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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Gore Walks a Fine Line

Air Date: Week of

Next week, 3,000 people will descend on Detroit, Michigan, for the "environmental equivalent of the Super Bowl": a National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America. Hosted by Vice President Gore, the meeting is being criticized by those who call it nothing more than industry "greenwash." Steve talks with Detroit Free Press reporter Emilia Askari [a-SKAR-ee].


CURWOOD: It's being billed as the environmental equivalent of the Superbowl. There will be some big players there, but it remains to be seen if the cheerleaders and fans will show. Beginning on May 2nd, Vice President Al Gore will host a 3-day National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America in Detroit. Supporters say the event is further evidence of a viable smart growth anti-sprawl movement that is taking hold across the nation. Critics call it greenwash. Emilia Askari follows the environment for the Detroit Free Press and she joins me now on the line. Emilia, tell me, what are the plans for this meeting?

ASKARI: It's a real big shindig here in Detroit. They're going to bring about 3,000 people from around the country to downtown Detroit to sit around for about 3 days in a big convention center talking about sustainable development.

CURWOOD: Emilia, I'm wondering if you could share with us some of the local initiatives and models, some concrete examples of what some people might be bringing to this conference.

ASKARI: Well, there will be people from Portland talking about the greenbelt ring that they have set up around their city many years ago, and how that is working. There will be people from Minneapolis talking about the ideas that they have on redistributing local property taxes from wealthy suburbs to less-wealthy inner-ring communities closer to the core city, and how that is working. There will be people from Vermont talking about their bike paths, so there are going to be thousands of different conversations around this general topic of how do we keep the economy growing in this country and the world, while we're really trying to husband our environmental resources and bring social justice.

CURWOOD: So who's paying for all of this, and what do they expect to get out of it?

ASKARI: Well, it's a mixture of government and private funding. A lot of the money is coming from General Motors, which was very instrumental in getting this organization that's officially sponsoring the meeting, the President's Council on Sustainable Development, to bring the meeting here to Detroit. And I think that companies like General Motors and Ford and Dow, that are putting up money for this event, they have a multifaceted agenda here. I think very much part of the reason why they're doing it is to get some good publicity. And we have to keep in mind that a lot of these companies are major polluters. In addition, though, I think that they are very concerned about their future in terms of building sustainable companies into the next century, and I think that they're looking for some answers.

CURWOOD: Now I understand there's a $250 registration fee. That's pretty high-priced for, you know, local grassroots activist types, don't you think?

ASKARI: Yes, I do, and the organizers have received a lot of criticism about that. They did offer some scholarships and some reduced registration fees to people who could prove need. But in the end I think that most of the people here will be, it's going to be a group of professionals looking at this topic, rather than folks from the neighborhood.

CURWOOD: I can't leave you without asking what this does for Vice President Gore's campaign in Michigan. Do you think that pushing for sustainable development is compatible with him, you know, raising the money he needs to raise to run for president?

ASKARI: I do, if he does it in the way that he is doing it here in Detroit. And that's why he's seeing some criticism from the environmental community. His brand of environmentalism here at the President's Council on Sustainable Development's National Town Meeting is going to be pretty business-oriented, and he's going to be standing there with his partners from General Motors and Ford and Dow, and I think that he's trying to make himself as unthreatening as possible to them while he's still talking about these issues that he cares about a lot, and that a lot of America really cares about.

CURWOOD: Now, there was another vice president under a 2-term president, I think his name was Richard Nixon. He reinvented himself as a new Nixon. Are we seeing a new Al Gore?

ASKARI: Well, we might be. He's certainly a lot less of a firebrand on the environment than he was when he was a Senator Al Gore.

CURWOOD: Emilia Askari follows the environment for the Detroit Free Press. Emilia, thanks for joining us.

ASKARI: You're welcome, Steve.



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