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EARTHWATCH

The Eco-Elite : Will world leaders at the U.N.'s Earth Summit follow Prince Charles and do the right thing?

May 09, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a small world. Very small. I was checking out an intriguing story that involved environmental activist Prince Charles, Lady Diana, Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly, all together last week on the Prince's yacht off the coast of Brazil. The trail led via the United Nations to a Ventura man, Eric Werbalowsky, recycling coordinator for the city of Ventura.

His Highness was lobbying the U.S. official about the environment. The Royal Activist's specific concern was the American role in the United Nations Earth Summit, which will be held in Rio in June of next year. As part of the run-up to Rio, according to Werbalowsky, the environmental opinions of regular folks will be heard at a series of Citizens Hearings, one of which is being held this month in Santa Barbara.

The call has gone out to the heads of state of all U.N. member nations to convene at the summit to deal with the environment--the first time this sort of thing has happened in 20 years.

"This time they won't have the Cold War as an excuse to do nothing," quipped Lana Sherman, the Ventura city official in charge of water conservation, who is planning to attend the nearby hearings. Political and business figures from as far away as San Luis Obispo will join her at that event.

The non-governmental Community Environmental Council, the organizers of the hearings, has invited Dr. Gary Herbertson, a special representative of the World Federation of United Nations Assns., to keynote the events. But the main point is public input.

This is all very unofficial. Even Prince Charles' gambit was unofficial. He's exploiting his position to push governments--his and ours--into doing something about environmental degradation. Our own government is, somewhat timidly, opening up the process by having a series of invitational round-tables organized by the Council on Environmental Quality, under the letterhead of the Executive Office of the President.

The first will be on May 17 at an American Bar Assn. meeting in Warrenton, Va. Washington has set no opinion-gathering sessions for Southern California. But San Francisco will be the scene of one in June. There is a very strict agenda for each of the five meetings. For instance, they are going to talk about drought only in Denver, after the California meeting.

It seems that people around here who want their say will have to do as the Prince does. Meet unofficially.

Both Sherman and Werbalowsky are proteges of the CEC's Paul Rellis and Dr. Anthony Dominsky, the organizers of the Citizens Hearings.

Dominsky, when asked why he has organized these hearings, got right to the heart of the matter. Large institutions, he said, no longer are a good source of news on the environment.

"It's hard to understand how it turns out that a little operation like ours knows more than they do," he said, referring to visits officials from all levels of government have been making to the Community Environmental Council--housed at the Gildea Foundation in Santa Barbara--for consultation and to recruit staff. By the way, that's where Ventura found Werbalowsky and Sherman.

If you have read this far and still wonder if an Earth Summit is "relevant" to Ventura, consider a remark from another seaman on the royal yacht who some say is dragging heads of state into an eco-confrontation.

"We need to find a viable and equitable balance between environment and development," Dr. Maurice Strong, secretary general of the Rio Summit, has said. Does that hit close to home? Here are the main "line item" issues for the summit: air pollution, drought, water resources, coastal-area protection and hazardous wastes.

The previous environmental summit, back in 1972, was a kind of stealth operation. Only folks like Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalogue fame, found out about it in time and zipped over to Stockholm, Sweden. This time it is more public. You and I have been tipped off.

According to an official at the Elmwood Institute, a Berkeley eco-think tank, "Thousands and thousands of people are going to Rio to establish a presence and agitate and collar their leaders." We don't need to go that far to make our voices heard.

You can see why I made the remark about a small world. It's a bizarre world, too, with Dr. Strong and the next English monarch involved in a sort of media plot to pressure world leaders into listening to environmental concerns. Thanks, Prince.

* FYI

"Citizens Hearing--Input to Earth Summit" May 20 at 7 p.m. Faulkner Gallery, Santa Barbara Main Library, 40 E. Anapamu St.; 963-0583, Ext. 100. Ask for Marilyn Scott.

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