Grease Monkeys

by Michael W. Stowell

September 9, 2002


Nothing scrambles the political world like reality. Just when we're told 'us against them' means America versus Iraq, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, or Libya, or any combination thereof, we find those rulers with vested interests in a petroleum-based world economy bobbing their heads in agreement. "Wealth Not Health" is the sign they're showing; forget about the health of the planet and all its inhabitants, the grease monkeys have gas to pump and a killing to make!

While George W. Bush was busy posing in front of Mt. Rushmore and not participating at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, several Arab leaders were also noticeable by their absence from the talks.

"Iran and Iraq are siding with the United States. All Arab states are taking the same position as Arab oil producers...I don't think this is in their interests because they have a better future with renewable energy," said Abdullah Darwish, president of Lebanese environmental group Greenline.

Several Arab states sent high-level delegates to fight for their political and economic interests and Arab environmental experts say these issues, rather than the environmental crisis facing the planet, set the agenda. "They are playing politics to cover their own interests," Darwish told journalist Mariam Isa. "The Arab group is taking this position to have a better bargaining stand overall on trade and finance."

Arab environmentalists are also concerned about the way Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, has taken the lead in negotiations which affect the futures of other, poorer Arab states whose economies are not dependent on oil.

Lebanese Greenpeace activist Zeina al-Hajj told Reuters, "On this issue unfortunately Saudi Arabia is leading the talks on behalf of the Arab group. There will be no confrontation on this issue and it's not rational - the only benefit to Arab countries is for the oil producers. The issue of setting targets for the use of renewable energy, to gradually replace more polluting fossil fuels such as oil, was arguably the most contentious at the summit."

Saudi Arabia sent its Commerce Minister Osama bin Jaafar bin Ibrahim Faqih to the summit. Kuwait sent its Health Minister, Mohammad al-Jarallah, while the United Arab Emirates sent the head of one of its tiniest states, Fujairah. No other senior delegates were sent from the six countries in the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council, which with Iraq and Iran claim two-thirds of the world's known oil reserves. Egypt and Iraq sent their foreign ministers to protect petro/economic interests.

"None of the governments here really have the political will to talk about the environment," said Razan Zuayter, co-coordinator of the Jordan-based Arab Group for the Protection of Nature. "People know what they want. But there is not enough communication between them and their governments."

I wonder about that.

Brazil has proposed that 10 percent of the world's total energy consumption should come from renewable sources by 2010. The European Union has proposed a 15 percent target, although this is based on a looser definition of renewable energy sources. Norway, New Zealand, Iceland and Hungary favor some sort of target.

However, the United States and the Arab world, as represented by its oil producers, are adamantly opposed to unilateral targets (strange bedfellows, indeed, considering that George Bush has threatened to target Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein, while ordinary Arabs are furious with Bush for his one-sided support of apartheid in Palestine).

The final deal pledged to make energy more accessible to the poor but there were no time-bound targets forcing countries to switch away from the fossil fuels responsible for heating up the planet to cleaner energy such as solar or wind.

About two billion people, a third of the world's population, lack access to modern energy sources, including electricity or even fossil fuels. They rely on firewood or biomass, crop residues or animal dung, for cooking, heating and lighting. About 2.5 million women and children die every year from respiratory diseases caused by primitive cooking stoves. Many people in developing nations, especially women, spend long hours searching for firewood, reducing their chances of education and development. As the population swells, rising demand for firewood leads to deforestation.

Fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, produce the carbon compounds that account for 75 percent of the gases blamed for global warming. These "greenhouse gases" are linked to the climate change that leads to more storms, floods and rising ocean levels. Fossil fuels account for about 80 percent of total global energy consumption, down from 86 percent in 1971.

Nuclear energy accounts for about seven percent of total energy output while hydropower, other renewables and fuels like firewood account for about 13 percent. About 4.5 percent of the world's energy comes from modern renewable sources, up from 3.2 percent in 1971. Hydropower is the biggest such source, but large-scale schemes like dams are often controversial because they displace people and damage local ecosystems.

Wind and solar power have a big potential for growth but account for just 0.02 percent of total energy supply. Per capita energy use is highest in developed nations where each person consumed the equivalent of 6.4 tons of oil per year in 1999, ten times as much as in developing countries. The United States is the top consumer. South African President Thabo Mbeki said if the Chinese consumed as much oil per person as U.S. citizens, China's oil consumption would surge to 80 million barrels per day, outstripping current world production of 74 million barrels.

Modern biomass, burning firewood and other fuels in developing nations in more efficient cookers, and geothermal systems are seen by some as the best hope for reducing smoke-related diseases in the short term. It was left to the children to bring common sense to the summit.

"Too many adults are too interested in money and wealth to take notice of serious problems that affect our future," said Justin Friesen, an 11-year-old Canadian boy. "Think about your children, your nieces, nephews, and maybe even grandchildren. What kind of a world do you want for them?" he told scores of heads of state and government.

His brief remarks to leaders debating the fate of the planet was a breath of fresh air at an event rich in language such as "capacity-building for sustainable development," "appropriate frameworks" and "multilateral environmental agreements."

Analiz Vergara, a 14-year-old girl from Ecuador, called on leaders to ratify the Kyoto protocol, provide clean water and free health care for all children. Spend more money on helping the poor people and children around the world rather than attending too many meetings. "Remember we cannot buy another planet and our lives and those of future generations depend on it. We need more than your applause, your comments of well done, or good speech. We need action," Vergara said.

Many other children from numerous countries echoed the call for responsible adult behavior.

A United Nations report launched at the summit showed that logging, mining, human settlement and the trade in ape meat were wiping out gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos in Africa and the orangutans of Asia. UN officials called for urgent action to save the great apes, saying their fate was crucial to the success of the Earth Summit's plans to reduce biodiversity loss by 2010. "The great apes...will be the litmus test of whether the world succeeds in this important goal or not," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.

The report looked at each of the four great ape populations and mapped out the likely impact on their habitats if current development trends were not checked. "Less than 10 percent of the remaining habitat of the great apes of Africa will be left relatively undisturbed by 2030 if road building, mining camps and other infrastructure developments continue at current levels," it said. The future of the orangutans of Southeast Asia looks even bleaker. In 28 years there will be almost no pristine habitat left.

Researchers say the great apes are highly intelligent with sophisticated social structures. Chimpanzees share 98.4 percent of human DNA, more than any other mammal. "They are like us in more than their biological composition," primate researcher Jane Goodall told a news conference to launch the report.

The shrinking habitat has been accompanied by a sharp decline in great ape populations. Some estimates put the current chimpanzee population at 200,000, against perhaps two million a century ago. There are a few thousand lowland gorillas left and only a few hundred mountain gorillas on the volcanic slopes of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The UN is working with researchers, conservationists, governments and local people to draw up recovery plans in the two dozen countries that have great ape populations.

Meanwhile, the grease monkeys keep pumping gas.

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Michael W. Stowell is chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Arcata Library in Arcata, CA. He is the producer/editor/videographer of numerous public access television programs; he is a naturalist, a gardener, a bicyclist and a Swans' columnist.

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Published September 9, 2002
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