TCS Daily

Heat Not Light

By Lorne Gunter - September 2, 2002 12:00 AM

"Walkout averted!" trumpeted a headline last week from Johannesburg. Apparently 12,000 activists and lobbyists from environmental and anti-globalization NGOs had threatened to abandon the UN's World Summit on Sustainable Development if they weren't given more access to the main conference center so they could bend the ears and twist the arms of the official delegations inside.

But that potential disaster was averted, thank God, when UN organizers swiftly and tremulously capitulated. I shudder to think of all the anti-corporate conspiracy theories, impractical solutions and Marxist rhetoric that would have been lost had these self-anointed advocates for "the voiceless" and "the people" withdrawn - not to mention the mounds of lobster pate that would have spoiled and the champagne that would have gone flat had these tireless champions of the poor not been there to consume it.


Frankly, it was heartening to read James K. Glassman's reassurance that in Jo'burg "global warming is taking a back seat to...fighting poverty and disease, securing drinkable water and spreading the benefits of energy."

Still, despite the apparent triumph of common sense over junk science, there has so far been no shortage of neo-colonialism name-calling or class-envy, racial-warfare, capitalism-bashing, Western-world-blaming rhetoric. The WSSD is a UN event, after all.

South African President Thabo Mbeki charged at the opening session that wealthy nations' refusal to share their riches was creating a "global apartheid." The zero-sum implications of his charge - that the poor can only be made wealthier if the wealthy are made poorer - come naturally as Mbeki is a one-time, long-time socialist.

The group Friends of the Earth International has labeled the United States, Canada and Australia the "Axis of Environmental Evil" for the three industrialized nations' failure or refusal to ratify the Kyoto accord. Maude Barlow, head of the ultra-protectionist Council of Canadians, urged delegates to "reject the corporate brainwashing that is happening." Barlow is in South Africa to push for union-friendly tariffs and to rail against the genetically modified foods that might actually save the host continent from chronic starvation. (Another well-fed First World delegate asserted that GM foods offered Africa a Hobson's choice: "Die of hunger now, or eat and die later.")

Claude Martin, the Director-General of the World Wildlife Fund, insisted "the view that poverty is the most toxic thing for the environment is bulls*!&." Martin was using his special talent for eloquence to reject the well-documented claim that enabling poor countries to make themselves rich will do more to green the globe than all the regulations UN bureaucrats and smug NGO activists can dream up. Princeton economists Alan Krueger and Gene Grossman have even given this phenomenon a name - the Environmental Kuznets Curve. They have found that as a country begins to industrialize it does indeed damage its environment. But this degradation is temporary and bottoms out at about $5,000 in per capita income. By the time per capita income reaches $8,000 annually, most environmental indicators have surpassed pre-industrialization levels, and continue to improve as income grows.

Delegates to the WSSD and its sideshow gatherings have alleged poverty is "toxic," literally toxic to the natural world. They have called for the reestablishment of the UN's Commission on Transnational Corporations, this time with the power to punish large companies that violate the activists' view of corporate responsibility (merely firing up the plant and paying workers the going wage would likely qualify) and rich nations that fail to redistribute "the world's wealth and power."

There's been a march against "sustainable poverty," a sophomoric play on the summit's name. Toye Olori, a Nigerian journalist and frequent contributor to UN environmental publications, argued the world's problems are "all the North's fault."

Almost no mention has been made of the endemic corruption and totalitarianism in the Third World, or the way these evil twins retard the preconditions for prosperity - freedom and free markets.

And, of course, President George W. Bush's intelligence has been impugned and he has been ridiculed as a stooge of "corporate sponsors and fundamentalists," a "cowboy who lives in a Wild West fantasy world."

Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan peace activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner - who fabricated the 1983 autobiography that brought her to international prominence - should have no credibility left. Yet, this being a UN conference, Menchu is an official goodwill ambassador.

Goodwill towards whom? Menchu has spoken out angrily against the "genocide of the world" being caused by "the unilateral arrogance of the powerful." Still she has Menchu offered "the cosmovision of my Mayan ancestors" to salve the world's ills. One can assume she didn't mean human sacrifice, in which her enlightened ancestors ripped the beating hearts out of virgins and other victims to placate the gods of nature and bountiful harvests. Or did she?

Much has been made at the WSSD of the 8 million war deaths in Africa since 1960, but no mention has been made (at least not that I can find from 8,000 miles distance) that these deaths have been post-colonialist and that democracies don't attack one another. No sense admitting that if Africa weren't rife with its own home-grown tribal warlords, petty despots and other assorted strongmen and dictators if might not be such an economic and social pit.

Nor have the names of Hernando DeSoto or David Ricardo or Adam Smith - whose theories might actually help lift the Third World out of despair - been evoked. Then again, if the Third World learned how to form capital, maximize its comparative trade advantages or encourage the invisible hand, it wouldn't need high-minded and well-paid UN bureaucrats to devise new development schemes every five to 10 years.

The good news about improvements in poor nations' health, wealth and environment in the past half century has been largely ignored, too. It's been almost all crisis, crisis, crisis, because nothing drives grants, donations and demands for more state intervention better than a good disaster, real or perceived.

But Gar Smith of San Francisco's Earth Island Institute so far uttered my favorite inanity. "I don't think...electricity is a good thing," Smith actually postulated. "There is a lot of quality to be had in poverty." The electrification of the Third World is destroying hundreds of worthy cultures. Ah, yes, those glorious days before refrigerated food, incubators, operating theatres and computers saved lives. That's something to pine for.

When all is said and done, the official delegates at the WSSD will likely formulate a half-way sensible plan to improve Third World living conditions. But it will be no thanks to the avalanche did that wildlife guy put it?...oh, yes, "bulls*!&" emanating from most of the summit's observers, protestors, hangers-on and freeloading teat-suckers.

The author is an editorial writer and editor for the Edmonton Journal and Canada's National Post.

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