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THE Earth Summit now taking place in Rio de Janeiro - a global effort to weigh environmental protection and economic development - is largely a political event. Some substance. Some ceremony. Lots of talk.

But it does not take place in an intellectual or literary vacuum. Leading up to what's officially called the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) has been the publication of a small library of books coming at these crucial issues from a variety of perspectives. There are picture books, scientific studies filled with charts and graphs, "eco-histories," economic analyses with more charts and graphs, political sermonettes, "eco-psycho-histories," reports from think tanks and from

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the field.

Twenty years ago, a book called "The Limits to Growth" set off a debate over whether the world was running out of natural resources because of population increase and thoughtless material consumption. Based on computer modeling, it took a lot of flak but was immensely successful (selling 9 million copies in 29 languages).

Now, the authors are back with an updated sequel. Beyond the Limits, by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, and Jrgen Randers comes to essentially the same conclusion as its predecessor: If the world continues on its present path, it will suffer "overshoot and collapse" as measured in such terms as resources, pollution, population, food and industrial production, life expectancy, and the amount of goods, services, and food available per person.

The authors use the "World3" computer model they created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., to show how the results can be varied under a dozen different scenarios (such as making birth control universally available). But in most instances - most but not all - this only moderates or delays the inevitable "overshoot and collapse."

Though they might have been tempted toward pessimism, given the scope of the problem as they see it and the steps needed to avoid it, they remain hopeful - hopeful that not only with "technical and entrepreneurial innovation, but also communal, social, political, artistic, and spiritual innovation" the world will move (as Lewis Mumford said 50 years ago) from "an age of an age of equilibrium."

The answer, according to Gerard Piel, founder and publisher of Scientific American, is to accelerate the industrial revolution in those parts of the world where it's only now beginning. By doing so, people in such "preindustrial" countries (where much of the world's population growth is now occurring) will feel confident enough in their economic state to begin reducing reproduction rates and - eventually - the consequent drain on natural resources.

Piel's book, Only One World, is an excellent overview of the impact of humankind on the biosphere, tracing the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the ways in which these have disturbed ecosystems. It is historically and scientifically sound - much like the publication he started 40 years ago. There is urgency here, but also a great sense of compassion.

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For the developed world, Piel says, the necessary changes will include large transfers of technology and economic assistance and perhaps the relinquishing of some political power to international institutions. In the end, "The economy of growth ... must give way at last to the economy of equity," he writes, and this will require the "reconstruction of ... values and institutions."

It is universally agreed that population growth impacts the global environment. How could it not do so as it doubles (or perhaps triples) from its present 5 billion over the next century? Say "population explosion" and most people think (rightly so) of the third world - South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But in terms of environmental impact, developed countries in the Northern Hemisphere - as measured on a per-capita basis - use far more natural resources and create far more waste and pollution. With

5 percent of the world's people, for example, the United States accounts for 30 percent of energy use and 40 percent of the use of other nonrenewable resources.

That's the nub of the North-South debate over protecting the global environment. And that's what makes Elephants in the Volkswagen, by Lindsey Grant, so relevant at Earth Summit time. Grant is a former senior US State Department official specializing in environmental and population affairs. Other experts contributing to the book include Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Marcia and David Pimentel, Leon Bouvier, John Weeks, and Robert Costanza.

The authors point out that, after a period of decline, the reproduction rate in the US has been edging back up in recent years. Also increasing - even more dramatically - is the number of immigrants (legal and illegal). The US population today is 252 million; but based on "carrying capacity" (how much human activity the country's land, air, and water resources can indefinitely stand), the optimum population may be no more than 135 million - about what it was during World War II.

"Right now we are creating our demographic future by inadvertence, making decisions on other issues (such as energy or transportation) without ever considering their impact on population or recognizing that the connections are circular," Grant warns. "Population growth may wipe out the progress we are trying to make in other areas of public policy."

In A Green History Of The World, British researcher Clive Ponting traces the history of human development as it affected the environment over millenniums - including those instances in recent centuries where civilizations experienced overshoot and collapse as a result.

`ENVIRONMENTAL problems are nothing new," he writes. What is new is the speed of change brought on by "the expansion of Europe to dominate much of the globe, the rapid growth in the world's population, the increase in the cultivated area at the expense of natural ecosystems and the rise of highly industrialised societies."

Theodore Roszak, a professor of history at California State University, is perhaps best known for "The Making of a Counterculture." In his new book, The Voice of the Earth, he proposes a new theory called "ecopsychology." This is a blend of ecology, psychology, and cosmology in which Roszak aims "to span the gap between the personal and the planetary in a way that suggests political alternatives."

Roszak acknowledges that some of the concepts he explores here "border on `wild science' " and that some of the things he writes about "carry science forward to the boundary of metaphysics." He is on a fascinating and valuable intellectual exploration, however, and it's worth being along for the ride.

Two new books in particular offer a good business perspective on the issues of development and environment.

Costing the Earth is by Frances Cairncross, environment editor of The Economist. Cairncross, who starts from the presumption that global consumption will inevitably rise, has strong advice for those on both sides. "Rather than yearning for a world that can never be recreated," she writes, environmentalists "need to help develop incentives for industry to support human needs in the least polluting way." They must "put down their placards ... and come into the boardroom with constructive advice."

On the other hand, she acknowledges that "the market" alone never has and probably never will adequately value the environment, no matter how "green" companies become. Therefore governments' environmental policy must necessarily be interventionist: "It needs to set clear rules and work out how true environmental costs are to be reflected in costs of production." Cairncross includes a helpful 10-point checklist for how "the sensible company chairman [can] turn the ideas in this book into action."

Two years ago, Maurice Strong (secretary general of UNCED) asked Swiss industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny to be his chief adviser for business and industry. Schmidheiny gathered together 50 board chairmen and chief executive officers from around the world to work out a business perspective on sustainable development and stimulate international interest in such a goal.

The result is Changing Course, a solid and in some ways visionary book. The authors believe firmly in the general concept of free markets and the promise of technology to better the lot of mankind.

UT they also stress that what they call "eco-efficiency" will be achieved "only by profound changes in the goals and assumptions that drive corporate activities, and change in the daily practices and tools used to reach them. This means a break with business-as-usual mentalities and conventional wisdom that sidelines environmental and human concerns." And they also stress that "sustainable development will require the greatest changes in the wealthiest nations, which consume the most resources, release t he most pollution, and have the greatest capacity to make the necessary changes."

The book points up such "alarming trends" as degradation and over-consumption of resources, population growth, loss of biodiversity, and pollution. Put in business terms: "The bottom line is that the human species is living more off the planet's capital and less off its interest." But the book also details several dozen case studies of companies around the world that have begun to take the steps necessary to move toward sustainable development.

Such advice is down-to-earth and most valuable, but sometimes it takes a different perspective to fully appreciate the nature of the planet and its inhabitants. Such was the case with the photos of Earth beamed back by the pioneering astronauts on their first moon missions.

Embracing Earth, by Payson R. Stevens and Kevin W. Kelley, does this in coffee-table book form with more recent photos and computer imagery from satellite and space shuttle. These are beautiful and yet haunting images of a fragile planet undergoing natural and man-made change. They are accompanied by just enough text, with the observations and thoughts of poets and philosophers as well as National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists.

One such is former US Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai E. Stevenson. In a speech 27 years ago, he said something even more relevant today, something all these books - as well as the thousands of people gathered in Rio this week and next - are saying in one way or another:

"We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave - to the ancient enemies of man - half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safel y with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all."

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