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.

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The world has changed dramatically since the first Earth Summit, held 20 years ago in Stockholm (and also chaired by the indefatigable Strong). That event, which launched thousands of grass-roots conservation groups around the world and spawned environmental agencies and ministries in more than 115 nations, was held in the shadow of the cold war, when the planet was divided into rival East and West blocs and preoccupied with the perils of the nuclear arms race. With the collapse of the East bloc and the thawing of the cold war, a fundamental shift in the global axis of power has occurred. Today the more meaningful division -- especially on environmental issues -- is not between East and West but between "North" (Europe, North America and Japan) and "South" (most of Asia, Africa and Latin America). And though the immediate threat of nuclear destruction has lifted, the planet is no less at risk.

While there has been some environmental progress in individual countries, the state of the world has mostly gone downhill. Air pollution, a major issue in Stockholm, has grown significantly worse in most cities. Even more alarming, it is now overshadowed by broad atmospheric changes, such as ozone depletion and the buildup of greenhouse gases. According to the Washington- based Worldwatch Institute, one of the hundreds of environmental pressure groups advising the Earth Summit negotiators, the world has lost 200 million hectares (500 million acres) of trees since 1972, an area roughly one-third the size of the continental U.S. The world's farmers, meanwhile, have lost nearly 500 million tons of topsoil, an amount equal to the tillable soil coverage of India and France combined. Lakes, rivers, even whole seas have been turned into sewers and industrial sumps. And tens of thousands of plant and animal species that shared the planet with us in 1972 have since disappeared.

The idea behind the Earth Summit was that the relaxation of cold war tensions, combined with the heightened awareness of these growing ecological crises, offered a rare opportunity to persuade countries to look beyond their national interests and agree to some basic changes in the way they treat the environment. The broad issues are clear: the developed countries of the North have grown accustomed to life-styles that are consuming a disproportionate share of natural resources and generating the bulk of global pollution. Many of the developing countries of the South, for their part, are consuming irreplaceable global resources -- eating the world's seed corn, as it were -- to provide for their exploding populations. And both groups have as an object lesson the now bankrupt countries of the East bloc, whose singularly inefficient path to industrialization has produced some of the worst environmental disasters the world has ever seen.

The solution -- at least in broad outline -- is also fairly clear. The nations of the world must abandon those practices that are self-destructive in favor of what environmentalists like to call "sustainable development." A sustainable society is one that manages its economic growth in such a way as to do no irreparable damage to its environment. By balancing economic requirements with ecological concerns, it satisfies the needs of its people without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations.

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