Why would the leader of the most powerful nation on earth fail to attend a conference designed to prevent, in the words of one top U.N. official, "the environmental crisis which threatens the collapse of the entire planet?"
On June 3, representatives from virtually every nation — as many as 100,000 in all — will descend on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the first U.N.-sponsored "Earth Summit."
Officially known as the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, the 10-day conference is expected to be the largest ever held.
About 60 heads of state, including most of the major world leaders, are expected to attend. Pressure from the media, from environmental groups, from EPA Administrator William Reilly, and even from commercials narrated by actor James Earl Jones and shown before movies in theaters, is building on President Bush to do likewise.
Bush has said that his attendance could commit the U.S. "to a course of action that could dramatically impede long-term economic growth in this country." Indeed, say some critics of the conference, that is part of the idea.
Now if Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit the Earth, that would be devastation.
Some have recently asserted that unless immediate steps are taken in that direction, world industrial and farm output will likely plunge sometime early in the next century, resulting in a global environmental and economic crisis.
The obvious implication of the growing call for sustainable development is that current development is not sustainable.
Indeed, the U.N.s draft resolution for the Rio conference says that no country in the world can continue on its present course without continuing to diminish scarce resources to which it has access. The resolution clearly states that the biggest culprits in wasting resources are the industrialized nations, especially the U.S.
But, according to University of Maryland economics professor Julian Simon: "Theyve got it exactly backwards. Were increasing the stock of resources instead of depleting it."
He notes that in a market economy, as a resource becomes scarce, its price goes up, prompting creative persons to develop cheaper alternatives — petroleum to replace whale oil, for example, and fiber optics from sand to replace copper wires.
This phenomenon was recently demonstrated when it was discovered that bark from the Pacific yew tree yielded a promising anti-cancer drug, taxol. The discovery posed a dilemma in that it takes large amounts of bark from centuries-old trees to produce small amounts of the drug.
But scientists in the U.S. are now circumventing the trees vs. lives problem by developing methods to extract taxol from sources as common as turpentine.
Indeed, says Simon, it is the industrialized capitalist nations that are doing the best at utilizing resources efficiently and replacing them with superior ones.
Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, says that the mentality of dividing up the resources that are currently available rather than developing in new directions, as the taxol chemists did, is exactly what is wrong with the sustainable development approach of redistributing income.
Thomas Malthus: Nobody ever hears that he renounced Malthusianism before he died.
"We know how to have a sustainable society," said Smith. "The problem is, so much of the world has a non-market economy or has so many regulations that it has essentially destroyed the workings of its economy."
Smith says that recent studies have shown that a nations wealth correlates directly to its ability to clean up its air and water, and that all the wealthy nations of the world have capitalist economies.
If the poorer nations would abandon their centralized economies for market-based ones, says Smith, they would be able to clean up their pollution to the same levels as the richer countries.
But, he said, "The goal (of the Rio conference) is to ship capital to the Third World, not capitalism."
Indeed, according to recent estimates, the new environmental treaty could require as much as $125 billion a year in total aid to poor nations. Thats roughly $50 billion to $70 billion more than the less-developed nations currently receive in government-provided aid each year from the industrial nations.
To some, sustainable development is another vision of utopia, a 1990s version of "The Age of Aquarius."
Wrote Dartmouth College adjunct professor of environmental studies Donella Meadows in a column based on her forthcoming book, Beyond the Limits: "What would a sustainable world be like? It would have no poverty and, therefore, as in current societies where there is no poverty, a stabilizing population. People would have learned how to meet their material needs efficiently and their non-material needs nonmaterially — and therefore, they would be much happier than they are today."
Indeed, the Rio draft says "Eradicating poverty is another indispensable requirement for sustainable development."
Said economist Murray Weidenbaum of the Center for the Study of American Business in St. Louis, Missouri: "That doesnt make any sense at all. It certainly explains why so much of the summit preparation has been frustrating. People are trying to hook every conceivable problem onto dealing with the environment.
"If you try to deal with every concern at once, youre not going to accomplish anything," he said.
Meadows has been advocating a variety of apocalyptic scenarios for decades, although those which were supposed to have occurred by now have not.
For example, she was instrumental in the 1972 Club of Rome report "The Limits of Growth," which predicted that the world would run out of oil in two decades.
