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PROFILE FRENCH ENVIRONMENTALIST RENE DUMONT : World Is His Neighborhood, and He Warns That It’s Falling Apart

ASSOCIATED PRESS

For Rene Dumont, who’s been grumbling “I told you so” for 50 years, new focus on global environment comes not a moment too soon.

“If we don’t do something fast, we’re finished. It is as simple as that,” said Dumont, whose 32 books make that point in chilling detail.

A French agronomist turned agitator-advocate for the planet at large, Dumont still evokes sly smiles among countrymen used to his white hair, red sweater and green politics.

At 85, Dumont spends more time in France before small provincial audiences than television cameras. But abroad, his colleagues see him as a prophet whose cries in the wilderness should have been heard.

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“The prophetic nature of his vision is spectacular,” wrote Lloyd Timberlake, an American environmentalist, in a preface to a fresh edition of Dumont’s classic “False Start in Africa.”

Dumont, Timberlake added, remains “an eccentric, a gadfly, an agent provocateur in the very best sense of the word.”

Dumont trots the globe speaking and collecting honorary doctorates. He scrambles for early flights on hectic schedules. But he never misses his nap, even if it means stretching out in a crowded room.

He is cheered on, now that environmental issues are finally reaching summit conference agendas. “It’s coming,” he said, eyebrows bristling like mystic antennae. “It’s coming.”

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At a recent panel in Spain, Timberlake picked up a main theme Dumont has hammered away at for decades: Careless, needless emission of gases threatens catastrophic weather changes.

“Look at Africa,” said Dumont, his words rising to a crescendo. “First we stole their labor, then we stole their primary products, and now we are stealing their weather.”

In a not-too-distant future, he warned, everyone else is next.

Dumont clutched his notes and flailed at unseen culprits with them. His eyes, twinkling at irony and burning at punchlines, suggested he might leap up and convert words to action.

In the small apartment at the edge of Paris where he once thought he would retire, he expanded on the point more calmly.

“Everyone blames aerosol sprays, but the problem is automobiles, carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “We keep on as if there is nothing wrong, no danger, no urgency. What madness.”

With new evidence, he stresses constant themes: Education, the status of women, population control, fair trade and development are as vital to saving the world as scientific remedies.

Poverty, desperation and ignorance cause ecological plunder, he said, but greed and extravagance cause much more.

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“We waste half the energy we produce,” he said. “And we are killing ourselves. It is suicide.”

The difference between Dumont and most others who deliver that message is that he’s watched it happen up close, since his father taught him about agriculture in post-World War I France.

“I studied agriculture because you have to understand the world to change it,” he said. “Rather than focusing on a neighborhood in France, I looked at the whole world. But it is the same thing.”

As a colonial officer in Indochina in 1934, he wrote a book about rice that also told how officials destroyed 500,000 tons of rice to bolster the price of French wheat.

That set a lifelong pattern. Mingling hard truths about official incompetence with scientific wisdom, Dumont left both devoted followers and bitter enemies in his wake.

He repeatedly sacrificed comfortable government posts for the right to speak out. In the early 1960s, as most of Africa broke into small independent nations, Dumont took a customary hard look.

He saw European economists encouraging Africans to produce export crops at cheap prices, laying waste to fragile lands while neglecting farmers they depended upon for food.

He noticed young African men swelling inept bureaucracies while women, left unschooled in the fields, accounted for the only production.

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“If your sister goes to school,” Dumont told one young African clerk, “you’ll have nothing to eat but your fountain pen.”

It took economists 25 years to focus on these basic crises, despite three more Dumont books on the subject.

Dumont was so close to the mark that President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kuanda of Zambia took his ideas as their own, although neither put them into practice.

In Latin America, Dumont warned of disappearing rain forests, rising debt and the economic dominance of coca crops well before environmentalists sounded the alarm.

In Asia, he presaged the Green Revolution.

Today, he remains one step ahead. The World Resources Institute in Washington suggested that natural resources be included in measuring a nation’s economic worth. Vintage Dumont.

A growing number of economists and environmentalists argue that gasoline should be heavily taxed to discourage waste and generate research funds. Dumont pressed for that well before the oil crisis.

As agronomists finally consider the specter of mass hunger, they reach for a book Dumont wrote in 1966: “We Are Headed for Famine.”

In the 1970s, he edged into politics. He ran for president in 1974 and won 1.3% of the vote. He holds nonspecific leftist views that put the Earth first. His latest book, “An Intolerable World,” picks apart free-market dogma.

His forthright striding through French politics has caused some to lose sight of his scientific expertise and his track record.

“Some people say I weaken my credibility by being political,” he said. “They don’t understand. The environment is politics.”


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