A peek inside the United Nations
By Richard C. Duncan, Ph.D.
Last April 25, I gave an invited presentation to the United Nations Commission of Sustainable Development (UNCSD) at U.N. Headquarters in New York. My topic was "Energy, Institutions and Sustainability: What This Means to the Nations of the World."

The UNCSD meeting organizer had previously given me "strict instructions" to [sic]: "Use 'Sustainable Development' in the title of your paper." and "Do not mention nuclear energy because it is too controversial. Several nations have petitions against it."

I knew I still had the upper hand. Nonetheless, those "instructions" made it clear that I was travelling to "The Land of Oz". I had no illusions about making any difference whatsoever in the course of human events. But it was an opportunity to explain the Olduvai theory to "Alice" and "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz".

At about 10 a.m. I arrived at the U.N. I noticed long, black limousines disgorging their impeccably attired delegates at the main gate.

The U.N. complex is huge. Lots of flags, statues, murals, fences, guards, gates and more. Expensive land along the Hudson River. Cherry trees in blossom. Crowds of tourists.

The official headquarters complex is bounded by many NGO (non-governmental organization) buildings. One of them is lightly referred to as "The God Box" because it houses NGOs from the world's countless religious organizations. Next came the official photo ID: plush offices and smiling secretaries, behind computer monitors, got the job done in less than an hour.

Lunch arrived (overlooking the East River), together with the CSD meeting organizer, the moderator and the second speaker (I was the first). The lady organizer again admonished me, "You are not to mention nuclear energy." I nodded. She asked the second presenter to detail his topics. He had two: "Solar Power Satellites" and "Stem Cells for Meat Production".

Lady organizer went ballistic. "You are absolutely not to mention stem cells and meat," she said loudly. (Was she Hindu, I wondered?) Startled, the second presenter instantly acquiesced -- and later stuck to his promise. But his hard-copy handout let the cat out of the bag (pun intended), as follows: "Stem Cells for Meat Production Umbilical Cells of Cattle (Steer or Cow), Goat, etc. stimulated to grow muscle tissue. No need to produce the whole animal to get meat. Saves land, animal feed, water, energy. Theoretically possible, but research is needed."

No bones about it. Five hundred pounds of solid sirloin steak! The Land of Oz -- not back in Kansas, but in uptown Manhattan.

The meeting ran from 1 to 2:30 p.m. About 20 UNCSD "delegates" sat around a large horseshow-shaped desk -- united, of course.

According to his business card, the session moderator, a doctor, represented the Caribbean Action Lobby, the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce, the International Institute for Technology Exchange, the Panama/U.S. Development Consortium, and the Southern Diaspora Research & Development Center.

The lady organizer handed out copies of my 21-page paper before she learned that it contained the forbidden "N" word (see above). I used coloured slides (cartoons, pictures, data and graphs) to explain and update the Olduvai theory. For example, the Olduvai "cliff" event moved to 2007 from 2012, due to cascading blackouts that begin in the U.S., then spread world wide. Thus my main goal was accomplished.

There was just one comment afterwards, made by a very insistent lady: "But surely the engineers and scientists will think of something. Just look at what they've done with computers!"

"You may be right," I replied.

Next came the U.N. university professor of "Stem Cell Sirloin" fame. His main and only energy recommendation was to use Solar Power Satellites (SPS) to solve the world's global electricity issues.

"Where will the electricity come from? . . . Energy from space! No greenhouse gases. No nuclear waste. Enough for the world."

Under the heading "Space Solar Power Options", his handout read: "Build solar satellite elements on the earth, assemble in orbit, and beam energy to earth. Build solar panels on the moon from lunar material and beam energy to earth. Build solar satellites in orbit from asteroids or from lunar material and beam energy to earth. These are in addition to wireless transmission of energy from earth sources to other locations on earth.

Someone, possibly from Africa, asked the professor, "Solar power satellites might be okay for the rich nations, but how about the poor nations?" With much arm waving, the professor's response went on and on, boiling down to: The cost of SPS will come down with innovations, new materials and mass production. Eventually everybody will be able to afford them.

The questioner later commented to me, "In ten minutes, he never answered my question."

Incidentally, the professor made one serious technical error in his SPS presentation. None of the "delegates" seemed to have caught it.

After the CSD meeting, I took the rubberneck tour of the U.N. Headquarters complex. Large coloured portraits of the U.N. directors, from Trigvi Lee, 1946-50, to Kofi Annan, 1998-2002, adorned the walls. Self-congratulatory publications were stacked for the taking. One, for example, was the April issue of The Earth Times, headlined, "Making jobs and doing good good; Not just a pretty place: Combining tourism and sustainable economic growth in the Caribbean resort of Punta Cana."

And so it went. We finished up at the U.N. General Assembly Building -- an impressive cathedral-like structure, stained glass windows and all. Our guide's parting words were conclusive: "The United Nations' resolutions are not binding -- they are not "laws" -- because all of the 180 member nations are sovereign states. Each can do as it pleases."

The bottom line is what I call "institutional catatonia". Fred Hoyle said it well when he explained why governments, scientists, etc., do not exercise any control over the course of human events. Sir Fred's words still ring loud and clear, just as I heard them at the University of Washington long ago:

To return to the point at issue, who then is in the driver's seat? If not governments, if not scientists, who? Nobody. We are traveling in a vehicle that guides itself, just as our species has arisen from an evolutionary process that guided itself throughout past ages. It is my belief that nothing has changed, we are still in the grip of natural processes, we are not in charge of our own destiny. We are still being swept along by the tide of events, like a canoe in the rapids. (Hoyle, F. Of Men and Galaxies, 1964, p. 61 and 67.)

By the way, next time you get to New York City, don't miss the rubber-neck tour of "Oz": one hour, adults $7.50.
Richard Duncan is an electrical engineer who specializes in electrical power generation and transmission. He has taught at the university level and has travelled in some 50 nations on all continents except Antarctica. He has three daughters and lives in Seattle, Washington.