THOUGH it may sound like a hippie gathering, the world's first Earth Summit, sponsored by the United Nations and scheduled for June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, will bring together the world's leaders to debate the economic inequality and ecological practices that divide North and South and threaten the planet's delicate ecosystems.
George Bush, would-be architect of the new world order, however, cannot decide whether to attend. Hundreds of non-governmental organizations and 40,000 citizens are expected to attend the Earth Summit. Among the many casualties of the cold war is the fact that East-West tensions blinded the United States to the even greater threat posed to global security by North-South hostilities. Rather than providing leadership as the world's one superpower, the US is acting as if it wishes the Earth Summit would jus t go away.
The US delegation, for example, has been instructed to offer no new or additional funds for financing sustainable development in the South. The US also opposes the creation of new institutions to deal with global sustainable development. And, unlike Japan or Germany, the US refuses to set timetables and targets to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that lead to global warming.
At the Earth Summit, North and South will thrash out how to balance development pressures against an increasingly imperiled global environment. The question on the table is: Can a sustainable future be founded on environmentally sound and equitable policies?
The South accuses the North of rank hypocrisy. For over a century, the North has recklessly destroyed its own forests and fouled the planet's water and air. Now the developed North is asking the South to halt deforestation and to pursue economic development with sound environmental policies. Much of the South is ready to comply, but justifiably wants the North to compensate undeveloped nations for the sacrifices they must make.
The South is justifiably suspicious of the North's commitment to limited growth. They fear the North will force them to protect forests, control population growth, and regulate pollution, but won't reverse their own wasteful consumption patterns. Their suspicions are well-grounded, for that is precisely what President Bush, who ran as "the environment president" in 1988, has been unwilling to do.
In the middle of a worsening recession, it is reasonable to ask why Americans should care about the Earth Summit. And even if they do, how can this country afford to help the developing South?
First, Americans are hardly immune to the dangers of a depleted ozone layer or a degraded environment. Second, the US will become even less competitive if it fails to become more energy-efficient. Germany and Japan have set limits and deadlines to decrease their carbon dioxide emissions and have simultaneously developed more energy-efficient technologies. By contrast, the US has no energy policy. The calculus is simple: goods produced with less energy cost less. The US, already a weakened competitor, wil l slide deeper into debt.
The question, then, is not whether we can afford to help the South, but whether we can afford not to contribute to this new world order. Steve Lerner, the editor of "The Earth Summit," emphasizes that helping the South is not an act of charity. Through debt relief, changes in trade terms, bank credits, and other incentives, the North can help undeveloped countries grow in environmentally friendly ways. It can also reverse the present flow of capital from the third world to the developed nations.
The next negotiating session to prepare for the Earth Summit will convene soon in New York. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas has dared Bush to attend the Earth Summit and to negotiate in good faith. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have really focused on North-South divisions and global environmental problems.
If Bush is serious about the "vision thing," this is his chance to prove that the Earth Summit will be more than a photo-op for his campaign. If the Democrats want to prove they stand for more than rhetoric they must convince a weary public that an energy-efficient nation can create jobs that don't threaten the environment. Above all, they must avoid pandering to the short-sighted politics of isolationism.
It's easy for a superpower to throw around its military weight. It takes a different kind of courage to redefine global security toward a safer world. If not for us, then for the next generation.