The United Nations conference on sustainable development is winding down after a week of hand-wringing in Johannesburg, South Africa. As expected, the United States served as an international piñata for many of the delegates from poor nations. In speech after speech, the U.S. was criticized for its level of affluence, especially relative to other nations. South African President Thabo Mbeki, opening the conference, claimed that “a global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, is unsustainable.”
However, the notion that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer is demonstrably false. In a recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin of Columbia University found that “international income disparities during the last two decades have declined substantially. There were close to 400 million less poor in 1998 than there were in the 1970s.”
The reason the worldwide income gap is narrowing is that market economies are becoming more prevalent. This in turn has important consequences for environmental quality and public health. Once poor countries attain enough wealth to provide safe drinking water, sanitary sewage disposal, and adequate nutrition to their citizens, they begin to focus their attention to other environmental concerns such as wildlife preservation. This has a snowball effect; as citizens continue to become wealthier, they demand ever-higher levels of environmental protection, and they also have the disposable income to pay for it.
The UN conference was, like most UN conferences, a complete waste of time and money. Instead of criticizing other countries, the delegates who attended would be better off getting their own houses in order by strengthening the institutions that create wealth: property rights, free trade, and the rule of law. Only countries based on these principles are truly sustainable.
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