The problem with ‘sustainable development’

Bjorn Lomborg on how Western obsessions are harming the world’s poorest.


Topics Science & Tech World

The Global South needs rapid economic development. This is the only thing that will lift billions out of poverty, raise their life expectancy and their quality of life. But the West has other priorities for the developing world. According to rich Western countries, development now must be ‘sustainable’. Growth must be contained within strict ecological limits. Industrialisation must be slowed in order to mitigate climate change. Huge pressure is being heaped on developing countries to rein in their economic ambitions for the sake of ‘the planet’.

Bjorn Lomborg’s new book, Best Things First, re-makes the case for economic progress against this Western eco-imperialism. Lomborg offers some simple, smart and radical ways we can change the world for the better. He joined Brendan O’Neill to discuss all this and more on The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Listen to the full episode here.

Brendan O’Neill: Why did you feel it was important to write this book and come up with these goals?

Bjorn Lomborg: The developed world has promised to help the developing world fulfil the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. These were set out in 2015 by the United Nations. The SDGs have essentially promised everything to everyone, everywhere, all the time. The West has said that it’s going to fix poverty, hunger, war, corruption, global warming and education. And it’s somehow also going to get organic apples and community gardens to everyone on Earth.

In an ideal world, it would be great to fix everything, but we don’t live in that world. Doing all the things we have promised would probably cost between $10 and $15 trillion more each year. That’s money we don’t have. For reference, that’s the same amount as the whole world’s tax intake last year. And we’d have to spend that extra every year. That means we would have to stop everything we’re doing right now and just spend all our money on trying to solve these problems. Of course, that’s not going to happen.

We’re halfway to the SDG deadline, but we’re nowhere near halfway to fulfilling these goals. So, as I argue in Best Things First, why don’t we do the smartest stuff first? We need to identify where we can spend money to do the most good first.

The 12 goals I lay out in my book are the things that will deliver the most economic benefits for the minimum cost. That means they would help people become richer, more productive and socially better-off. Fewer people would die, get sick, lose their parents or lose their children. People would also be environmentally better-off – they would have better wetlands, fewer CO2 emissions, and more arable land to grow crops. This is all about achieving the greatest improvements, at the lowest possible cost.

O’Neill: Are the SDGs the best goals for the world to be working towards?

Lomborg: Not necessarily. For example, the idea that we should all have more organic food is included in the SDGs.

For rich countries, that may be a perfectly reasonable goal. But with current technology, you just can’t feed most people on organic foods. About half of all food today is grown with synthetic fertiliser. That means fertiliser made mostly from natural gas. Without that, it’s impossible to sustain the billions of people living on Earth. As famous agronomist Norman Borlaug said: ‘There are 6.6 billion people on the planet today. With organic farming, we could only feed four billion of them. Which two billion would volunteer to die?’ That’s just not an option.

We need to have a sense of what our top priorities are. Clearly, if you’re hungry your priority is to get as much food as cheaply as possible.

Of course food isn’t the only thing we should be talking about. In general, we have to be very careful that the rich world doesn’t put strict restrictions on how development should happen. We shouldn’t be saying that all food has to be organic, before there’s even enough of it to go around. Maybe you can go all organic if you live in England, but it’s unreasonable to ask this of someone who lives in Malawi.

If we want to do good in the world, let’s do the best things first. Let’s do the things that will actually have the most impact. If you add up the cost for all the 12 things I suggest in my book, it’s $35 billion a year. That’s not much in the grand scheme of things. On a global scale, that’s certainly something we can afford. If we spent that $35 billion smartly, we could save 4.2million lives each year. And we can make the developing world $1.1 trillion richer, each and every year.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a great example of a huge problem with a relatively simple fix. In the West, this terrible disease was pretty much eradicated with the invention of antibiotics. But that never happened in the developing world. In 2021, TB killed 1.6million people worldwide. It’s one of the leading causes of death in South Africa and India. Ridding the world of TB might seem like this huge impossible task, but the solution is actually very simple. All you need to do is make people take their prescribed medication for six months. And to do that, you can gamify it or give people incentives to stick on this long course of antibiotics. The other thing you can do is increase testing, especially in communities where TB has a certain stigma attached to it. The total cost of all these solutions would be around $6 billion. That’s a small cost to get TB under control and save millions of lives.

In this incredibly divisive age, it’s important that we have something we can all agree on. And who wouldn’t agree that it’s a good thing to spend a little money on doing a lot of good? We might not be able to fix everything. We’re not going to eradicate all diseases or wipe out poverty. But we can dramatically reduce those things. That by itself would be an incredible outcome.

Bjorn Lomborg was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

Picture by: Charlotte Carlberg Bärg.

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Topics Science & Tech World


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