‘A Totalitarian Effort’

Stanley Kubrick may be gone, but his visions of a hellish future corrupted by the abuses of corporatist government are alive and well. Nowhere are such dark prospects more in evidence than at today's “Sustainable Mobility” presentation by the “World Business Council for Sustainable Development” (WBCSD) at the similarly named confab for governmental officials, the “World Summit on Sustainable Development.” Mind you, I was not supposed to witness this disturbing event, but slithered in under cover of a pod of non-governmental organization types – we'll call them “Baptists” – and their bootlegging corporate lobbyist brethren. Both envision a world in which there are a lot less of you and me, living quite differently and far less prosperously. The WBCSD is a collection of large corporations seemingly dedicated to dramatic social reengineering, and not through simple innovation but forcing their values upon both the developed and developing world alike. The tools are their products, combined with the rhetorical pressure of “green” groups and the muscle of government. It seems that their members are not confident that the public will accept their vision, and the market is therefore not a good thing. What does this eco-babble about “sustainable mobility” mean? It is instructive to quote today's moderator, also WBCSD's “Sustainable Mobility” Project Manager, in his questioning of panelist U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy Emil Frankel: “Will Americans ever change their attitude regarding cars? Or… maybe, do we have to restrict the use of cars?” This means “Demand Management.” Others call it rationing. The United Nations Environment Programme rep in attendance piped up helpfully, earnestly and adamantly from the audience: “Demand management is going to be inevitable. That means less [sic] cars. That's a fact.” Other creepy terms to emerge included “decoupling.” Awareness of what in the world that means was assumed; the issue was how to achieve it. I got clued in pretty quickly when one of the panelists, a South American academic and bureaucrat, offered the lesson of the 1970s gasoline shortages. “You can get decoupling as fuel prices go up.” This segued into the only disturbing remark by the U.S. panelist, Frankel, who praised WBCSD for playing an important role in advancing the debate on “fair pricing” or “full costing” of transportation – simply put, this means getting consumers to pay a lot more for their automotive freedom. The moderator acknowledged an earlier presentation establishing that “the richer people get, the more they want to buy more than one car… sometimes 3-4.” Heads began sadly shaking all around me. I'm not sure how this could be problematic as one person typically drives no more than one car at a time, but it did occur to me that some people, even rich ones, have families. My neighbor loudly despaired “It's a question of distribution!” I hid my car keys. This begged the next question, “could we aim to break that link in developing countries?” The academic/bureaucrat stated “Not possible, unless you use a totalitarian effort.” This yielded a wide exchange of hopeful glances, dashed by the realization that he was not in fact offering this idea for a vote. Still, it seemed an admirable concession. Moments later, a Taiwanese expert on Chinese transportation programs implored the audience to recognize that getting people to live the way those in the room want them to “is difficult in a democratic country.” The “Sustainable Mobility Event” certainly gave the impression that WBCSD is comprised of those who wish they were in a different line of work. Instead of changing fields, they seek to force cost increases and lifestyle changes on others, allowing WBCSD to make themselves feel better. As opposed to old-fashioned collusion between competitors, WBCSD seeks to enlist green-group cheerleaders to browbeat the public and government to adopt their agenda. This seems preferable, given that industry-wide cohesion is in no way assured, as not all who provide a particular product or service share the same low opinion of their contribution to society. The Event-Moderator-slash-Program-Director engaged in some of the least convincing “spontaneous” audience participation, leading to one of the brighter moments. He recognized a young man who he wondered might be able to represent the voice of the developing world. The speaker recommended bicycling, an activity, he added, that his employer happens to be in the business of promoting (it turns out that WBCSD member Renault, for example, has branched into bicycles, as well). When the audience finally got to engage in non-scripted questioning, a South African bus driver got the mike and, clearly deviating from the script, wondered essentially how developing countries are supposed to be environmentally friendly until they can afford newer vehicles and the cleanest burning petroleum? That stumped the panel. Stumping me was how someone able to recognize, accept, and articulate the reality that “wealthier is cleaner, wealthier is healthier” got into this room. Must've snuck in, too.