Montreal, July 9, 2006 • No 183




Pierre Desrochers is Assistant Professor of geography at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.




by Pierre Desrochers


          This short book (76 pages of text) can best be summarized as Oxford University economist Wilfred Beckerman's chainsaw massacre of the key planks of the sustainable development platform. As can be expected from the author of previous works such as In Defense of Economic Growth (1976) and Small Is Stupid (1995), Beckerman has little patience for what he considers "pathetically muddled" thinking and political correctness. The result is a readable manifesto in which the author argues that the current widespread support for sustainable development is based on confusion about its ethical implications and on a flagrant disregard of the relevant factual evidence.


          In its common acceptance, sustainable development is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. And yet, as Beckerman points out in his introductory chapter, no generation has ever fulfilled all of its needs, and the mere "slogans" pushed by various interest groups to promote their agendas irrespective of their costs will never remove the basic facts of economic scarcity and tradeoffs.

          In the author's opinion, the main problem of sustainable development rests on two related and indefensible propositions, namely the fear of resource exhaustion and its resulting obligation of intergenerational justice. Beckerman quickly dismisses the first by pointing out that if resources are finite in some meaningful sense, then even maintaining future consumption at current rates will inevitably lead to their depletion. He then summarizes what could be labeled the standard "resource creation" economic paradigm by pointing out that past increased consumption in market economies quickly resulted, through the interplay of the price system and human creativity, in the discovery of new deposits, more efficient uses and the development of substitutes. Because of these processes, each new generation is typically better off than the preceding one, and often remarkably so. In this context, penalizing the current citizens of underdeveloped economies for the benefit of future generations amounts to nothing less than transferring incomes from poorer to richer individuals.


Wilfred Beckerman, A Poverty of Reason: Sustainable Development and Economic Growth, The Independent Institute, Oakland (CA), 2002.


"In the author's opinion, the main problem of sustainable development rests on two related and indefensible propositions, namely the fear of resource exhaustion and its resulting obligation of intergenerational justice."

          Beckerman then addresses more recent critics who acknowledge this paradigm, but nonetheless argue that resource use must be curbed because of environmental impacts such as loss of biodiversity and global warming. While not denying the potential problems that might result from both phenomenon, the economist suggests that much uncertainty still surrounds these issues, that the costs of the measures proposed to deal with both are massively out of line with their potential benefits and that wealth creation will make it easier for future generations to deal with these and other environmental problems.

          The "precautionary principle," whose strongest version would essentially prevent technological change in the absence of full scientific certainty, is the author's next target. According to Beckerman, proponents of the precautionary principle often fail to recognize that new technologies offer not only potential problems but also important benefits. Indeed, had this principle ever been taken seriously, humans would still be dwelling in caves (and probably without fire) and leading existences undoubtedly more solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short than present ones. In Beckerman's view, the precautionary principle often boils down to an injunction to take expensive actions regarding problems whose severity is mostly uncertain and probably exaggerated (remember global cooling?), once again harming the poorest members of the current generation for the benefit of future, and in all likelihood, richer individuals.

          Beckerman concludes his essay by pointing out that the greatest contribution we can make to the welfare of future generations is to bequeath them a free and democratic society by improving current respect for democratic values and human rights. In other words, get the fundamental incentives and institutions right, and both people and the environment will be better off in the long run.

          I highly recommend this short book to any activist and academic who believes in the necessity of the measures Beckerman attacks, but who might be willing to entertain the idea that critiques of sustainable development are not limited to corporate shills, but also comprise some thoughtful individuals.


* This book review was originally published in the The Canadian Geographer, volume 50, number 2, June 2006, pp. 265-266. The definitive version is available on

Beckerman, W. 1976 In Defense of Economic Growth (London: Jonathan Cape).
–. 1995 Small Is Stupid (London: Duckworth).