There is a ready-made agenda available for the Venice summit, carefully spelled out and documented -- but you can be sure that it won't be followed. And that's a shame, because it contains a more meaningful review of the problems of the global economy than anything likely to come out of Venice.
I am referring to the "State of the World 1987" by Lester Brown and his associates, which calls on the world's leaders to come up with something more sophisticated than blind reliance on economic growth. Brown is president of Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit research group funded by the Rockefeller brothers and other foundations.
"Economic activity could be approaching a level where further growth in gross world product costs more than it is worth," Brown's report says.
The State of the World documents, now in their fourth year, have attracted increasing attention among people trying to assess the threat to this planet's continued existence from such challenges as nuclear power, toxic chemicals, soil erosion, extinction of species or climate changes caused by human mistakes.
This is not the stuff that makes newspaper headlines -- until there are accidents like Chernobyl. Nor will it provide a decent backdrop for the network television cameras aimed at San Giorgio Island, on the lagoon in Venice where the summit leaders will gather. Even the more traditional and mundane stuff of summitry -- the economic outlook, trade, economic cooperation and so on -- is difficult for TV to cover.
At the London Summit of 1977, with recession threatening, a senior White House correspondent for one of the networks grumbled that there was no story in the warnings contained in a "dull" communique. He meant that there was nothing that made good pictures.
For a cogent response to global challenges relating to environmental or population problems, "enough people must first perceive the threat," Brown and Edward C. Wolf, codirector of the State of the World project, say.
A good example of what concentrates the political mind was the Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986 (just a week before the Tokyo summit) that exposed the world to radiation. It didn't take long for some European countries to reexamine their own nuclear programs: Two out of three European voters now oppose the construction of new nuclear plants.
The population problem is a different kind of time bomb waiting to explode. Everyone is concerned about Third World debt and Third World poverty. But if the current urbanization trend continues, more than half the world's people will be jammed into huge cities by the year 2000. And three out of five cities with populations over 15 million will be in the Third World.
With that kind of economic concentration in urban slums comes crime, disease, corruption and despair. No one who has been there can forget the depths of degradation that exist in the Tondo section of Manila or in Calcutta. But things will get worse instead of better "with so many people chasing too few jobs." The critical need: birth control.
Yet, as Werner Fornos of the Population Institute notes, after a symbolic bow in the direction of population control in the Reagan summits up to and through Williamsburg in 1983, it has since been ignored because the Reagan administration lives in fear of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Helms has made a career of sabotaging foreign-aid legislation, as he blindly fights family assistance planning.
The Venice summit is scheduled to talk of debt relief for sub-Saharan Africa. But that will be meaningless unless the world deals with the population explosion on the African continent.
Brown's list of other key problems can't even be summarized in a single column, but two must be mentioned.
First, reassessing nuclear power. The dangers exposed by the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl could be just the tip of the iceberg, especially in the United States, where "the industry's operating record is quite poor." It may be just a matter of time, the authors suggest, "before one of the dozens of serious incidents that occur each year ends in another disaster."
Second, sustaining the world's agriculture. At the recent OECD meeting in Paris, finance and trade ministers talked hopefully of a long-term plan to reduce global food surpluses (that exist despite so much hunger). But it is later than politicians think: According to Brown, much of the world's crop land, worked too hard, will eventually lose its topsoil "and become wasteland unless it is converted to grassland or woodland first."
What will be done? Sadly, very little. But there is still enough time to bundle up a slew of copies of "State of the World 1987" and airlift them to Venice. If it's made required reading, the seven leaders might agree with the report's conclusion that, "The scale of human activities threatens the habitability of the earth itself."