By Donella Meadows
–May 7, 1992–
Will George Bush go to the Earth Summit next month in Rio de Janeiro? U.S. politics and media, operating together in their perverse way, have made that the Environmental Question of the Day.
It is a confused and meaningless question. It muddles symbols with substance. It focuses on short-term national concerns and bypasses an exciting long-term global story. The partisans who consider it a hot issue are lined up on the wrong sides of it. And basically Bush’s presence in Rio just doesn’t matter.
The documents that will be signed there and the world order that will, or more accurately won’t, unfold from those documents have been negotiated over two years. To care suddenly about the signing ceremony makes as much sense as tuning into the last pitch in the World Series, having ignored the whole baseball season.
Our media know how to cover every nuance of a sports season, but they don’t know how to cover an environmental story or an international negotiation. When the two come together, as they have in the Earth Summit process, we hear scarcely a word for two years about whether George Bush has been involved, or what his role has been, and then we are asked to take an interest in whether he will attend the final ceremony.
In substance the president’s trip to Rio makes no difference. Symbolically, however, his presence or absence looms large.
To a few farthest-right Republican funders, who have forgotten what rational conservatism was once about, who see no problems in the pieces of the environment they happen to own or play in, and who would rather forget that the United States constitutes just 4.5 percent of the world’s population and therefore must occasionally talk to foreigners, Bush’s presence in Rio would be a disaster.
It would symbolize, they believe, an acknowledgement of international authority over such obviously all-American concerns as the oceans and the atmosphere, the Antarctic and the rainforests, the amount of coal the Chinese should burn, the amount of oil the Saudis should sell, and (horrors!) the kinds of cars Americans should drive. We’re the superpower. We should tell the rest of the world how to manage environment and resources. We should stand aloof from disorderly U.N. meetings where other nations demand to be heard.
To more middle-of-the-road thinkers, including most environmentalists and some members of Bush’s own administration, it would be a major embarrassment if he didn’t appear at Rio. It would signify that their national leader cares nothing for a process into which they themselves have poured much time and attention. It would cast our nation as an arrogant non-cooperator, one that doesn’t want to be held responsible for the roughly one-fourth of the world’s pollution it produces.
The president’s pointed avoidance of the Earth summit would make it even harder for Americans to hold up their heads in future international gatherings. It would delay urgently needed global action on environment and development. And it would signal clearly and discouragingly that the far right can still tell George Bush what to do, perhaps for four more long, resource-wasting, earth-degrading years.
For reasons I can’t explain, these symbolic positions seem to be at cross-purposes with the real interests of the people who hold them.
The last thing an American environmentalist should want to see would be George Bush at Rio. Having roadblocked the negotiations, having refused to commit the U.S.to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, having reduced the forestry protocol to a set of toothless “principles,” having insisted that the consumption of the rich not be mentioned at all, he doesn’t DESERVE to be there. There could be only one reason for him to sweep in, followed by hordes of reporters, and make a speech full of calculated soundbites — to pose as “environmental president” for next fall’s campaign.
By the same reasoning the “George-don’t-go” crowd ought to want him there. Let him pretend to be an internationalist and environmentalist, now that the negotiating is over and the Summit is guaranteed to be no threat to the privileged or the polluters.
The Rio meeting is equivalent to the last pitch of the World Series in the sense that it is unimportant relative to the untold story so far. But the ecological playing season is far from over, and the purpose of the exercise is not to distinguish winners from losers. Rather it’s a struggle on the part of the world’s industrialized people to learn to live by the rules of the game.
The rules of the game are the laws of the planet. Play freely, but don’t undermine the playing field. Stay within bounds. Take only what you need and don’t collectively take more than nature can give. Clean up your messes. Compete fairly, strive to excel, but don’t wage war on nature or each other. Your team members are not only all the world’s people, but all the world’s species. You can all win or lose together.
Nature is a relentless referee. She’s in the game for the long term. She responds only to substance, not to symbols. We’d be more likely to win if our media and our leaders had at least a glimmering of what the game is about.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992