TCS Daily

Bush Was Right

By James K. Glassman - August 28, 2002 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG-To the chagrin of tens of thousands of Green activists here in South Africa, the latest United Nations environmental conference is turning out not to be a typical environmental conference at all. Instead, it is focusing on the real-life concerns of the citizens of developing nations-especially, on economic growth.

As a veteran of similar meetings at the Hague in 2000 and Bonn last year, which concentrated on climate change and turned into bash-America festivals, I was pleasantly surprised, when I arrived today at the World Summit for Sustainable Development, to find the focus broader and more productive than at any similar conclave since Rio ten years ago. Yes, the fanatics are here, but the tone is more reasonable.

This week, divided Johannesburg observers into two camps: "pro-summit romantics" and "anti-summit cynics." Count me a pro-summit pragmatist.

Why? Mainly because the shaky science of global warming is taking a back seat to concerns about growth in the developing world - about fighting poverty and disease, securing drinkable water and spreading the benefits of energy.

After all, Africa, the site of this, the largest global conference ever, isn't Europe. The concerns of the citizens of this poverty-stricken continent are not the possibility of higher global temperatures at the end of the century, but sufficient food and shelter here and now. Windmill power may be nice for Holland, Germany and Denmark, but it's a luxury that developing countries today just can't afford. They need electricity immediately-in its most abundant and inexpensive forms - and attention here is turning to technology transfers that will provide cleaner coal and nuclear power today, rather than solar cells sometime in the next few decades.

Academic research has shown repeatedly that, once people attain a decent standard of living, they quickly start cleaning up their environment. But for the poor, economic growth must come first. And, against all odds, that theme is beginning to dominate this conference.

What was particularly irksome to activists today is that trade-not greenhouse gas-is what the conference is talking about. "Increasingly, it seems, we are negotiating a trade text, with other issues relegated to the periphery," reported an unhappy writer for Eco Equity, the daily newsletter published jointly here by such Green groups as Oxfam International World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace.

And a Reuters dispatch stated, "Rich and poor nations argued over scrapping billions of dollars in subsidies to Western farmers on Wednesday." Robert Zoellick, the US Trade Representative, who has been pushing Europeans to stop the subsidies and open their markets to the agricultural goods of developing nations, is clearly having an impact. (The U.S., however, is not blameless in keeping goods of poor countries out.)

Reuters also reported on the most important extracurricular activity of the day, a demonstration outside the conference center, "where 200 poor farmers and local street traders from nearby shanty townships shouted slogans demanding freer trade."

The demonstrators carried signs stating, "Profits, Not Poverty." One of the leaders, Barun Mitra, an Indian farmer leading about 30 other farmers from his country, told Reuters, "We want the freedom to grow what we want, when we want, with what technology we want, and without trade-distorting subsidies or tariffs."

By "technology," Mitra was referring to agriculture using biotechnology. The European Union has placed a moratorium on genetically modified imports, to the detriment of farmers like Mitra-not to mention European consumers.

The other hot topic here on the third day of this 10-day meeting is the contrast between the extravagance of this conference and the poverty compared with conditions in surrounding Africa. A recent article in the Sun newspaper of London was headlined, "Lobsters, Caviar and Brandy for MPs at Summit on Starvation." The reference was to British members of Parliament, but it could apply as well to many of the 60,000 other delegates here.

The article began, "The sickening champagne and caviar lifestyle being enjoyed by Earth Summit delegates was exposed yesterday. They are gorging on mountains of lobster, oysters and fillet steak at the Johannesburg conference - aimed at ending famine. As the summit began yesterday, desperate kids in nearby shanty towns queued for water at standpipes."

The conference itself is being held in Sandton, the wealthiest suburb on the continent, a commercial center about 10 miles north of Johannesburg itself. The Times of London called Sandton "the most affluent cathedral of capitalism that Africa has to offer [and] the bolt-hole of Johannesburg businesses fleeing the crime and poverty of downtown, drips with opulence, from gilt taps to acres of marble floor."

What is striking, in addition to intense poverty in surrounding areas like Soweto, is the crime in the city center and many of the environs. My guidebook, which is normally low-key and upbeat, warns, "Do not go out on your own, anywhere... Be sure to avoid any place where unrestricted consumption of liquor is likely to take place.... Avoid any of the suburban trains at off-peak times, unless you're in a group of at least ten."

But, while the conditions may be difficult, the venue is an excellent one for a conference on sustainable development, defined in a UN report in 1987 as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

In Africa, the "needs of the present" are evident - and they are dire. No, this isn't the Hague and it isn't Bonn. It is a continent that needs the basics - economic growth built, as it always must be, on foundations of democratic institutions and free markets.

Oh, yes, the press continues its obsession with President Bush's absence. The high-level delegation includes the Secretary of State and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and, unlike the Hague and Bonn, Johannesburg is a conference at which the U.S. Government is fully committed - especially in pushing public-private partnerships to improve living conditions in developing countries.

Keeping Bush away from the WSSB may prove not merely to be sensible but also to be effective politically. Without Bush, activists have a harder time concentrating on global warming - and are forced to confront more serious matters.


Wow! what a great idea!! Mold Removal

The concerns of the citizens of this poverty-stricken continent are not the possibility of higher global temperatures at the end of the century, but sufficient food and shelter here and now

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