Report from Rio: The Earth Summit

Lavina Currier

Monday, June 1
Flying to Rio de Janeiro from New York, we pass over Freshkill Landfill, the largest man-made object in the world. It reminds me that we Americans throwaway twice our body weight in garbage every day.

In Miami Airport's red-carpet lounge a journalist calls in his "angle" on his way down to Rio: "I've got it. It's good. Are you there? Yeah, well here it is. It's chaos, it's impasse, gridlock if you will, but it's the future of diplomacy. It's how business will be done from now on—big, unwieldy gatherings. Okay? Good."

I talk with a lobbyist for a breast-feeding advocacy group. Talking with her reminds me of the baby, just weaned, who I've left behind with his father. Why am I on this plane to Rio? As a mother of a child of the twenty-first century, as an environmental foundation director, or as a dharma student?

I read the World Bank report on Environment and Development which concludes that development must still be the primary goal for the Third World. The report sets the tone for the conference. Two years ago conceived of as "Environment and Restoration" it is now "The U.N. Conference on Environment and Development"—UNCED, nicknamed UNSAID for all that various nations have negotiated not to discuss; the U.S.: overconsumption; the oil-producing nations: energy; Israel: water in the occupied territories; Latin America: population issues; the forest-owning countries: forest management.

Tuesday, June 2
The Global Forum is a conference parallelling UNCED for organizations as diverse as the Canadian government's association of timber producers, the Filmmakers Union of Kazakhstan, and a Japanese team using brain waves to increase the size and productivity of vegetables. Although most groups will not have access to the U.N. conference, they will come together here to exchange ideas and craft treaties among themselves.

The Global Forum opens on the beach at sunset. New Age ladies drum on a crowded stage, the sky is overcast and a pickpocket fingers my backpack as we all dance to Jimmy Cliff singing, "By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down; and there we wept..."

An exhibit at the museum—lifesized sculptures of burned trees—is powerful, but seems redundant given that real trees smelling of fire and dead animals are all around us in the rainforest. The Brazilians we meet tease us about coming to Rio to "save the world." They have never seen the Amazon except when flying over it on the way to Europe.

As I go to sleep the sounds of sea and traffic mix, and I dream a bird is calling me to the great forest of the Amazon, she is Mai da Lua, the nightjar—mother of the moon.

Wednesday, June 3
Opening ceremonies at UNCED. The King of Sweden speaks, reflecting on the previous conference in Stockholm twenty years earlier. In that conference, "Limits to Growth" was debated for the first time, and found to be alarmist, doomsaying, exaggerated. Today those same figures for the exponential rise in population, industrial output, and environmental degradation seem frighteningly close to reality.

In 1972, as now, the U.S. was unpopular—then for the Vietnam War, and now for its unwillingness to go along with major environmental treaties. Here in Rio the U.S. seems sadly behind other nations, like an enormous ship that cannot turn itself around. With a peculiar machismo, President Bush says he will sign nothing in Rio that challenges "the American way of life," echoing his budget director Richard Darman's remark on environmentalists: "Americans did not fight and win the wars of the twentieth century to make the world safe for green vegetables."

Other species are not represented at UNCED. They are referred to as "living resources." My friend Father Berry says, "The Earth is a communion of Subjects, not a Collection of Objects,"and Vimalakirti's phrase is "a collective mind field of sentient beings." But here at the conference the operating paradigm is Christian: man's dominion over the natural world which exists solely for his benefit. The first principle of Agenda 21 begins, "Human beings are at the center of concerns..." The same kind of thinking that created the ecological crisis is trying to solve it, and from the outset, I feel a restive hopelessness in this gathering and I know I am not alone.

Evening. The gate to Vera's ranch is opened by a watchman. We drive past gardens, corrals, dovecotes, and a schoolhouse. The ranch is built on the ruins of an early Benedictine monastery on a steep hill overlooking Rio. Hanne Strong, wife of the Secretary-General of UNCED, Maurice Strong, has chosen this location for her "Sacred Earth Wisdom Keepers Circle," where a fire will burn and a drum will be beaten without interruption, to provide a sacred dimension to the U.N. proceedings. She has invited friends, Native Americans, New Age prophets and astrologers, Gaia biologists and economists, and grass-roots activists.

After the evening's fire ceremony Hanne explains her worldview to me. It is typical of New Age leaders I've met—a blend of Christian and Native American apocalyptic millennia I prophecy, fortified by economic models of the "Limits to Growth" kind, and pragmatic frontier spirit—every man for himself. In two years, she says, the American economy will be in shambles. Diseases that make AIDS look like the common cold will overrun the earth.

Four and a half billion people will "check out" over the next seven years. A few places will be safe to live, like Baca Valley, Colorado. She has pulled her guys together there—organic farmers, spiritual leaders. "Come live with us," she offers.

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