Environmentalism

A Summit Misconceived

Their hearts are in the right place...

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August 25, Johannesburg, South Africa—The World Summit on Sustainable Development opening in Johannesburg South Africa is supposed to be aimed at eradicating global poverty, but many of the measures favored by negotiators and activists would increase poverty, not alleviate it.

The problems are stark. Some 1.1 billion people lack safe drinking water; 2.2 billion are without adequate sanitation; 2.5 billion lack access to modern energy services; 11 million children under the age of five die each year in developing countries from preventable diseases; and despite an abundance of food, 800 million people are still malnourished.

Poverty eradication is clearly crucial to preventing environmental degradation. There is nothing more environmentally destructive than a hungry human being.

The problem is that many of the programs under discussion would set back efforts to alleviate poverty. For example, the German Green activist group, the Heinrich Boell Foundation, a prominent "civil society" group at the WSSD, actually opposes free trade in agricultural goods and the privatization of water supplies. The Foundation argues that poor countries are "well-advised not to abandon their food sovereignty" which in practice would deny their poor citizens access to cheap food in world markets. Food autarky would also mean that farmers in poor countries would be forced to plow up more wildlands in their own countries to grow food—hardly an environmentally friendly consequence of their anti-trade agenda. Additionally, one of the areas in which developing countries could out-compete rich countries is in producing crops. History has shown that improving agricultural productivity is the first rung on the ladder of economic development. However, the absurd farm subsidies in developed countries, totaling nearly $300 billion annually, keep cutting this rung out from under the developing countries.

"Water is a human right" is a slogan often heard here, along with the claim that "water is too important to be left in the hands of private companies." This is nonsense. "There is plenty of water;, it's just being used stupidly," declared Richard Tren, an analyst at the Free Market Foundation in South Africa. Water shortages are most often the result of politically motivated misallocation by government bureaucracies. Pricing water in private markets, would give people an incentive to use it more wisely. The fact is that in most areas there would be copious supplies of freshwater for drinking and industrial uses if supplies could be freed from inefficient government-subsidized crop irrigation schemes.

Another oft heard demand is that the 2.5 billion people who need modern energy, e.g., electricity and transport fuels, be supplied using "clean renewable energy sources" like wind generators, solar thermal, solar photoelectric cells and small hydropower. Of course, these 2.5 billion energy poor people are already using "renewables" such as wood and cow dung. In effect, this quixotic proposal would require the world's poorest people to adopt the most expensive and complicated energy technologies in the world—ones that even rich, technologically sophisticated nations can't make serviceable in comparison with conventional sources of energy. I asked Nitin Desai, the Secretary General of the WSSD whether it is more important that the poor gain access to modern energy services than that they be renewable? "Access to modern energy is more important," he rightly replied.

But what are the causes of global poverty? An Argentine economist once told me, "Everybody below the Rio Grande River believes that they are poor because you are rich."

He was claiming that Latin Americans are convinced that the United States is a rich country because it has plundered the resources of their countries. Many activists and negotiators at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa apparently share that belief. South African President Thabo MBeki in his welcoming remarks to WSSD delegates denounced the gap between the rich and poor countries as 'a global system of apartheid." Anton Boonzaier, a South African environmentalist explained to a TV interviewer, "Trade for hundreds of years has benefited the developed world at the expense of the developing world."

However, the United Nations' own data undercut those assertions. "During the 1990s the economies of developing countries that were integrated into the world economy grew more than twice as fast as the rich countries. The 'non-globalizers' grew only half as fast and continue to lag further behind," according to fact sheets issued by the UN for the summit.

Nevertheless, a hardy band of anti-globalization activists are denouncing the WSSD as a part of the "corporate global agenda." On Saturday, South African police, using tear gas and stun grenades, broke up an unsanctioned demonstration by a hodge podge of the more extreme activist groups. South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Diamini-Zuma made it clear at a press conference that illegal demonstrations will not be allowed. "In South Africa, there is no anarchy, there is law," she said. And there is something pathetically amusing, or maybe just pathetic, about a bunch of anarchists demanding stronger, more centralized and more intrusive global governance. Kropotkin must be spinning in his grave.

"This is a summit of implementation," declared Nitin Desai. The WSSD's draft Plan of Implementation envisions cutting in half the people without access to safe drinking water; halving those lacking adequate sanitation; providing access to modern energy services to all those without it; and reducing by half the proportion of people living on less than a $1 per day—all by 2015. Unfortunately, many of the proposals in the draft plan would have the opposite effect.