Moreover, critics say, the very effort to achieve a utopia requires, as did Karl Marxs utopian scheme, the implementation of some sort of top-down control to force people to do what is "right."
While Meadows wrote she could "see no reason why a sustainable world couldnt be" democratic and market-oriented, she makes it clear that a sustainable society will not tolerate "bigger cars or fancier clothes."
Instead, it will deliver "self-respect, identity, community, love, variety, beauty, challenge and purpose in living that is greater than material accumulation."
Again, some critics demur.
"Thats ridiculous. Its rather like saying that if everybody prays it will eliminate poverty," said Gordon Tullock, an economist at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Yet, the most objectionable aspect of sustainable development to many of its critics, as Weidenbaum explains, is that "a lot of people have jumped on it to justify a redistribution of wealth from the industrial to the developing countries."
The idea of a massive redistribution of wealth from north to south is not a new one, leading some to charge it is U.N. business as usual wrapped in new green cloth.
As far back as 1964, a group of 77 underdeveloped nations belonging to the U.N. began a campaign that culminated in the 1974 passage of a General Assembly resolution demanding what was called the New International Economic Order.
That resolution envisioned transferring huge sums of money from the U.S., Germany, Japan, and other nations to the Third World. It also demanded uncompensated technology transfers, as does the U.N.s Agenda 21 draft resolution.
The NIEO was ignored, whereupon these nations then pushed for what was called the Law of the Sea Treaty. That treaty would have forced the industrialized nations to turn over a significant portion of what they mined from the sea to Third World countries.
This, too, having failed, those same countries and others are now demanding the money again this time ostensibly for cleaning up the environment.
But, some critics note, Third World countries have been notoriously unreliable when it comes to using foreign aid for earmarked purposes.
Somalia: Lots of foreign aid, lots of starvation.
"For one," said Bandow, "you have governments such as Ethiopia who will claim to spend the money one way and will make no effort to do so. Then you have cases of incompetent governments" who will be unable to spend it correctly.
"You hand them bags of money and it doesnt go anywhere. Ultimately, the chances of good results where we give them money and they put scrubbers on their smokestacks is very slim," he added.
Nevertheless, Cliff Curtis, a spokesman for Greenpeace in Washington, one of the environmental groups pushing hard for ratification of Agenda 21, said the pressing issue is getting the northern nations to cough up the money in the first place.
He did offer, however, that consideration has already been given to effective measures of oversight and monitoring, perhaps involving surprise inspections and other opportunities to verify effective implementation of financial assistance.
But, said Bandow: "Lets look at conditionality as its worked with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. If it worked, youd see results after 40 years. But what we have is bank officials with no incentives and Third World leaders with no sense of obligation in how they spend their (aid) money."
Bandow said that its not that Greenpeace and other environmental groups are completely unconcerned that pollution control aid is spent on its intended purpose, but that they see that the wealth transfer as itself "being a good thing anyway because (they believe) the west is so consumerist.
"The efficacy of the measure isnt as important as the larger moral goal," he said.
Some have attempted to justify the transfer of wealth in terms of past and present exploitation. It is claimed, for example, that since the rainforests are being chopped down to provide wood for the northern countries, the northern countries must pay compensation.
The true agenda button for those at Rio?
The sustainable development resolution will not be legally binding, although according to the U.N. staffers who wrote it, "it is expected" that governments adopting it will be highly committed to its implementation. Experience shows that such voluntary actions can carry real strength.
Thus, notes Weidenbaum, alluding to the worldwide boycott on Nestle and other infant formula manufacturers, "U.N. agreements . . . whether nominally voluntary or compulsory, usually wind up imposing real burdens on the industrialized countries such as the United States."
One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that Third World nations do tend to have extremely serious pollution and resource depletion problems.
Said CEIs Fred Smith: "The Rio conference is a tragedy because of the lost opportunities. If we looked seriously at the problem, we could have (for example) asked how do we bring the forests of Brazil into a private property framework" and thus given somebody an incentive to conserve it.
"In a market economy," he said, "you encourage people to think carefully about the future. But theres nothing in Rio to discuss why resources are doing so much better in market economies than socialist ones."
Added Smith, "The people who will profit from Rio are Third World dictators, the highly paid elitists managing the environmental establishment, and the bureaucrats of the world."