Preserving our planet

Drive a few miles outside Nairobi and see what individuals can do to forestall the environmental doom that has just been the focus of world attention there.

Yes, there are global problems of disappearing trees and decaying soil, for instance, as warned about in Nairobi's recent follow-up to the historic 1972 Stockholm conference on how to preserve the planet for future generations.

But there are also examples of people stemming the decline in their own backyards. Such as the Kenyan farmers conserving both trees and soil: using trees of a type that restores land and helps it yield crops without nitrogen fertilizer; or of a type that provides fencing for cattle, nectar for bees, branches for fuel all at once.

Individual examples could be multiplied in many countries. They appear in ways of life that are thoughtful of the environment shared by everyone. They show up in community action against waste, pollution, acid rain, and other environmental threats. Without them all the United Nations conferences in the world will fall short.

Yet the conferences are needed, too, as the growth of population increases humanity's impact on the Earth for good or ill. Stockholm was a kind of watershed. It not only set up international mechanisms for information and cooperation. It marked an awakening to the urgency of protective measures, to the importance of the environment for economy and survival as well as quality of life.

Ten years later the results in knowledge, concern, and national commitments to environmental protection cannot be ignored. But the challenges have grown. Economic conditions have tempted short-sighted reductions in environmental protection. That the Nairobi conference could come and go with so little publicity may say both that conserving the environment is more taken for granted now -- and that it is in danger of being neglected.

So, even though forming one more commission always sounds futile, there may be a case for the one recommended by the Nairobi meeting that brought together more than a hundred countries. It would look ahead to the next century and prepare suggestions for meeting the emerging environmental needs. Some strong international reference point is demanded as UN resources dwindle and national and regional efforts have to be spurred along effective and cooperative lines.

One element for study is the conference's broadened view of what affects the environment. It includes the impact of poverty, the threat of nuclear war, and the diversion of intellectual and natural resources to armaments. It suggests that environmental deficiencies are generated by underdevelopment in the third world.

Some would protest that this makes the environment one more excuse for a new world economic order. It would be more productive to set this issue aside and examine the whole situation from the environmental point of view. If poverty can cause deforestation through desperate using up of firewood, for example, the improvement of the environment can enhance economic conditions for reducing poverty.

As for considering nuclear war an environmental hazard to be prevented, the way toward such a concept may have been opened by the physicians who argue nuclear war is a health hazard requiring prevention.

At any rate, a decade after Stockholm, it will take the thought and action of both individuals and their institutions to do what the Nairobi declaration calls for: ''to ensure that our small planet is passed over to future generations in a condition which guarantees a life in human dignity for all.''

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