From Heads to TOES: the Other Economic Summit
Who should make the decisions about the future of humanity and the planet?
Last July, in Houston Texas, the heads of the Group of Seven powerful nations—the US, Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada gathered to plan the world’s future economic policies, trade practices, and other global matters over which the ‘G7’ wields or hoes to wield its control. The event was given extensive coverage by the major US media, which reported on everything from the extravagant banquet menus (including alligator tail) to the exchange of costly gifts (including the luxurious handmade riding boots that President Bush gave to the other heads of state).
At almost the same time that the Economic Summit of the G7 convened, another strategic international meeting was taking place, also in Houston. Although this counter-summit was potentially far more important to the well-being of the world’s people, in marked contrast to the G7 Summit it received almost no coverage by the major US media.
The Other Economic Summit—TOES for short was an epic gathering of nearly a thousand ‘spokespersons for disadvantaged people’ from all over the world. Significantly, representatives from the ‘Group of Seven’ poorest countries were given a special forum to express their grievances and hopes.
Present at the TOES conference were representatives from people’s movements ranging from the Frente Sandinista in Nicaragua and the guerrilla forces in El Salvador to the African National Congress in South Africa. Also present were the ‘poor people’s presidential candidates’ from Latin America’s two biggest countries, Luiz Ignacio da Silva (or, as he is popularly known, “Lula”) from Brazil and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas from México. Both would probably have won the last national elections in their countries, had it not been for foul play at the polls. (Washington worked as hard to undermine the chances for a truly democratic process in the Brazilian election as it did in that held last February in Nicaragua.)
In his presentation at TOES, Cárdenas made it clear that the policies already pursued by the G7 have led to “a drastic decline in living standards in some countries to levels comparable to those existing 40 years ago.” Da Silva -referring to the approaching 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas—argued that it was high time, after half a millennium, for the richest states to stop treating the poorest nations as their de facto colonies.
Martin Khor Kok Peng from Malaysia, coordinator of the World Rainforest Movement, spoke out against GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which was a major theme at both summits. The G7 has been pushing to lift certain government controls over international business and trade. Khor warned that such deregulation would lead to even greater dominance by multinational corporations, not only over marketing, but also over Third World banking, insurance, and communications sectors. Khor linked this dominance from the North and the consequent increasing outflow of wealth and natural resources from poor countries to rich -to the rampant destruction of rainforests and the accelerating Greenhouse Effect.
Reforms of North-South economic relations are an essential prerequisite to alleviating the Greenhouse Effect.
The ‘Greenhouse Effect’ was a focal issue of both summits, but from very different perspectives. On the opening day of the G7 conference, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu shocked environmentalists by claiming that 94% of global warming is produced by natural causes! Sununu’s contention was not refuted at the rich countries' summit. In fact, efforts by the other six nations to reach an agreement on launching a coordinated initiative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human activity (the real cause of the Greenhouse Effect) were systematically blocked by the US.
At the TOES conference, environmentalists stressed that reforms of North-South economic relations are an essential prerequisite to alleviating the Greenhouse Effect. As Khor pointed out, debt stricken countries are destroying their forests and converting grasslands into deserts just to keep pace with their giant interest payments to Northern banks. The Greenhouse Effect and other environmental degradation can be effectively contained only when poor countries get out from under the yoke of massive foreign debt, fairer trade policies are initiated, and wealth stops flowing from the poor countries to the rich (now at a net of $50 billion a year). Given the fact that arresting the Greenhouse Effect is ultimately contingent upon shifting from a growth-oriented to an equity-oriented model for human and economic development, it is not surprising-that the Northern powers cannot agree upon effective action. But in the long run everyone will lose, rich and poor alike.
I (David Werner) was grateful to have been invited to participate in The Other Economic Summit (to present a paper on the politics of health). I must admit that I came away from the conference with my head spinning. TOES was a profound experience, both exciting and distressing. Exciting because it was clear that if some of the clear-thinking, socially committed, and politically astute speakers at TOS were given equal footing with the G7 heads of state and allowed to represent the ‘silent majority’ at the planning table of global policies, humanity could move quickly toward a more sensible, equitable, and ecologically viable society. And distressing because our existing power structure is so successful at keeping these alternative strategists and spokespersons for the poor muted. What a service it would have been if the New York Times had given as full coverage to the sensible, practical, globally essential measures proposed at TOES as it gave to the dinner parties of the G7!
What excited and upset me more than anything else at the TOES meeting was the wealth of knowledge and plausible suggestions relevant to solving the biggest problems threatening both humanity and the planet. Sensible, economical, humane, and extremely feasible solutions are at hand *—*if only our leaders would open their hands to take them.
One of the most mind-boggling presentations was that given by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Lovins talked about energy consumption, its causal relationship to the Greenhouse Effect, and very pragmatic possibilities for dramatically reducing both. Although he discussed global implications, his primary focus was on what could be done in the United States. This focus is only logical, since the US, with just six percent of the world’s population, consumes 25 percent of its energy and nonrenewable resources, and thus makes an equally disproportionate contribution to the Greenhouse Effect. Lovins presented extensive evidence showing that the technologies already exist to reduce US energy consumption to one quarter of the present level with no sacrifice in people’s present lifestyle or standard of living.
