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A Time for Action After Earth Summit

A GROUP called "Friends of the Library" met at the state college here in southern Oregon last weekend to consider the question "The Earth Summit at Rio: What Next?"

Their guest speaker began by giving them a quiz to show why there indeed needs to be a "what next" and not just a "so what" in the months and years following the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development that was crammed into 12 days last June in Brazil.

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The questions and answers - all relating to events that will occur over the next 24 hours - were as follows:

How many acres of tropical forest will be lost? (115,068) How many tons of topsoil will be lost? (68,493,150) How many tons of garbage will be dumped at sea? (17,808) How many tons of oil will end up in the oceans due to normal shipping operations, that is, not counting accidental spills? (1,644) How many species will go extinct? (74) How much will the world's population increase? (252,055) How many children will die because of environmental degradation? (38,356)

Again, all these developments will occur between now and this time tomorrow. The numbers are based either on annual figures reported by UN agencies or on the best estimates of respected private researchers.

The temptation for governments and the media, following a diplomatic blowout like the one that occurred at Rio, is to let the event fade in importance - to move on to something more immediate like Somalia or what used to be Yugoslavia. This is especially true for the UN, which is not exactly known for ripping into major problems and doing something about them. It's known more for wind-baggery and lowest-comon-denominator consensus diplomacy.

We are coming up on the first major benchmark for gauging whether the UN will vigorously follow up on the promise and challenge of Rio. This is the debate, to begin next Monday, on the structure and power of a new UN entity called the "Commission on Sustainable Development."

This body, which was agreed to at Rio, will in theory make sure the Earth Summit commitments are turned into action. UN Secretary-General Boutros Ghali will open the debate with his ideas on how the UN should reorganize its economic and social programs in keeping with Earth Summit agreements on environment and development. Six weeks or so of public and closed-doors discussion on how to proceed will follow. In the end, we will know how much status and power the new commission will have.

Michael Howard, the British environment secretary, called the Earth Summit "the staging post on a long journey." How UN members establish and treat this new commission on sustainable development will be the first important post-Rio decision on whether the journey is proceeding in the right direction.

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But beyond the official UN efforts, there are signs of progress. The World Bank for perhaps the first time is reconsidering the extent to which it will proceed with a major dam project in India. The dam has been found to have serious problems affecting tens of thousands of people. The United States, for all the flak it took at the summit, just raised its spending for population-control measures by 30 percent. Many industrial countries (though not the US as yet) are making major investments in environment al technology. Through the presummit negotiating, at the summit itself, and since then, nongovernment organizations have steadily taken strong leadership roles in shaping environmental and development policy.

Ultimately, it may be the increasing effectiveness of this "citizen diplomacy" that makes the most difference, for it is the closest to the "revival of moral and spiritual values" that summit organizer Maurice Strong said would be "the real key to survival of the human species."

Here is where the all-important concrete steps taken by many, many individuals will make the crucial difference. For it is as novelist and essayist Wendell Berry wrote recently: "The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling.... Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded."

Meanwhile, events listed in that "Earth Summit Quiz" keep taking place day by day.