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FEATURE

Sustainability vs. Local Knowledge

DECEMBER 19, 2012 by MIKE REID

 

A young woman came to my door the other day and told me she was raising money to teach farmers in the Philippines about “sustainable agriculture.” 
 
“Wow,” I replied. “You must be a major expert for Filipinos to reach out halfway across the world and ask you to come teach them.”
 
“Oh,” she said. “Well, we haven't talked to the Filipinos yet. This is just the money we need to get our organization to the Philippines. Then we'll teach them all about sustainable agriculture.”
 
This 20-year-old, fabulously rich by global standards, is only one of the many idealistic people the West now exports to manage the lives of the global poor.
 

“Sustainability” and Time Preference

 
The concept of “sustainability” is now ubiquitous in international-development circles. It was most famously defined by the UN potentate and ex-Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. According to her 1987 UN report, sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
 
The international idealists now use this concept broadly to mean combining economic development with environmental preservation. One of the main fears of the advocates of “sustainable agriculture” is that farmers are unwisely degrading the quality of their soil by using chemical pesticides and fertilizers. 
 
But are outside experts really qualified to determine each Filipino farmer’s proper balance between getting chemically induced high yields now and risking lower yields later?
 
Each person has his own subjective preferences about how to trade present enjoyment for future enjoyment (and present returns for future returns). Universally, as Ludwig von Mises explained, using the Austrian school’s concept of time preference, we humans are basically impatient. We generally want things now, now, now—instead of someday later. But for each human, the power of this preference depends on his own desires, resources, and judgment.
 
In the world of reality, in the living and changing universe, each individual in each of his actions is forced to choose between satisfaction in various periods of time. Some people consume all that they earn, others consume a part of their capital, others save.
 
Although delaying present gratification in favor of future satisfaction often leads to material success, it is ultimately a judgment that depends on each person’s goals and resources. And of course, it depends on the institutions on the ground. In situations where there are tragedies of the commons—such as people farming unowned or government-owned land—there are deep incentives to exploit the land. Where there is private property, there are greater incentives to preserve for future generations.
 
The internationalist concept of “sustainability” is an attempt to override the time preferences of Filipino farmers in favor of the time preference of Gro Harlem Brundtland and her ilk. And if any meaning can be given to the term “sustainability,” it would have to do with the real sustainability that comes from having the right rules in place—like property, prices, and profits, which help people avoid tragedies of the commons. And yet that’s not what advocates of sustainability want. They prefer command and control. 
 

“The Needs of the Present”

 
The concept of “sustainability” depends on the assumption that humans have objective needs. Remember, Brundtland says that we must provide for “the needs of the present” without impinging on the “needs” of the future.
 
But what does a person “need”? What you need to survive is different from what you need to be happy or prosperous or loved. 
 
What you need to live to age 60 is different from what you need to live to age 100. Where shall we draw the line?
 
Indeed, if we limit ourselves to the requirements for mere biological survival, a human’s needs could be met with a 6’x6’ concrete cell and a daily bucket of gruel. I don’t think this is what Brundtland has in mind. But she has something in mind. And she is willing to impose it. 
 
Because there is no objective definition of human needs, and because there is no objectively correct tradeoff between present and future wants, “sustainable agriculture” simply means conserving whatever amount of resources the 20-year-old expert visiting your village thinks you should conserve based on some notion she picked up in college. And this is where things get uncomfortable. 
 

Local Knowledge and International Aid

 
The woman at my door seemed honestly to believe that she was bringing powerful new knowledge to farmers in the Philippines, even though she’d never set foot in the country, let alone planted a crop there.
 
I asked her where in the Philippines she was going. She answered, “Oh, I'm not sure. Lanao del Norte, maybe? I don’t remember.”
 
The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, and it’s a highly diverse place, both geographically and culturally. It matters a lot, for instance, whether you're going to the big northern island of Luzon (controlled by the Christian majority and the U.S.-backed central government) or to the big southern island of Mindanao (where Muslim separatists routinely use kidnap-for-ransom schemes to fund their operations). By the way, Lanao del Norte is on the northern edge of that southern island.
 
