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A confab is still a gabfest

Published by New York Daily News on 1997-09-01

Soon after the leaders of the industrialized countries finish their mountaintop confab in Colorado, they will descend on New York for more consultations--this time on the global environment and on bettering the lot of citizens in places far less privileged than their own economies. For a week starting Monday, June 23, President Clinton and other G-7 luminaries will join some 100 other presidents and prime ministers at the United Nations to mark the fifth anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit. They will review global environmental problems, they will lament pervasive poverty in the developing nations, and they will urge privileged citizens of the rich countries to tighten their belts, waste less and emit fewer toxics into the air, water and land.

At the UN, they will also produce some 10 tons of garbage daily during the high-level conference, whose unfortunate acronym is UNGASS (United Nations General Assembly Special Session).

That's real garbage, not just the empty rhetoric that usually emanates from our world leaders on issues such as environment and sustainable development. Of course, it is the rhetoric that produces the solid waste at the UN, where conservation seems to be an alien concept despite much preaching about it. Each weekday, some 46 cubic yards of garbage, or approximately 336 garbage cans--each containing 30 gallons of waste--are turned out at the UN.

The garbage consists of mostly documents that record the endless proceedings on everything from climate change to American imperialism (yes, still!) to contacting UFOs. The UN, which employs about 7,000 highly paid international bureaucrats, generates 2,200 tons of garbage annually. That figure rises considerably whenever there are special events such as the special General Assembly session marking the Rio anniversary, which is expected to attract not only the world leaders but more than 5,000 diplomats and grassroots activists.

Now 10 tons of garbage may not seem much when compared to what the rest of New York City (population: 8 million) generates daily: 12,000 tons. The city's Department of Sanitation says that an average household in New York produces 6.2 pounds of waste daily. The waste is deposited mostly in Freshkills, New Jersey. But the UN's tax-free garbage is carted away by the city at little or no cost to the world organization, while the rest of us pay our government handsomely to dispose off our waste. Is that fair? Yes, say the UN-ites. After all, the UN is supposed to spawn more than $3 billion in business for the city. No one knows exactly what sort of business--other than what diplomats are mostly known for: restaurant hopping and high-end shopping. And other than jobs that average $100,000 annually for the select few who are able to wriggle into cushy sinecures at Turtle Bay, no one has been able to convincingly demonstrate that the UN generates jobs for the city.

Some UN officials are urging that instead of producing endless reams of press releases and committee proceedings the institution ought to post more material on the Internet. The information, such as it is, could be then downloaded by interested parties. But change is never anything other than slow at the UN, and the entrenched bureaucracy is less than enamored of giving up its rights to paper-pushing. So the paper palace thrives.

Which brings us to UNGASS. President Clinton and other leaders will hold forth on a dazzling array of environmental and developmental topics--climate change, global warming, poverty alleviation, among others. But since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the record of most nations has been less than stellar in implementing what world leaders had agreed to five years ago by way of promoting ecological security and sustainable economic growth.

Since 1992, the global cohort of poverty has risen--so that, out of a global population of 5.8 billion, nearly a half lives under the poverty line. Which is to say, almost 3 billion people in some 130 nations must exist with an annual income of the equivalent of $300. Meanwhile, the ozone layer is thinning, and pollution is on the increase, especially in the so-called developing countries, which resent Western calls for tighter controls on auto emissions and other harmful wastes.

Their resistance in predicated on a simple argument: It's fine for the West to preach environmental security, but poor countries need to industrialize more rapidly in order to lessen their domestic poverty. It's a strong argument that will no doubt produce impressive amounts of garbage in New York this week, but we are left wondering whether we need another 50 tons of it to illustrate what we already know--that a UN confab by any other name is still disposable.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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