As the leaders of Japan, Great Britain, Germany and, belatedly, the United States prepare to meet colleagues and 30,000 clerics, artists, activists and journalists at the Rio Earth Summit, all owe quiet homage to Rachel Carson, whose "Silent Spring" sparked the modern environmental movement.
Her book radically altered America's consciousness 30 years ago, leading the world into a new understanding of the fragility of life on Mother Earth. The U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, and after 20 million people took part in 1970's massive Earth Day demonstrations, a Clean Water Act, then the Endangered Species Act joined the arsenal of nature's protection. On the heels of that, Stockholm hosted the first Earth Summit, which helped midwife environmental agencies in 115 countries.
But if Americans are justly proud of their leading role when "environmental consciousness" was a foreign word in many countries, the way U.S. actions are seen in much of the world today should bring a rude shock:
* Pushing for a major agreement on greenhouse gases, the European Community proposed cutting carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000, but the U.S. government fought it until France proposed "constructive ambiguities" to allow President Bush to save face while committing himself to no real restrictions in this area.
* Jacques Cousteau has sensitized the world to the hazards land-based pollutants pose to the oceans, but the United States blocked attempts to forge broad agreements to control them.
* U.S. diplomats wanted an outright ban on timbering in tropical rain forests, but the affected countries' leaders noted how bitterly this country fights scrutiny of its own logging practices and pushed to include northern forests, too. What emerged was a weak "statement of principles" that may never turn into a real treaty preserving oxygen-producing trees.
That bodes poorly for major agreements coming out of Rio. Hard lines have been drawn, some of them by the Group of 77, a coalition of developing nations demanding heavy donor-nation funding for biodiversity protection and other environmental thrusts, and also by many of the industrialized nations. Without U.S. backing for these initiatives, results of this biggest-ever summit conference are likely to prove disappointing.