Walking the walk

As I write this, the UN-sponsored World Summit for Sustainable Development is under way in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it’s generating all kinds of unusual reactions.

South African President Thabo Mbeki warns of a growing gap between rich and poor. Among other things, we in the industrialized world produce most of the global-warming gas, with the effects mostly felt in the Third World. Tailpipes alone tell the story: In 1995, the U.S. had 563 cars for every 1,000 people; India had just three.

Jerry Taylor of the libertarian Cato Institute, looking at the flood of anti-American rhetoric coming from Jo’burg, wants us to know that it’s the Third World, not the West, that is unsustainable. "If the West didn’t produce as much as it does, standards of living in countries like South Africa would be lower than they are today," he says.

The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population and uses 30 percent of its resources, but Taylor has an answer for that. "The West doesn’t simply consume natural resources," he opines. "It also creates them." Wow. I didn’t know you could "create" natural resources!

That’s what the right thinks. Another analysis, from the left, holds that the entire sustainable development argument has been taken over by big business, which pays for the privilege through special UN-sponsored "partnerships." In their new book earthsummit.biz (Food First), Kenny Bruno and Joshua Karliner argue that the UN "is calling on the polluters to be their partners." Prime offenders, they say, are auto companies that wrap themselves in green from their electric vehicle programs and UN connections, then turn around and make three-fourths of their profits from sport-utility vehicles. Both Ford and Mitsubishi are profiled in the book.

The fact is that auto companies know the value of good public relations, and image counts more than real achievement. Business comes first. Some believe that Ford pulled the plug on its Excursion SUV because it was getting hammered by the greens (and that was a factor), but more important was the vehicle’s declining sales. If a costly environmental mandate is proposed, they’ll fight it to the death in the press and in the courts, but even if they lose, they’ll reap the PR rewards. Look at the green cars Ford and GM were ordered to produce!

A recent Zogby poll shows that 75 percent of Americans support the idea of cleaning up cars and SUVs to combat global warming (and, presumably, save the Third World). But that doesn’t mean they’re ready to hand over the keys to their Suburbans and Land Cruisers. Small car sales remain in the doldrums.

And that’s what’s so interesting about new developments in California, which on its own would be the world’s fifth-largest economy. The state has 22 million cars, and it just enacted legislation to link their emissions to global warming. Vehicles for that rich market (a bellwether for the rest of the nation) will have to get smaller and far more fuel-efficient. Since cars alone produce 40 percent of California’s carbon dioxide, this should have more practical effect than all the hot air wafting over from Johannesburg.

To really address sustainable development, we’d have to put our consumption patterns on the table. Like California, we’d have to be willing to make sacrifices and curb our voracious appetites. We’d sell our gas guzzlers and start buying Toyota ECHOs, Ford Focuses, DaimlerChrysler Smart cars and the latest hybrids. Hell, we might even forgo some trips and walk. What a concept.