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EARTH SUMMIT IS REALLY ABOUT CHILDREN

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The children are missing from the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The street urchins, the homeless kids who roam the city by the thousands, were apparently removed like so much debris when the Brazilian government cleaned up for the Earth Summit.

What a shame. Instead of taking them out of the city, the officials should have brought them right to the center of the pomp and circumstances. They should have left them where they belong, smack in the middle of this pin-striped meeting of world leaders.After all, this Earth Summit is about children, generations of them.

Population, poverty, pollution. A changing climate and disappearing species. Some say the conflict in Rio pits one hemisphere against another. A Southern hemisphere damaging the last of the world's natural resources against a Northern hemisphere spewing spoilage from its overconsumption machines.

But the deeper conflict is between how people think about the year 2030 and how we don't think about it. Our own country, rich by any standard, has somehow stopped paying attention to the future.

How else can we explain the casual neglect and impoverishment of our own children? One of every five children in America is poor. We spend $11,000 for every senior citizen and $1,000 for every child. We borrow a billion dollars every day to pay for the national debt, which will add to our children's debt.

And how else to explain a president who thinks only as far as November? Or an electorate that has yet to push the future to the top of the agenda.

Nearsightedness is hardly a new or uniquely American condition.

Throughout history, people living hand to mouth have never had much time to look ahead. If the children of Rio were invited to the conference, surely they would ask, first of all, for lunch.

But today the comfortable and middle class, the leaders as well as followers, have also had their vision crimped.

As Al Gore, the Tennessean heading the Senate delegation to Rio, worries, "We have had the idea that we can exploit the Earth for our own short-term desires and designs."

Gore, a thoughtful leader in environmental politics, says that our attitude to the future has been crippled first by denial and now by despair. "Denial is a barrier to recognition," he says. "Despair is a barrier to grief and all the related feelings that people have to experience in order to understand the necessity for significant changes."

During the Cold War, it was the nuclear bomb and the doomsday scenario that made people doubt a future. The bomb shifted the equation between today and tomorrow.

Now we enter the post-Cold War world and The Threat is less from a falling bomb than from a rising thermostat. It's from too many cars and too many babies. The threat grows with each cleared acre of rain forest at a time.

Go into any schoolroom, says Gore, who has done it dozens of times. Ask the kids the most important issue and they will say the global environment. Ask them if they care more than their parents, and they will say yes. Ask them why, and they'll say it's because kids will be around longer and because they know more.

The children are not to be seen on the streets of Rio these days. Nor are they to be heard in the conference hall. But sooner or later, they're the ones we have to answer to.