Rich nations challenged on resource consumption

September 09, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAIRO, Egypt -- To avoid overburdening the world, should poor countries stop having so many babies, or should rich countries stop giving their babies so much?

The question underlies a basic tension between representatives the First World and the Third World as they jointly try to set a course at the international population conference to avoid global catastrophe in the next century.

Many Third World delegates resent the view that overpopulation is a problem simply of teeming, overbreeding, poor masses in the undeveloped nations.

They demand to know how "the North" can scold "the South" to control its population, when a child born in the United States, for example, uses as much of the world's resources as 20 children born in India.

"It's time to stop riding the merry-go-round of denial. Population growth in the developing world isn't the main threat to the planet's sustainability," said James Gustave Speth, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme.

"The biggest threat comes from population growth and resource consumption in the industrialized world," he said.

For example, the United States has 5 percent of the world's population but consumes one-fourth of the world's commercial energy, aluminum, tin, copper and lead, and adds more pollution to the atmosphere than India and China combined.

Making do with less

Some Third World delegates at the population convention contend that the solution should be that the rich nations make do with less: less energy, less land and water, less money, less use of natural resources, maybe even less food.

"Twenty percent of the world's population consumes more than 80 percent of the goods and services produced by the earth's resources," said Lionel Alexander Hurst, a delegate from the Caribbean island of Antigua. "Humanity must decide whether to proceed with a lopsided distribution of incomes. . . ."

In some recognition of that, the document to be adopted by the population conference calls for a boost in the money developed nations pay toward population control programs. Of the $17 billion needed by the year 2000, more than $5 billion will be provided by First World nations.

Even that increase would only raise the First World share of such programs to about one-third by the turn of the century. They now pay about one-fourth of the cost.

Short of a large-scale transfer of income from the wealthy nations to the poor ones, the only way to affect the inequitable distribution of resources is for developed nations to go on a consumption diet, say some analysts.

Henry W. Kendall, a Nobel Prize-winning professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said yesterday that the developed nations must cut consumption. Technology cannot save us, he said.

"There's no more magic bullets," he said. "There is a widespread and mistaken belief that science and technology, through various miracles, can produce additional powerful solutions to our problems. The scientific community does not believe this."

Constraints are not only a matter of fairness, but of necessity, he contends. The world's population is not likely to level off before it doubles in 50 or 60 years. It is uncertain that the world's supply of energy or food can double to accommodate the population growth, much less provide the excess to lift the poor out of poverty.

Unimaginable specters

Competition over dwindling resources presents unimaginable specters, either among men or between man and nature, he said.

"The result will be vast human suffering on a scale not known before," he said.

Unlike the two previous international conferences on the population problem, held in 1974 and 1984, the Cairo conference is based on a theme that population curbs must be combined with economic development.

The world must not simply have fewer mouths to feed but also must have more means with which to feed them, said Dr. Nafis Sadik, secretary-general of the conference.

The preoccupation this week with conference language on abortion has thus angered some Third World delegates, who see the issue as peripheral to much larger threats. "Africans are complaining bitterly that we've spent the last 2 1/2 days on [the abortion language], and they really want to discuss economic issues," Dr. Sadik said yesterday.

Some of those delegates want to get to the issue of how much the developed world will be willing to sacrifice to help the developing world. They see resource reallocation as a matter of fairness.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak set the tone when he opened the conference Monday. "The average income of 822 million people is more than $20,000 annually, while the average income of 3 billion people does not exceed $350," he noted.

"The industrial countries have consumption that has led to overexploitation of the resources of the developing countries," said Assumpta Rego, a Kenyan delegate and geography professor in Nairobi. "There has to be a sharing."

"We've been living high on the hog of consumption," acknowledged Richard Benedick, a former U.S. ambassador for population programs. "But I don't buy the argument that we owe a specific amount of money to a specific country. Just to throw money at the South is not going to work."

Fred T. Said, a Ghanaian professor and chairman of the conference, said that industrialized nations must sacrifice.

"Of course [the North] owes something to the developing countries," he said. "The South will have to start coming up to a consumption level, and the North will have to start coming down. Whether there is a willingness in the North to do that is another matter."

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