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Avoid Earth's bankruptcy: Link environment and economy, says Wirth

STANFORD -- Ecological preservation and economic health are inextricably intertwined, and Americans must discard the "misguided belief that protecting the environment is antithetical to economic interests," said Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth in a speech at Stanford on April 26.

"When the environment is finally forced to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 because its resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, irretrievably compromised, then the economy goes down to bankruptcy with it," he said.

Environmental threats to global stability do not discriminate between the affluent and the impoverished, Wirth said in delivering the seventh annual Boething Lecture on Forests and the Human Predicament, sponsored by Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology.

At the State Department, Wirth currently is responsible for coordinating global programs on population, environment, human rights and refugees. Previously, he represented Colorado in both the House and the Senate, during which time he introduced energy, conservation and environmental protection legislation. He and the late Sen. John Heinz also co-authored "Project 88," developing a framework for using market forces to achieve environmental goals.

"The security of our nation and our world hinges upon whether we can strike a sustainable, equitable balance between human numbers and the planet's capacity to support life," Wirth said. The globe's population is growing at a rate matched or exceeded by the growing capacity to consume resources and produce wastes. "The course we are presently on is unsustainable."

Outmoded thinking that pits the economy against the environment is the greatest threat to sustainable development, which Wirth defined as an attempt to meet the needs of today's generation without compromising future needs. The concept of sustainability recognizes the mutually reinforcing nature of economic, social and environmental progress, he said. For example, five biological systems -- croplands, forests, grasslands, oceans and fresh waterways -- support the world economy. Along with fossil fuel and minerals, they supply all the raw materials for industry and food, he said.

Economic growth also should be evaluated in the context of sustainable development, not couched in terms of good or bad, Wirth said. He pointed to the precedent set by Chattanooga, Tenn., where civic leaders are developing an industrial park where "wastes and products work off of each other," thereby creating a non- polluting operation. Chattanooga is also re-windowing its buildings for environmental efficiency. This creates jobs, and the energy costs saved as a result of re-windowing can be used by private businesses and the city to pursue other goals, Wirth said. Both the public and private sectors benefit from such innovation, he said.

The multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical market, dominated by the United States, is another example of the link between environmental preservation and economic prosperity. More than half of today's best-selling medicines are derived from natural organisms, he said. For example, a drug derived from the Madagascar periwinkle plant is used to treat cancer and leukemia. Rainforests provide an abundant supply of such medically useful plants.

Evaluating the environment by counting stocks of fish or ears of corn can therefore be misleading, Wirth cautioned. The ecological system forms the basis of life on earth, performing the crucial functions of filtering wastes, regenerating soils, determining weather patterns and replenishing fresh water supplies. Human impact is placing a significant strain on this crucial ecological balance, he said: Ozone depletion, species loss and the increasing carbon content of the atmosphere are indicators of that strain.

Curbing global population growth -- 91 million annually -- is the essence of maintaining such ecological balance, Wirth said. This figure is tantamount to another New York City every month, another Mexico every year and another China every decade, he said. The world's population is soaring and resource supplies are spiraling down.

Another problem is consumption, Wirth said. Although impoverished populations in parts of Africa and Asia, by harvesting fragile hillsides, are "unwitting, but powerful agents of destruction," the toxic consumption of the affluent poses just as much of a menace, he said. The industrialized nations consume two- thirds of the rapidly dwindling resources used up each year, and generate four-fifths of all pollutants. Yet they claim only one-fifth of the world's population.

During a charged question-and-answer period following Wirth's speech, one member of the audience proposed restructuring the current tax system to punish the extraction of non-renewable resources.

"We tend to tax good things and reward bad things," Wirth agreed. "We tend to tax labor and capital. And we tend to reward, i.e., subsidize, resource uses of various kinds." Consumption, not production, should be taxed, he said. However, he emphasized that this should be a "tax shift," not an additional burden.

Wirth said one reason that President Clinton appointed a President's Council on Sustainable Development in 1993 was to debate this notion of a tax shift.

Although he called for a non-partisan approach to solving environmental problems, Wirth added that "conservatives need to realize that conservative ought to mean just that -- to conserve, rather than to use up and waste."

"The results that came out of the misfortunes of last November don't have to be all bad," he said. One such "misfortune" he cited was the congressional delay in ratifying the Bio-Diversity Treaty. This treaty attempts to reconcile habitat conservation in developing nations with the high demand in the developed world for such biological resources as medicinal plants.

Unless the United States becomes a signatory to the treaty -- which is impossible without congressional ratification -- it runs the risk of alienating many developing countries that are complying with U.S. requests for intellectual property protection.

In a recent statement, the Indian environmental minister warned of possible sanctions against the United States in the form of restricted access to Indian food stocks, Wirth said. India, as the powerhouse of the nonaligned movement, may be able to sway fellow nonaligned nations such as Brazil, Indonesia and Ecuador where the United States has a major stake.

Wirth also praised the Clinton-Gore administration for taking concrete steps to discuss population as an environmental issue. "I think this is the first time in our nation's history that we have had a presidential commission that explicitly focused on questions of our own domestic population," he said, referring to the President's Council on Sustainable Development.

Population control is a touchy issue for most politicians because it is wound up with the abortion debate. "There are those who attempt to set [it] up in such a way that we couldn't really talk about it," Wirth said. The Clinton administration, however, has shown remarkable support for population stabilization as well as other environmental initiatives.

Wirth said the administration's environmental agenda includes the following:

  • Stabilizing the global population as the most cost- effective strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Trying to find ways of internalizing the costs of pollution and resource depletion by harnessing marketplace forces.
  • Using financial institutions such as the World Bank to promote sustainable development and environmental progress.
  • Providing basic health services, an action that can save three to four million lives annually, thereby lowering pressures for larger families in developing countries.

Wirth said that now that he is no longer an elected official, he can offer a perspective on U.S. politics on "non- political" grounds. It will take political campaigning to give the American public a chance to sort out the right choices on environmental policy, he said.

"It's going to be a great race in 1996," he said. "I can tell you as a non-politician, on non-political grounds. I think it's going to be one of the greatest shootouts of our time and will remind you that you can't beat somebody with nobody."



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