U.S. Urged To Change `Overconsumption' -- Environmental Conference Focuses On Gap In Resources Between Rich And Poor Nations

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Growing numbers of people in developing countries want the same standard of living that Americans are unwilling to give up. But if everyone on Earth consumed resources and threw off waste the way Americans do, analysts say, the environment would collapse.

Searching for solutions to that basic problem is a self-assigned mission of the World Conservation Union, an association of official agencies and nongovernmental organizations now holding its general assembly in Buenos Aires.

In the eight-day meeting of about 1,000 people from more than 100 countries - billed as the biggest international environmental conference since the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil - the union is expected to elect U.S. zoologist Jay D. Hair as its president for the next three years. Hair, 48, is president of the National Wildlife Federation, the world's largest environmental group, with more than 5 million members.

In an interview, Hair outlined ideas for relieving pressure on the Earth's environment. The United States, which maintains its standard of living by using more than one-fourth of the resources consumed in the world, is unqualified to tell developing countries, " `You can't have it,' " he said. "It's simply arrogant, presumptuous, and it's a non-starter."

Instead, he said, Americans must help change the "mentality of overconsumption," shifting the emphasis of consumer demand from quantity to environmental quality. For example, he said, consumers must learn to shop for clothing made with ecologically acceptable materials that will last and stay in style, and to buy cars that don't pollute and can be recycled.

"I think the consumers of the United States will be delighted to have products that are more recycling-friendly," he said, predicting that such changes will come "when consumers expect it and when private enterprise responds to the desire of consumers."

Hair has been nominated to succeed the World Conservation Union's current president, Shridath Ramphal, a native of Guyana and former secretary general of the British Commonwealth.

Ramphal, in his opening speech to the union's general assembly last week, noted that the world's population is expected to grow from 5.5 billion to 10 billion by the middle of the 21st century. And he cited a U.N. estimate that a child born in an industrialized country will consume at least 20 times the resources of a child in a developing country.

People in many developing countries aspire to a U.S. "model" of prosperity as seen in movies and television. But if developing countries were to approach such levels of consumption and waste, Ramphal said in an interview, "we would be heading toward exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet, so we've got to change the model."

He credited the United States with beginning such changes as energy taxes, car-pooling and low-pollution cars. "Those are all incremental steps in the right direction, but we need a lot more of them," he said.

And industrialized countries of the north should set a better example before criticizing developing countries of the south for damaging the Earth's environment, he said. "The south sees the north as the principal culprit, yet it is on the receiving end of lectures from the north," he said. "They're not going to heed those lectures unless they come with more moral authority."

Rather than lectures, industrialized countries should provide technology, trade and investment that will help poor countries develop without degrading the environment, he said. For example, he said, governments of north and south should cooperate to impose environment codes of conduct on multinational companies that invest in developing countries.

Rafe Pomerance, deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and development, said the United States wants to explore ways of transferring to developing countries advanced technologies that will help protect the environment. "The question is, how do we make arrangements to make these things happen?" Pomerance said.

That is one of many questions being discussed by Pomerance and others at the environmental meeting here. Another is how to cooperate in "capacity building"- helping people and institutions in developing countries learn how to manage environmental preservation.

Brooks Yeager, director of policy analysis for the U.S. Interior Department, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already has a $1 million program for training Latin Americans to manage their national parks.

Shelia Davis Lawrence, the Clinton administration's special representative to the World Conservation Union, said that "capacity building is one of our stronger points, one of the greatest things we have to contribute." Lawrence said that providing training and technology for environmental preservation in developing countries is in the United States' interest because it is in the Earth's interest. "Given the fact that we live in a global community, it has to be a priority to share this information and participate," she said.