A new environmental focus

About a month before last August’s U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, London’s Sunday Times ran a story about the cost of sending Britain’s delegation to the summit.

According to the article, Britain would spend over 1.2 million dollars to send eight ministers and over 100 aides to the conference; the Britons were to be “housed in five-star hotels with its senior members being ferried the few hundred yards to the conference halls in air-conditioned limousines.”

The irony that these delegates were supposed to be looking for ways to raise the living standard worldwide while preserving the environment seems to have been lost on the limousine liberals who cared about this farce of a conference. What wasn’t lost was the opportunity to blame all of the world’s problems on the United States. Secretary of State Powell’s keynote address, for example, was drowned out by protesters.

The sentiment of the summit was best expressed by George Gelber, the head of policy at a Catholic aid agency, CAFOD: “The United States, with its two cars per family, has principally blocked agreement on difficult steps needed to achieve the 2015 millennium target of halving the world’s poor.”

Now, it appears, Williams is preparing to join this utterly unproductive dialogue. On Saturday, the College will host a conference entitled “Meeting the Environmental Challenge: Should Williams College be a Leader or a Follower?” The answer seems quite obvious: Williams should be a leader in everything we do. What serious member of this community would disagree with that?

Since the “Williams for Mediocrity” lobby seems to be tied up unnecessarily attacking athletics at the moment, it’s safe to assume the purpose of the conference is to find ways for the College to become a leader on environmental issues. Unfortunately, the answer to that question has already been determined.

In an opinions piece last week, Carlos Silva ’04, a member of the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee and student organizer of the conference, wrote: “If we are to have any hope of providing a modern standard of living to all of the world’s inhabitants, it is clear that we must change how we manufacture, how we farm, how we produce energy, how we construct buildings and how we accomplish the multitude of tasks that meet our modern needs” (“The search for sustainability,” Sept. 10, 2002).

The keynote speaker at Saturday’s conference, David Orr, has been influential in getting Oberlin College to accept a zero emissions standard by the year 2020.

Prof. Orr’s speech will be followed by a presentation by Sarah Creighton, a member of the committee responsible for making sure Tufts University meets or exceeds the standards of the Kyoto Protocol by 2012.

All three of these well-intentioned individuals start with the same assumption as the delegates to the U.N. summit: “We” (i.e. Williams, Oberlin, America) need to change the way we operate. There is little doubt that at some point this weekend somebody will point out that America, with 5 percent of the world’s population, uses 25 percent of its resources.

What won’t be mentioned is that American innovation has also greatly expanded the pool of available resources. If it weren’t for American consumption, the standard of living in poorer nations would be even lower than it is today.

Smallpox has been eradicated because of medical progress mainly coming from America. Other diseases – polio, typhoid and tuberculosis, to name a few – are nearly eradicated due to American medicine.

Because of Western innovations in farming, fewer people died in the 20th century from starvation than in the 19th century – despite the fact the world’s population quadrupled in that time.

Pollution is down 40 percent in the United States since the 1960s, due in large part to economic advances that have afforded us the luxury of worrying about the environment.

If Williams wants to be a leader on environmental issues it needs to lead a dialogue towards eliminating third-world poverty.

Joining Tufts, Oberlin and the rest of the Kyoto crowd in attacking American prosperity might make us feel better, but it won’t solve any problems.