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COLUMN LEFT/ ALEXANDER COCKBURN : 'Earth Summit' Is in Thrall to the Marketeers : It's good economics to boost pollution in poor countries, a World Bank official argues.

March 01, 1992|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

In the run-up to the huge summit on environmental crisis and economic development, scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in early June, the atmosphere--already sulfurous with mutual recriminations between the First and Third Worlds--has been further fouled by a memorandum circulated by a top World Bank official.

The World Bank is located at the strategic crossroads where economic counsel and loans flow from the rich nations to the poor ones. The blueprints for development--dams, roads and the like--dreamed up by the bank's economists have contributed mightily to Third World environmental degradation. And these days these same experts offer more schemes--they call them "structural adjustment" plans--and loans to force poor countries into the fiscal straitjacket recommended by well-paid U.S. economists.

The vice president and chief economist at the World Bank is Lawrence Summers, a Harvard professor with the shameful distinction of having worked for both Ronald Reagan and Michael Dukakis. Summers is a tireless promoter of "free market" economics and recently unburdened himself on global pollution in an in-house memo rapidly leaked by appalled World Bank subordinates.

"Shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs (less developed countries)?" said the whiz-kid professor, who received tenure at Harvard when he was only 28. He went on to argue that "the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable" and that he "always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly under -polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently (high) compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City." Summers rounded off these brusque observations with the thought that "the concern over an agent that causes a one-in-a-million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-5 mortality is 200 per thousand."

The memo was soon bouncing its way 'round the Third World, where it provoked roars of fury. "Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane," Brazil's minister for the environment, Jose Lutzenberger, wrote to Summers, adding, "If it came from some insignificant teacher in a third-grade school in the backwoods, it might be laughable, but coming from a Harvard professor and a man in your position it is an insult to thinking people all over the world. If the World Bank keeps you as vice president it will lose all credibility."

Summers tried to clear the air by saying that he was only being "sardonic." It is true that economists love to talk dirty when they are alone among their kind, but he was clearly being more than the devil's advocate he claimed to be in his clarification. He had tipped his hand on some of the most fraught issues of the Rio summit.

The purpose of this summit is to try to bargain out a world schedule for saving the environment: combatting depletion of the ozone layer and, far more difficult and contentious, reducing "greenhouse gases." The participants will ponder the destruction of tropical rain forests and address themselves to strategies for economic development that do not simultaneously poison and pollute. They will sign treaties and adopt an "Earth charter."

Here's where the Summers memo is germane. In the meetings where the pre-summit power plays are being fought out, the rich countries, led by the United States, are offering the sort of hardball scenarios proffered by Summers. As the nation furnishing 25% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, the United States drags its feet on meaningful reduction within its borders, while simultaneously pushing models of development that will see the poor countries getting the dirty end of the stick--in every sense of the phrase.

The Bush Administration now plans to offer $125 million to help developing countries reduce their production of greenhouse gases. A substantial slice of this meager sum is reportedly going to the Global Environmental Facility, an entity set up last May under the aegis of the World Bank, home of Summers, who has also said that he doesn't view global warming as "civilization-threatening."

So the omens for Rio are not auspicious. There will be fine phrase-making, but the muscle belongs to people with the outlook of Summers, who feels no apparent discomfort in arguing that there's nothing wrong with dumping poisons on poor people, since by the time the poisons take effect they will be dead anyway. Christian capitalists in the early industrial era used to claim similarly that the little children they worked to death in their mines were, in a way, specially privileged because they reached heaven well ahead of schedule.

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