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.

  • Olivier Morin / AFP / Getty

    Smoke from a Finnish factory.

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    There are scores of other issues -- large and small -- buried in the drafts of two primary Earth Summit texts: a five-page "declaration" and a 600-plus- page "blueprint for action" called Agenda 21. The shorter statement, originally called the Earth Charter, was supposed to be a soaring preamble, along the lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The longer agenda was supposed to specify the problems that the world will face well into the 21st century and how to pay for their solution.

    Both documents will be adopted at Rio, but neither bears much resemblance to the original conception. After weeks of debate, the Earth Charter was abandoned and replaced by a woodenly written declaration filled with the kind of pious promises ("eradicating poverty," "eliminat((ing)) unsustainable patterns of production and consumption") that world leaders often make but never keep. In what is perhaps the worst example of bureaucratic obfuscation, ^ the text at one point endorses the promotion of "appropriate demographic policies" -- the nearest negotiators could come to confronting the explosive issue of population control.

    Agenda 21 became the main forum for North-South wrangling on every topic imaginable, including the spread of deserts, disposal of toxic wastes and protection of women's rights. In the end, the conferees were able to agree that some of these problems do need to be solved. What they still have not agreed on is the means to solve them. To bring about meaningful change in most of these areas would require overhauling the way the world does business -- from the laws that control international trade to the financial institutions that direct the ebb and flow of capital. That is a task that the negotiators have barely even begun.

    Much of the debate has centered on technology, which both sides seem to agree is crucial. The Japanese have already made it a national goal to develop the next generation of environmentally friendly machines and industrial processes -- seeing this as a way that developed countries can strengthen their position in the world economy. The developing nations, still saddled with old, inefficient production techniques, insist that they will never be able to curb pollution without preferential access to new processes and equipment. Some experts fear that both sides have unrealistic expectations of technology, as if it were a magic carpet that would allow primitive societies to skip the Industrial Revolution and go straight to the environmentally friendly 21st century. But after weeks of debate, negotiators were not able to agree on whether what they wanted was technology "transfer" or technology "cooperation," never mind how to achieve them.

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