Hayward Asks: Is Sustainable Development Sustainable?

Steven Hayward at Hamilton.
Steven Hayward at Hamilton.

As a conservative concerned with environmental issues, Steven Hayward  describes himself as a “curious cat.” Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, spoke at Hamilton on Oct. 4, at a talk titled “Is Sustainable Development Sustainable?”


Hayward, who has been called a “green conservative” by publications such as The Economist, began by trying to explain why conservatives became estranged from the green movement. He explained that, “Environmentalism tends to be a pessimistic creed.” Hayward touched on this theme throughout the talk, pointing out that since the 1970s, there has constantly been a trend of people believing that they have only about 10 years left to save the environment. The constant doomsday rhetoric, Hayward argued, helped alienate conservatives against the environmental movement.


The environmentalism movement more or less grew in earnest in the 1970s, when three major areas of concern were identified: Resource depletion, pollution, and fear over a coming population bomb. Hayward sought to define sustainable development in the context of those three original concerns, arguing that sustainable development means, “To meet the needs of the present without jeopardizing the needs of our future generations.” No one is in favor of unsustainable development, he pointed out, but agreements over what makes for sustainable development have continued over the past several decades.


Looking back on the three major concerns that the environmental movement pushed to the forefront in the 1970s, Hayward argued that significant progress has taken place. Citing the declining birth rates in countries across the world (particularly the developed world), he contended that there was no reason to fear that any sort of overpopulation bomb was coming. Where he was most passionate, however, was his case for the significant progress made in the United States regarding air pollution.


He explained that two of the most oft cited domestic policy success stories over the past couple of decades are crime reduction and welfare reform. However, air pollution has decreased more over the past 15 to 20 years than crime rates or welfare expenditure have, a fact that is lost on most Americans. He used the city where he grew up, notoriously smoggy Los Angeles, to help demonstrate the point, explaining that ozone levels used to hit 36 parts per million in the 1970s in Los Angeles, whereas now in most areas of the city it has been brought down to about 15 or 16 parts per million even on “the worst days.”


“Gains on air pollution have been incremental,” Hayward said. Part of the decrease in air pollution can be attributed to technological advancements. To illustrate the point, Hayward asked the crowd, “Anyone have a 1970 Ford Mustang in their driveway?” When no one answered in the affirmative, he joked, “That’s too bad in some ways,” before explaining that it was “good in a lot of ways.” Automotive technology has advanced in such a way that a Mustang from 1970 sitting in a garage today would emit more air pollution than the 2010 model would driving on the highways, according to Hayward.


Sustainable development is often a question of having the knowledge to take action. Hayward compared the cattle industry’s use of barbed wire fencing to consolidate property and avoid the problem of slaughtering cows too quickly to sustain a business, to the fishing industry’s more reckless over-use of the seas because there were no safeguards like barbed wire fencing possible in the water for a long time. This led to a strategy of, “killing when you can.” Hayward pointed out that the more recent development of fish catch-share programs, if they had been implemented earlier, could have increased fish populations today by as much as 67 percent.


In framing sustainability debates of the present day, Hayward drew attention to the debate over ethanol. In particular, he took to task ethanol advocates who asked after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, “When was the last time we saw ethanol spill?” Hayward’s response to this was, “Every year.” Nitrate runoff as a result of ethanol development in the Gulf of Mexico delta leads to hypoxia, in Hayward’s telling.


Hayward’s visions on sustainability issues moving forward can be described as murky, at best, in large part because of inherent weaknesses that he sees environmentalists continuing to perpetuate. The biggest criticism he has for the environmentalists is their “Inability or lack of consideration for tradeoffs.”


In his conclusion, Hayward laid out his vision for where sustainable development could go, under the right circumstances. “Sustainability is a perfectly fine touchstone, but it’s a lot more complicated than we think.”


Perhaps in a nod to his conservative roots, he commented that the future of sustainability, “Is not in centralized planning, but ordinary folks rolling up their sleeves and saying, ‘Well I don’t know what this means in the grand scheme, but I know that I can fix that river bank.’” How this Tocquevillian vision fares remains to be seen.


This lecture was made possible by the Sustainability Program of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.

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