - eradication of iodine and vitamin A deficiencies, and the global availability of oral rehydration therapy are all achievable early in the next century.

These measures alone would save between 3 and 4 million lives annually, perhaps eliminate 20 million early childhood deaths, ease immeasurable, unnecessary suffering, and make a significant contribution to lowering pressures for larger families. Part of the U.S. global health strategy also includes a major focus on AIDS, recognizing that while a cure may be decades away, we can help with aggressive prevention strategies in those parts of the world where the spread of the infection is epidemic.

Biodiversity is a third priority -- a broad umbrella for the task of preserving God's creation, the biological inheritance that comprises all living things. This vast wealth of genetic information is critical to our long-term economic and environmental integrity, and we must do all that we can to preserve it. The U.S. Senate needs to ratify the Biodiversity Treaty, approved at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. Together with other signatories, the United States needs to launch a worldwide effort to catalog, prospect in, and sustainably utilize this great and largely unknown library of information. The next century will surely be the century of biology, and we must be engaged in order to fully utilize these remarkable opportunities for new sources of food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals.

Integrating environmental and economic imperatives at the national level is a fourth priority. We can no longer assume that we bear no cost for fouling the air or depleting our resources. Instead, we need to internalize those costs and allow the genius of the marketplace to help determine the most efficient means of achieving our environmental goals.

Fifth is the challenge of reforming our international institutions to better promote sustainable development. The World Bank, the most important public engine for development, will play a central role in fostering the transition to sustainable development. We must work harder to encourage changes in lending practices to make good on the promise of greater emphasis on smaller-scale, decentralized projects to promote alternative development, to protect the environment, to preserve the rights of local populations, and to recognize the role of crucial sub-populations -- particularly women -- in the development process.

This goal of institutional reform is part of the sixth and final challenge, the challenge of governing in the 21st century. In this post-Cold War world, our problems spill messily across traditional lines -- global climate change, ozone depletion, biodiversity, refugees, narcotics -- all these issues have become concerns that challenge us all and must be dealt with through stronger multilateral, cooperative organizations.

We must be sure our international institutions are adequate to the tasks of the 21st century. This will not be easy. Walls can be brought down in a day, but changing the consciousness of individuals and forging common cause among institutions is much more difficult. But we have a rich, if complicated, framework from which to build. I believe sustainable development will be a primary rationale for our institutional arrangements in the 21st century.


In the newly configured world, national security is closely linked to human security. Human security is built on a foundation of peace and political stability, physical health, and economic well-being. The primary threats to human security may not be as easy to recognize as, say, an enemy's nuclear arsenal, but they are no less deadly.

These are the threats posed by the abject poverty in which one billion of the world's people live; the hunger that stalks 800 million men, women, and children; the spread of HIV/AIDS, which will infect 30 to 40 million people by the year 2000; and the combination of violence, poverty, and environmental degradation that has forced 20 million people from their homes.

In the United States and around the globe, we are coming to understand the close connections between poverty, the environment, the economy, and security. This historic transformation demands that we now liberate ourselves from outworn policies, from old assumptions, and from fixed views that only yesterday seemed to be the dividing and defining lines of our politics.

Crisis prevention and sustainable development are among the great challenges of the next century. It is time to retool our approach to national security, recognizing that our economic and environmental futures are one and the same. It is these challenges that will determine the future we leave to our children and grandchildren.