People and pollution Bad environmental signals

Werner Fornos

August 01, 1991|By Werner Fornos

A PRELIMINARY report prepared by the Council for Environmental Quality for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, to be held next year in Brazil, reverberates with an elitist attitude ill-suited for an international forum.

According to the report: "The United States' experience is that environmental improvement can accompany population growth if the economy is likewise growing, which enables more WernerFornosinvestments in pollution prevention, pollution control and other environmental programs."

VTC The United States' "experience" is nothing of the sort.

Pollution control can be achieved by the potential polluter or by government. But American industries time and again circumvent environmental rules and regulations; even when caught red-handed, they seldom receive more than a light tap on the wrist. Nearly one-third of the Environmental Protection Agency's "Superfund," created to clean up the country's worst toxic waste sites, is spent on administrative costs. Very little of the remaining two-thirds has been used to clean up anything.

Meanwhile, the population of the United States has doubled from 125 million to 250 million over the past 40 years. An American born today who lives to the age of 75 will produce 52 tons of garbage, consume 10 million gallons of water and use five times the energy expended worldwide per capita. Thirty million Americans live in poverty, including 13 million children. Our public schools rank far behind those of many industrialized countries and the expense of even routine medical care is soaring out of sight.

Many of our urban centers as well as much of Main Street America are in various states of deterioration. Our cities are clearly unable to provide either the quality or quantity of services that might be reasonably expected from one of the world's most advanced industrialized societies. Population growth and shifting migration patterns have resulted in mass movements to the countryside, where our richest farmlands are paved over for new shopping centers, parking lots and subdivisions. Where are Bridgeport, Ct., and Suffolk County, N.Y., both recently reported as teetering on the brink of financial disaster, going to find the money to clean up their pollution?

Against this background, the fertility of American women, which had fallen to 1.8 children, has climbed up to 2.1. Immigration patterns are frequently more complex than fertility trends. Historically, internal turmoil elsewhere in the world, and especially in Europe, has triggered massive emigration to the United States. Today, of course, Eastern Europe is in shambles.

In its preliminary report to an international forum that will establish the global environmental agenda for the remainder of this decade, the United States seems to be saying: You can pollute all you want if you are rich enough to clean it up. This is an horrendous message for a country with 4.7 percent of the world's population that consumes 30 percent of the world's resources to send to the poorest countries of the world, or, for that matter, the most affluent.

The report is all but guaranteed to deepen the resentment and distrust that many poor countries already have for the industrialized world. As a new world order takes shape, it is not only insensitive but downright dangerous to fan flames of ill-will between the Southern and Northern hemispheres. Just as a so-called iron curtain divided East and West during the Cold War, this report is replete with the kind of rhetoric that will ensure a curtain between the world's "haves" and "have-nots." Rest assured, it will not be constructed of Teflon.

Werner Fornos is president of the Population Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

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