Summit to Save the Earth: Rich vs. Poor

North and South will meet in Rio to confront the planet's most pressing ills. The event could change the world -- or be a disaster of global proportions.

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Olivier Morin / AFP / Getty

Smoke from a Finnish factory.

THE LINEUP OF WORLD LEADERS WILL include Prime Minister John Major, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and, now that he has finally made up his mind to go, President George Bush. The Dalai Lama will join a delegation of clerics, artists and green-minded parliamentarians. Hundreds of native leaders, from American Indians to Malaysian tribesmen, will represent the interests of the world's indigenous peoples. Tens of thousands of diplomats, scientists, ecologists, theorists, feminists, journalists, tourists and assorted hangers-on are expected to gather in dozens of auditoriums and outdoor sites for nearly 400 official and unofficial events, among them an environmental technology fair, a scientific symposium and a meeting of mayors. Peter Max's art will appear on special postage stamps. A Robert Rauschenberg poster will be slapped up on walls. Placido Domingo will headline a star-studded musical tribute to the planet. And a full-size replica of a 9th century Viking ship will sail in from Norway carrying messages of goodwill from children all over the world.

If size and ambition were the measures of success, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro would take all the prizes. The so-called Earth Summit, more than two years in the making, will be the largest and most complex conference ever held -- bigger than the momentous meetings at Versailles, Yalta and Potsdam.

Those summits carved up empires, drew new borders and settled world wars. The agenda for the Earth Summit is more far reaching: it sets out to confront not only the world's most pressing environmental problems -- from global warming to deforestation -- but poverty and underdevelopment as well. A five- week preparatory meeting in New York City that ended last month produced 24 million pages of documents. "It's a Herculean task," admits Maurice Strong, the former Canadian oil executive who organized and serves as secretary- general for the giant get-together.

But with one week to go before the opening ceremonies, the outlook for the Rio conference is far from certain. It is still possible that the Earth Summit will be one of those landmark events that change the course of history, recasting the relationship of the nations of the world not only to one another but also to their environment. Or it could end up to be a diplomatic disaster of global proportions, driving the wedge deeper between the industrial countries and developing countries and thus setting back the cause of environmentalism.

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