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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    The U.S. -- the world's richest nation and its single biggest polluter -- has stood in the way of progress on many of the most closely watched summit issues. While senior officials held briefings painting the Bush Administration as pro-environment, U.S. delegates backed the status quo on one topic after another, insisting over and over that "the American life-style is not up for negotiation."

    Hopes for a compromise lifted briefly in late March when the head of the American delegation, Assistant Secretary of State Curtis Bohlen, announced that the U.S. had reversed itself and accepted the idea that "new and additional financial resources" would be needed to pay for environmental action in poor countries. But Bohlen would not say how much the U.S. might be willing to pledge.

    In the end, negotiators despaired of settling the funding questions in advance and agreed to reopen the issue in Rio. Some observers think the Group of 77 may have made a tactical blunder by pushing so hard for financial and technical aid. Sir Crispin Tickell, Britain's former ambassador to the U.N., has called it a "diplomatic mistake of the highest magnitude." Others criticize the Earth Summit organizers, who by putting so many environmental problems on the negotiating table may have inadvertently ensured that none of them get solved.

    By linking environmentalism and development, the conferees have brought to the surface a fundamental conflict in the way man and nature measure progress -- a conflict between economics and ecology. To an economist, weighing things like savings, investments and growth, ecological concerns are secondary considerations to be factored into the larger econometric model. Ecologists studying the complex relationships of living things to their environment know from experience that treating nature like a limitless resource leads, eventually, to irreversible collapse.

    In the negotiations leading up to the Earth Summit, individual nations have acted like ecologists on external matters and economists on their own internal affairs. This is, perhaps, to be expected. Making sacrifices for the good of the planet requires negotiating away some measure of national sovereignty, something no country does with grace.

    That is not likely to change when those 100 or so heads of state meet in Rio next week. If the world's environmental problems did not get solved in two ! years of preparatory negotiations, they can hardly be settled in 10 days dominated by banquets, receptions and photo opportunities. But it is not too late to salvage something of great value from the Earth Summit. If the leaders who go there -- and the people watching them from around the world -- can be convinced that the crisis facing the planet is serious enough to demand a new alliance between North and South, then there is hope that what did not get accomplished on the road to Rio may at least get started on the way home.

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