Richard Reeves

You Have Freedom of Speech Only if You Use It

LOS ANGELES -- "We are headed for disaster," said Paul Boyer, whose knowledge of the chemistry of nutrition was good enough to share a Nobel Prize in 1997. Dr. Boyer, whose academic home is UCLA, was speaking to an impressive audience of do-gooders at a conference here last week. Hundreds of people nodded. They had come here to prepare for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which will be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, this summer.

The summit, to its credit, is trying to deal with old ecological concerns in the context of a new kind of world economy. The call to Johannesburg announces a brave mission: "development that meets the needs of people now and for future generations. ... Poverty, overconsumption and unsustainable lifestyles are major concerns. Sustainable development therefore seeks to address these concerns through actions that promote economic growth, social development and environmental protection."

Dr. Boyer's work, as well as I can describe it, involves the distribution inside the bodies of both animals and plants of the chemical energy released by combustion of nutrients. He wants the summit to deliver a better life -- that's why he spoke here in a presummit meeting at the Getty Center, high above the San Diego Freeway -- but he suspects it is already doomed and added these words: "There is no way we can bring the developing world up to our standards and have a sustainable system."

In other words: Don't count on the rich to end overconsumption. The developed nations, particularly the United States, which is essentially hostile to the Johannesburg idea, are not against a better life in poorer countries, but they are reluctant, to say the least, to give up anything they already have. So the rich get richer and poor get poorer -- at least relatively.

In calling the conference, the United Nations cited what progress it could in trying to frame the dialogue as something more than, "Let's protect the environment and help poor folks, too":

"Actually, there has been some progress," stated U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Yes, there has been, if you interpret statistics on the distribution of the Earth's bounty in an optimistic way. During the 1990s the average annual increase in the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of all developing countries was 4.3 percent, compared with 2.7 percent in the 1980s. The GDPs of developed countries grew by 2.3 percent in the '90s, a decrease from 3 percent in the 1980s.

But, of course, those numbers actually mean that the gaps between rich and poor increased rather than decreased because the base prosperity of the developed countries was so much higher to begin with -- and the population of developing countries continued to grow at a higher rate, even as AIDs deaths were reducing life expectancy by more than six years in those countries. In most of the Southern Hemisphere, GDP per capita is still decreasing.

The Americans at the conference, who do not share Bush administration positions emphasizing markets as the solution to all problems, seemed at a loss about what they could do in opposition to their own government. Matt Petersen, president of Global Green USA, said: "We are not here to promote shareholder value; we are here in the public interest. The Bush administration is not on our agenda. We're going to be laughed out of there."

That was the tone of the session. The earnest folk in the audience, an impressive but depressed group, has signed on to a new code word: "stakeholders." That means, according to the meeting's summaries: "corporate leaders, trade unionists, farmers, local authorities, community organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activists."

The Bush agenda, of course, pretty much ends after two words: "corporate leaders."

Questions from the audience seemed to assume defeat at the summit. The first woman to rise asked: "The U.S. is resisting all this. What can we do?"

U.N. Under-Secretary-General Nitin Desai, an Indian, who was presiding here as he will in South Africa, seemed surprised at the question, and his voice rose as he answered: "You live in a free country. Speak up! Shout! Make yourself heard."

I was amazed that we had to hear that message from a foreigner. If this is your thing, if you care, you had better make some noise -- enough to reach the White House, which has not the slightest intention of doing anything that does not increase economic growth or shareholder value.

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