WASHINGTON. — In Michigan, scientists have discovered a 10,000-year-old fungus, weighing as much as a whale, 30 acres large, hidden under the ground, with only pretty, little mushrooms poking above the surface.
In New York, at the United Nations, another huge, old and hidden fungus has been vegetating, but the mushrooms are threatening to sprout bigger and uglier. Preparations have been going on for two years for ''The Earth Summit,'' a spectacular U.N. conference scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in June.
A domestic political fight about it is already under way. Environmentalists want President Bush to attend the Earth Summit gala and announce that it's a grand idea.
It isn't. It's an old hidden, U.N. fungus, painted green. In earlier times U.N. mushrooms were called, among other things, ''The New International Economic Order,'' ''The Law of the Sea'' and ''The Brundtlandt Report.'' The theme is always the same: The U.N. gets power, the Third World gets money.
The generic argument has gone this way: Poor nations are poor because rich nations are rich. Rich nations should pay poor nations reparations. The transfer should proceed under a cloak of crisis (''the sea,'' ''the environment''). The terms of transfer should be centrally regulated by U.N. bureaucrats.
The Earth Summit idea, still mostly hidden beneath mountains of platitudinous and weasel-worded documents, goes this way: We need general environmental clean-up and, particularly, emissions control to deal with ''global warming.'' Poor nations are too poor to do it. Rich nations must pay them to do it. Rich nations will raise the money by taxing their citizens for energy use.
Two years of negotiations toward these goals ended in fuzzy stalemate last week. An intense green propaganda campaign can now be expected to gain favorable resolution during the Rio meeting. So far, the United States has been recalcitrant.
Why? The ultimate costs are about $70 billion per year in new foreign aid. And the biggest donors would be nations where energy is used for such ignoble pollutions as single-family houses, two cars per household and air-conditioning. Like -- surprise! -- America.
It is sad to see the U.N. go down the rip-off road again, using environmentalism as the mushroom of choice. The environment is one realm where some global regulation makes some theoretical sense. If, for example, ''global warming'' should ever evolve from environmental theology to serious science, it could only be dealt with worldwide.
What to do? Rethink from scratch. The intellectual basis for the Earth Summit runs counter to what the human species has learned recently. This: Centrally directed economies don't work, and dependency harms the people it is supposed to help. Thus, the communist centralized economies yielded poverty and pollution. Government-to-government foreign aid mostly helped scruffy tyrants. Yet the Earth Summit agenda tends to sanctify both ideas.
There is a better way. For we have learned something positive as well: Liberty works. Free markets and free politics yield prosperity. Only free countries are rich; only rich countries can pay the price of environmental cleanliness.
So President Bush should not go to Rio just to give the poor nations and the environmentalists a condescending pat on the head for a bad idea. Ideas have consequences. Legitimizing this discredited philosophy would yield a world both poor and polluted.
There is one other strategy. The president could go to Rio and tell the truth. Which would go something like this:
''Friends, there is no free lunch. There is no payoff in panhandling. Green beggar socialism is not the wave of the future. There are no magic mushrooms, only the magic of the market, which works because it comes from liberty, both political and economic. It can cure both poverty and pollution. If you're interested, we in America will try to help. If the U.N. is interested, let's all plan a new summit, a new world order.''
PD Ben Wattenberg is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.