UN's 'Earth Summit' To Seek a High Price From Rich Nations

By , Murray Weidenbaum is director of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

AN effort is underway to expand governmental power on a global scale in the guise of cleaning up the environment. It will take the form of a United Nations-sponsored "Earth Summit" scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in June. Each nation will be asked to endorse an "Earth Charter" and an "Agenda 21."

The Earth Charter, we are told, will embody the basic principles which "must govern the economic and environmental behavior of peoples and nations to ensure our common future." Agenda 21 is "a blueprint for action in all major areas affecting the relationship between the environment and the economy." That's a tall order.

Officially known as the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the two-week-long Earth Summit is expected to draw well over 10,000 participants from all of the world.

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The hysterical tone for the deliberations is being set by Maurice Strong, conference secretary-general. He warns of "the environmental crisis which threatens the collapse of the planet."

The Conference Secretariat is proposing ambitious global goals: eradicating poverty, reversing the destruction of renewable resources, and changing the system of incentives and penalties that motivate economic behavior. Thus, environmental concerns are sandwiched in between two proposals for fundamentally changing the allocation and distribution of economic resources (read, income and wealth).

Earth Summit is expected to produce the means to carry out the agenda on a worldwide basis - to make available to developing countries adequate financing for the purpose. Where are those financial resources going to come from? The conference materials are clear: from the industrialized nations. The developing nations say that they will not agree to take the necessary environmental actions until the developed nations pledge in advance to pay for them. When voting occurs, the developing nations will have a n overwhelming advantage: Antigua and Barbuda's 79,000 people have the same vote as the United States' 250 million.

We are also told that it is likely that Earth Summit will agree to tap new funding sources to transfer income to the developing nations. Proposals include charging for the use of the "global commons." The examples given stagger anyone concerned with freedom of commerce; requiring operators of airplanes and ships to pay for the use of the atmosphere and the oceans, for instance!

Agenda 21 will not be legally binding. Yet, the UN staff notes that "it is expected" that governments adopting it will be highly committed to its implementation. The cast of thousands and the news media will intimidate political leaders. Earth Summit planners envision creating a super agency, the Sustainable Development Commission, to which all UN bodies and agencies would be accountable. The conference's Big Brother attitude is hardly veiled. As its secretary-general says, "We need to hold governments a ccountable and they need to be told what we want."

Much of the preparatory material deals with the relationship between economic development and the environment, especially "unsustainable" patterns of consumption. Yet, there is no indication why a given pattern of consumption is "unsustainable." Little attention is given to the roll of economics, and especially of the price system, in allocating resources and in avoiding resource depletion. The conference planners seem oblivious of an adjustment process that has worked well over the centuries. The market place produces economic incentives to avoid "depletion."

One forecast can be made on the basis of earlier UN efforts to develop grandiose schemes for controlling the economies of member nations - such as the Law of the Sea Treaty and the Moon Treaty. After the dust settles, the conference planners will gripe that they had to settle for half a loaf, the critics will contend that they knocked out the zaniest ideas. Nevertheless, when Earth Summit is over, the UN agencies will have achieved a substantial accretion of power over economic activity.

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