To the moon, Jerry

Posted: Sep 04, 2002 12:00 AM
Last week, as Oakland claimed its 74th murder victim this year, Mayor Jerry Brown and City Manager Robert Bobb were in Johannesburg at the U.N. Earth Summit. Brown apparently went to tell the world media that there are two Americas, "the America of George Bush, of isolation and retreating from cooperation with the nations of the world" as he told the London Independent and "the America of cities and states who are aggressively pursuing efforts to meet our (environmental) responsibilities." Back here, there are two Oaklands -- one where residents feel as safe (and unsafe) as ever, even as the murder toll threatens to reach 100 for the first time since 1997. (Saturday claimed Oakland's 75th murder victim.) And the other Oakland where armed thugs have terrorized neighborhoods and shattered families. And Moonbeam's in Johannesburg talking up solar power. The U.N. summit has been a farce from the get-go. As the confab convened, The Sun (of London) wrote a wicked expose on the lavish spreads, which included 5,000 oysters, more than 1,000 pounds of lobster and shellfish, 4,440 pounds of steak and chicken breasts, and more than 1,000 pounds of bacon and sausages. The headline read, "Lobsters, caviar and brandy for MPs (Members of Parliament) at summit on starvation." "Money is no object," the head chef of the five-star Michelangelo Hotel had confided to the paper. And, "Whether (attendees) want Beluga caviar, foie gras or bacon sandwiches -- we have it all." Tory MP Teddy Taylor got it right when he told the Sun, "I'm sure nothing will be achieved at the meeting except for the photo opportunities allowing politicians to say how great they are." And he probably doesn't know Jerry Brown. But the problem with the summit wasn't the hypocrisy of lobster and caviar at a conference, it was the premise. The very idea of the conference -- the decision to define famine and squalor as a function of other countries' prosperity -- doomed it to fail. Even before the lobster was delivered, participants were putting down countries that can and do feed themselves, while putting on a pedestal countries ravaged by famine -- even where the famine was often the result of corrupt, dysfunctional governments. Gar Smith of the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute typified that attitude when he said from Johannesburg that "there is a lot of quality to be had in poverty." He also said he "had seen villages in Africa that had vibrant culture and great communities that were destroyed by the introduction of electricity." Again, development: bad; other people doing without: good. Smith told the New York Daily News that he salutes Zambia for turning down corn donated by the United States because it is genetically modified. No matter that 2.5 million Zambians are expected to need U.N. World Food Program grain this year. (President Levy Mwanawasa says the food is toxic. In fact, studies have never shown GM corn to be unsafe -- even if some environmentalists fear that growing the corn could spread its DNA where it doesn't belong.) "If it were me, I wouldn't let it in my country," Smith said. "There are other ways to deal with starvation. We don't have to send them genetically modified food. We could just give them the money." Translation: Let them eat quarters. Alas, some Zambians aren't on Smith's page -- as in Josephine Namagolwa, a starving villager who stood outside a warehouse of undistributed grain wracked with hunger and anger. "We are dying here," she said. "We want to eat." I guess some people just don't appreciate the quality and vibrant culture of starvation. Or the benefits of relying solely on solar power.