China as a Model for ‘Sustainable Development’?

There’s an old maxim in moral philosophy that says, “the ends never justify the means.” Of course, lots of utilitarians think that is so much moral posturing and nonsense. They proffer hypothetical arguments to debunk that maxim, such as: “If stealing a loaf of bread meant achieving world peace, wouldn’t you do it?” There’s really no end to this debate. After all, it really does depend on what ends and — more importantly, perhaps — what means.

But the argument over ends and means is not a pointless philosophical exercise. We see it in action every day. Indeed, it’s really what the debates over environmental regulation boil down to. And to that end, it’s an illuminating argument, because it tells us a lot about the modern environmental movement. For some of our most prominent greens, the ends really do justify the means — any means.

Consider the new book from Lester Brown, founder of the World Watch Institute and the godfather of the modern environmental movement. “Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth” comes out at an opportune moment. It calls for a major (“Copernican”) shift in economic thinking designed to ensure so-called “sustainable development” around the globe. And it is impeccably timed, coming out a little over a month before the United Nations’ World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Now, we’ll be plumbing the arguments behind the green push for sustainable development — the very arguments outlined in “Eco-Economy” — in the coming weeks and months. But it is useful to focus on just one aspect of Brown’s book to get a sense of how this MacArthur “genius” grant winner views his singular end of achieving a “sustainable economy” — and how he regards the used means to achieve that end.

Near the end of the book, Brown sounds a somewhat optimistic note. “Formidable though the effort to build a sustainable economy appears to be, almost all the component goals have been achieved by at least one country.”

And what are those component goals? Well, there’s the banning of coal-fired plants, something that Denmark has done. There’s the raising of water productivity, something Israel has achieved with new technologies. Achieving greater forest coverage? South Korea set out to do that on its hills and mountains. Then there’s the shifting to alternative sources of energy for future energy uses, and Brown applauds Costa Rica’s efforts in this area. New urban transport systems are a must, and the Dutch have led the way here. The move to a hydrogen-based economy is also called for, and he praises Iceland as the model for achieving that. Brown even singles out the United States for success in one of his goals: “cutting soil erosion.”

But there’s another goal Lester Brown says is needed to achieve a sustainable economy — population control. Specifically he calls for “reducing fertility rate[s] to below two children per woman” in order to get on the path to “population stability.” And what country is the model for population stability in Brown’s eyes?

China.

Now, the Communist Chinese government has imposed, since 1979, a so-called “one-child policy” in order to stabilize its rapidly growing population. Under that policy, city-dwelling couples should only have one child. Exceptions can be made if either parent is an ethnic minority or they are both only children. Rural Chinese also are awarded some exemptions. The policy is enforced with “punitive sanctions” according to the BBC.

What does that mean? According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, “The official sanction for violating the one-child policy is a fine. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government acknowledges that it cannot always control how local officials enforce the policy. Because of regional population quotas, local officials have an incentive to keep the birth rate down. Chinese women have reported being forced to abort a pregnancy or to be sterilized. Men have told of being severely beaten and having to send their wives into hiding to deliver children.

“According to many asylum seekers, if a woman is noticeably pregnant with a second child, peers often try to dissuade her from giving birth. If such pressure does not work, these women say, family planning officials will visit her home to convince her to abort the pregnancy and, voluntarily or otherwise, will escort her to the local hospital or clinic.

“Given the longstanding preference for boy babies in China, the one-child policy has made female infanticide common. Baby girls are also abandoned at orphanages and churches.”

Some defenders of the program — including the Chinese government and population control enthusiasts in the West — say that the program is sound social policy and that they oppose coercive measures. Any abuses, they say, are random incidents and constitute abuses of the policy.

But that’s not true, according to Jon Aird, a former senior research specialist on China at the U.S. Census Bureau’s China Division. Aird is working on an important book about asylum seekers and China’s one-child policy. And he told me the entire program “is a gross human rights abuse.” But he adds that this should not be surprising since “such abuses are not uncommon in China and have a long history, relating to many other matters besides family planning. The record on family planning shows that forced abortion, forced sterilization, forced IUD insertion and the methods used to achieve them are not ‘abuses’ of central policy — they are the intended consequences of it” [emphasis added].

All of which makes Lester Brown’s cheerleading for Chinese population control efforts tragically blind. I don’t believe Brown or anyone else in the environmental movement would publicly embrace forced sterilization or abortion, or widespread human rights abuses against women. But they have shown — and continue to demonstrate — a cavalier disregard for the costs and consequences of many of their stated goals. This goes not just for population control efforts, but also in their efforts to “regulate” climate change and other environmental concerns.

For Brown — indeed, for so much of the green movement — the ends are the only things that matter. So much so that they blink at means that violate basic human rights and aspirations. “Sustainable development” is the end envisioned by the thousands of delegates set to descend on Johannesburg next month. But by what means? Ask the women of China what they think of “sustainable development” achieved by any means authorities deem necessary.

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