For example, lighting uses 20 percent of the electric supply in the US. It could be made vastly more efficient simply by using new, low-energy bulbs. An energy-efficient eight watt bulb (already on the market) provides as much light as a standard 75 watt bulb. The initial cost, although higher than standard light bulbs, is more than made up for by the longer life of the energy-efficient alternative—apart from the huge savings in electric bills.
Similarly, prototypes for motor cars already exist which yield 75 to 80 miles per gallon with no reduction in power. And designs for energy-efficient housing can drastically reduce heating and air-conditioning costs.
Technologies already exist to reduce US energy consumption to one quarter of the present level with no sacrifice in people's present lifestyle or standard of living.
The list of energy-saving alternatives for which technologies already exist goes on and on. The clinching argument for these alternatives is that over time they can save, not only natural resources, but also vast amounts of money. Lovins pointed out that the US has already, through a few modest energy saving measures introduced since 1973, reduced its annual energy bill by $150 billion, a savings comparable to the Federal budget deficit. And this is only a fraction of what is possible. If the US were now as energy- efficient as Europe and Japan, our nation would be saving an additional $200 billion per year. But the energy-, money-, and environment-saving potential is much, much greater.
According to Lovins, simply promoting such energy-conserving measures for the rest of this century could yield a cumulative net saving of several trillion dollars, enough to pay off the entire national debt. This would also reduce the nation’s need for nuclear power, its nonrenewable fuel requirements, and its output of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, thus alleviating both the Greenhouse Effect and acid rain. All this could be accomplished not merely at low cost, but at astronomical savings to both the government and the people.
The advantages this strategy would generate in terms of a healthier physical and social environment don’t stop there. Highly efficient energy use would so dramatically cut down on the need for crude oil that no more imports would be necessary, either from Alaska or the Middle East. Massive oil spills would be a thing of the past. Even more important for global survival, the US would no longer have to worry about maintaining its economic and political dominance in the Persian Gulf. With the US having attained energy self-sufficiency, much of the paranoia about ‘national security’ could be laid to rest. The military which directly and indirectly accounts for over half the US government budget—would lose one of its strongest current arguments against urgently needed cutbacks. Substantial cutbacks within the massive arms industry could in turn reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emission even further.
So why aren’t we implementing these measures? The reasons are complex. For one, the mainstream paradigm for national prosperity and progress—the ‘Great American Dream’—is one of never-ending growth, not of conservation. But the single most important reason relates to the power and influence wielded by the oil industry, as reflected in its ability to buy votes and dictate government policy. It comes down to the free-market ethic of putting profit before people – stockholders must have maximum short-term gains, even if this compromises the well-being of the people and the planet. From the long-teen perspective, of course, losses will be astronomical, even for the stockholders (or at least their children).
We saw that at the G7 Summit, the US government once again put corporate interests before global wellbeing. It stubbornly blocked an international accord to put timelines on measures to forestall the Greenhouse Effect. Using its standard tactic of disinformation, the White House has also come out with an estimate that the steps required to substantially reduce the US contribution to the Greenhouse effect would cost the nation approximately three trillion dollars by the turn of the century. Lovins says that this estimate is more or less correct-except that they forgot the minus sign! Reducing the Greenhouse Effect through more efficient energy use would save, rather than cost, the nation two to three trillion dollars by the end of the century.
As regards enemy consumption in the Third World, Lovins pointed out that, while underdeveloped countries consume far less energy per capita than the industrialized countries, their present use of energy is much less efficient. The energy saving potential for the Third World is therefore still greater than that for the North. Even allowing for a doubling of the population and a substantial raise in the standard of living, Third World energy consumption and contribution to the Greenhouse Effect could be significantly decreased.
Reducing the Greenhouse Effect through more efficient energy use would save the nation two to three trillion dollars by the end of the century.
But this would require some radical reforms of trade policies. Today the rich industrialized countries tend to export their outdated, least energy efficient motors, equipment, and electrical goods to the Third World. The same kind of restrictions are needed to prevent multinationals from exporting environmentally dangerous, energy-consuming goods to poor countries as are needed to stop them from dumping toxic waste, unsafe medicines, hazardous pesticides, and other products which have been or should be banned in their parent countries.
Clearly, the biggest obstacles to the energy saving, environment-protecting strategies recommended by Lovins are not technological, but political. Unfortunately, those who frame our national and global policies have their own agenda. They did not invite Amory Lovins to contribute to the G7’s discussion on global warming. Nor, apparently, do their analysts even look at his well-documented writings. If they did, perhaps they would realize that their shortsighted policies threaten to plunge the powerful and powerless alike into ruin.
The Other Economic Summit provided an abundance of ideas and strategies from which the world’s leaders might have learned-ones that could go a long way toward resolving humanity’s biggest problems. But the G7 were not interested. Nor, for that matter, was the mainstream media.
It thus should come as no surprise that the participants in TOES concluded that the far-reading changes needed for a healthier and saner society must come from the bottom up, through a worldwide coalition of grassroots movements, activists, disadvantaged groups, environmentalists, human rights advocates, and all of us who are concerned for the well-being of the planet and its people. Those in positions of power will listen to the voice of reason only when their constituents leave them no choice. HW
Note: If you are interested in learning more about practical ways to save energy, contain the Greenhouse Effect, and reduce the national debt through the money these measures could save, write to the Rocky Mountain Institute, 1739 Snowmass Creek Road, Snowmass, Colorado 81654-9199, USA.