This young woman was missing the essential requirement for all intelligent human action—what anthropologists call “local knowledge” and what F. A. Hayek called the “knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances.” 
 
To farm wisely, you need to know what kind of soil, topography, local plants, and insect pests you’re dealing with. You need to know what’s happening among your neighbors and nearby markets. And of course, everywhere in the Philippines, you need to know whom to bribe to get anything done. (It is widely considered the most corrupt country in East Asia.)
 
Filipino farmers are already working through those challenges on the ground every day. What special knowledge can their savior from North America bring to the table? And if this knowledge is so valuable, why hasn’t it percolated through to those markets already? 
 
The last question is not merely rhetorical. It’s possible something is preventing this knowldege from getting through, or preventing Filipino farmers from taking full advantage of it. If so, what? Are laws in place preventing them from enjoying the full benefits of their work—such as confiscatory taxes, unreliable property rights, or agreements signed with international do-gooders to withhold technologically advanced equipment that could increase yield quickly? Of course, foreigners may have knowledge to share that will improve the long-term viability of the Filipino agricultural sector. But it’s not clear how much bureaucrats, ideologues, and twenty-year-old idealists have to contribute. 
 
The well-meaning outsider believes that somehow, the local people aren’t already using every resource at their disposal carefully and energetically to make a good life for themselves and their children. When Filipino farmers buy a few jugs of insecticide to kill off the pests that eat their crops, so this line of thinking goes, they are making a terrible mistake. Without the outsider’s intervention and her superior, Gro-given knowledge, the Filipinos will surely reduce their landscape to a toxic wasteland.
 
How on earth did the people of these islands manage to “sustain” their farms before selfless Westerners showed up to guide them?
 
It is not for me, nor for the idealistic woman at my door, to decide what far-off peoples should do with their soil. Other people are not our property, and we do not know what is best for them. Of course, we can travel to distant places, act in good faith, and give advice after learning the ins and outs of a people’s circumstances. But they might very well tell us to go away. They might even teach us a thing or two.
 

Sustainability, Control, and Markets

 
This is not to say that we rich outsiders must ignore the cruel poverty of the world’s least fortunate, who must often choose between a meal today and a meal tomorrow—or indeed have no choice for any meal at all.
 
But projects aimed at teaching ignorant foreigners how to manage their own resources are rooted in arrogance. The ideal of “sustainability” some are exporting around the world is empty. Definitionless. It is merely a Rorschach test for the personal values of the idealists who employ it. It simply dresses up old-fashioned imperialism in contemporary clothing.
 
It is, as Morgan J. Polinquin explains, “another attempt to replace the collective decisions of many in the market place with the coercive will of the few.”
 
The decisions of the “many in the market place” emerge from each individual’s local knowledge—from, as Hayek put it, “the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”
 
The market is the best way humans have of bringing all those tiny fragments of specific knowledge—about crops, pesticides, bribes, and a million other variables—together. Through the price system, we humans work wonders of mass coordination without any one of us being able to see the grand scheme. And that people sometimes have to work those wonders in a climate of regulation, corruption, or idealistic arrogance makes them all the more unbelievable. 
 
Furthermore, the market allows any person to try out new techniques, and see if they fit into the poverty-destroying global endeavor of free human cooperation.
 
Perhaps totally “organic” farming, with no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, is best for every farmer in the Philippines. Perhaps it would give everyone the best trade-off between feeding themselves today and preserving soil quality for tomorrow. Perhaps.
 
But no matter how high up you go in the UN hierarchy, there’s no seat in the sky for any human to sit on and pronounce that judgment for all the rest of the species.
 
When first-worlders traipse around the world touting cardboard concepts like “sustainability,” they are merely exerting control, once again, over the world’s poor—trying to make their lives fit into our designs. 
 
When my front-door visitor finishes her overseas agricultural adventure, she’ll come back with a digital camera full of photos and a resume full of impressive entries. The Filipino farmers will still be there, living off that soil. Their children will still be there. 
 
Who do you think has a better grasp of the balance between present and future uses of that plot of earth? 

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January/February 2013

ABOUT

MIKE REID

Mike Reid teaches anthropology at the University of Winnipeg and is primus inter pares at Invisible Order, a libertarian publishing-solutions company. 

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