Carnival of Dunces

Carnival of Dunces

Smith Op-Ed in National Review
July 06, 1992


Rio is a beautiful city, shoehorned between steep granite mountains and seemingly infinite sandy beaches where, despite the thinning of the ozone layer, eco-efficient clothing (less is more") dominates. The city was even more beautiful than usual during the Earth Summit, because its street children and poor had been pushed out of sight to ensure that the Summit's opposition to economic growth would not be mocked by the reality of Third World poverty. Rio's shantytowns clustered on the sides of the mountains, lacking sewers and potable water, received little emphasis at an Earth Summit where the preferred topics were pesticide residues and subtle changes in temperature over the next several hundred years. The Rio skyline is dominated by the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer, and He is the only one Who will be able to help the Brazilian poor as plans to crucify mankind on a cross of green proceed.

The official United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) was headquartered at Rio Center, 45 minutes from downtown. The soldiers were decked out in fresh green uniforms—environmentalism is nothing if not chic—and one was reminded that India has already established "Green Brigades" to act as "ecological vigilantes" throughout the country. Were these the harbingers of that eco-police state that would be needed to impose the full-scale green agenda? The requisite thought control was already in evidence.

Maurice Strong, the conference's secretary general, declared at the official opening that the human race is "a species out of control." He is a member of the Club of Rome, which predicted in 1972 that the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead, and natural gas by 1993. But no one at Rio was likely to remind Strong or anyone else of the Club's absurd predictions.

There were few skeptics, fewer heroes—but the Vatican delegation did stand out. All the leaders at Rio believed that population was the key problem. Sterilizing the brown people of the underdeveloped world remains a green goal. But the Vatican demurred—and won.

Others defended their particular corner, like the Saudis defending fossil fuels and the Malaysians, timber exports. Perhaps the most poignant voice for common sense belonged to Sam Moyo,is.Executive Secretary of the Regional Network of Environmental Experts. He was indignant about the environmental establishment's refusal to accept ideas such as Zimbabwe's program of elephant "conservation through use," which gave that country one of the few African elephant populations that has increased in the past few years. "They talk about sustainable development," he told me, "yet we developed a means of sustaining wildlife, and they have stopped it." The recent Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species ruled that the market in ivory, even though it can provide an economic incentive to preserve elephants and their habitat, was not an acceptable program of conservation. Instead the environmentalists would talk about "eco-tourism," which Moyo points out could never sustain an entire economy. Other Third World representatives view it as nothing less than ecological imperialism.

Crosstown from the conference itself was the Global Forum, a New Age extravaganza, complete with Shirley MacLaine, the Dalai Lama, and a star-studded "Concert for Life." Here was the center of activity for the "non-governmental organizations," or NGOs—so-called because most of them are paid for by taxpayers—where group after group had set up booths to hawk their recycled ideologies. There one could find every element of the political environment, from the "essential role of women" in sustainable development (Bella Abzug serves as one of Strong's advisors) to the need to give animals complete dominion over the earth.

A single handwritten page produced by the environmental and developmental NGOs condemned the Saudis for opposing anti-energy policies, the Malaysians for raising the eco-imperialism theme, and the United States, "unanimously and without debate," as the worst participant in the Earth Summit. Not since the Vietnam War has the U.S. been so widely vilified for its "isolation" from the sentiments of the world.

What We Should Have Said

ALL THIS could have been avoided. The concerns dominant at Rio—climate change, biodiversity, deforestation, sustainable development—are all policy areas about which the U.S. boasts solid achievements. (See James R. Dunn, p. 34.)

The U.S. itself offers a valuable model on how economic and ecological values can be reconciled. Those resources which have been integrated into the market system of voluntary exchanges are increasingly abundant. In the U. S. gasoline is cheaper than Perrier.

But we have found that most environmental fears have been vastly overstated, and the risks (economic and health) of current environmental policies (the Clean Air Act, Superfund, the Endangered Species Act, the proposed carbon taxes) are much greater—and the effectiveness far less—than once believed. But the U.S. made no effort to raise these points, or the science of climate change, biodiversity, or anything else. It accepted the general premise that the time for thinking was over; it was time for action. The major risks of politicizing the world's economy were not even recognized. The U.S. presented no policy alternatives at Rio and the world was understandably confused.

Rather than aggressively promote a privatization strategy as the dominant means of achieving sustainable development, the Bush Administration has ceded all moral and intellectual premises to the opposition. As EPA administrator William Reilly proudly proclaimed the day the Earth Summit opened, "The United States embraces enthusiastically the goals of this conference." Despite continuing scientific uncertainty over the likelihood and impact of a global warming, Reilly beamed that "the United States strongly supports the climate-change agreement." He did his best to embarrass the Administration with his efforts to reverse the White House position on the Biodiversity Treaty.

No one should have been surprised. Reilly and the President's other key Rio advisor, "Buff" Bohlen at the State Department, were both formerly employed by the World Wildlife Fund, a leading proponent of the green trade restrictions that now threaten to undermine economically rational environmental programs in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. The normal OMB check on environmental imperialism was neutralized by Mr. Bush's appointment to the OMB review post of Robert Grady, another environmental true believer. At Rio, the world also saw a growing liaison between the environmental ministers of the world. Reilly and German environmental minister Klaus Topfer have far more in common with each other than with their respective countrymen, indeed than with their respective political bosses.

The widespread nonsense at the Rio conference would not be quite so disheartening but for the endorsement it received from President Bush's attendance. Along with others, I had sought to dissuade the President from going. That anyone favoring economic growth would support a move to reject progress as a goal of Western Civilization seemed insane.

True, he did recognize that some of the Earth Summit treaties were particularly damaging, for example that extending the Endangered Species Act (most recently applied in the spotted-owl controversy) to the world was a bad idea. But he compromised by signing one economically destructive treaty, that dealing with climate change. This treaty accepts the view that carbon dioxide—the substance we exhale—is a "pollutant" and that it should be reduced as soon as possible. No timetables have been announced, but Mr. Reilly and the President have rushed around saying how rapidly they intend to move. Mandatory energy conservation steps—higher gasoline taxes, further coercive steps to force Americans into smaller (and less safe) cars, bans on driving—all have been given a boost by the decision to sign this treaty.

Rio may well mark the demise of the Western idea of progress—the belief that Man's efforts can make the world a better place. Belief in progress has been replaced by the notion of a planet in peril caused by too many people consuming too much. And a solution, which the U.S. seems to have adopted without realizing it, is that more people must consume less.