Needed: Ballot-Box Environmentalism

WILLIAM REILLY must feel pretty lonely at the Earth Summit here in Rio de Janeiro.

As head of the United States delegation, he has to defend what looks to a lot of people like US foot-dragging on cleaning up the environment and providing more opportunities for poorer countries in the developing world. Uncle Sam-bashing seems to be the favored sport.

There are defenders of America here. Summit major-domo Maurice Strong stood up for the US in a briefing for the press - considerably more than he had to in his role as a United Nations official answerable to all countries.

And there are a small number of contrarians who've come to Rio. They're here to rebut the popular notion that the rich countries of the North are most at fault for environmental degradation and therefore ought to reduce their overconsumption of resources by toning down lifestyles.

At the same time, the argument goes, they should pay lots of money to developing countries so they can avoid the North's mistakes while improving their lot.

Such folk got together to declare the summit goal of sustainable development, "a radical mixture of ideology and theology" and "a global program of environmental socialism."

There are better reasons to be skeptical of the huffing and puffing by some developing countries' spokespersons, as well as the more radical nongovernmental organizations gathered for the massive, unofficial get-together called "92 Global Forum."

This has to do with the obligations of developing countries themselves in moving toward sustainable development - something that is discussed less than it ought to be here.

One who is not afraid to speak out is Wangari Maathai, the brave and strong Kenyan woman who founded the Green Belt movement in Africa and who has been jailed several times (most recently this past March) for speaking out against her government's corruption and repression.

At the Earth Summit as a special guest of Mr. Strong, she says she firmly believes that environmental degradation and poverty must be tackled head on and that it's going to take a considerable effort by countries of the North.

But she is also quick to criticize the "mismanagement of resources" by too many governments in the South, especially those headed by undemocratic regimes. For example, she says, "In Africa over the past 30 years, there has been investment in projects of prestige rather than in projects of need."

"And a lot of those dictators," she adds, "have stashed away money intended for development - millions of dollars in foreign accounts - and now they're coming here and asking for more. They can't ask for new resources and then mismanage them."

Someone suggests that that sounds a lot like what George Bush and Britain's John Major might be thinking but are reluctant to say while holding tight to their purse strings. "Well, somebody has to say it," she says, "and it might as well be me."

Strong says, "This is a conference primarily about economic change - the need for economic change."

But if you've experienced life the way Ms. Maathi has - and chosen to live it in as an outspoken and courageous a fashion as she has - then this conference is more about political change.

In some countries (many in the South and what used to be Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe) this means democratically choosing leaders - like Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel - who recognize the economic importance of protecting the environment.

And in others, like the United States (where less than 20 percent of the voting-age population participated in this year's primary elections), it means people who seem to have forgotten the obligations that come with democracy getting involved in choosing the same kind of leaders.

If those two things begin to happen, then the vision and the promise of Rio can start to become tangible reality.

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