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 The Second Dying Earth Summit

author: Jasper - 13.07.2002 23:57

Don't expect anything from the Johannesburg Earth Summit

New Yord Gardening - Garden on the roof of a building.
NY gardening

Ten years after the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, our world is on the brink of ecological disaster. The destruction of ecological harmony has also destroyed the livelihoods of billions. And those who are least destructive, tribal and indigenous people and rural and urban poor are the greatest victim. Of these women are hardest hit.

Ten years ago western public was concerned, even disturbed, and they did not want to leave the children of the next century with a burden they had not even attempted to lessen. State and corporate establishments came together in Rio to make the world believe that they tried, that development would be sustainable. In fact they just reached international agreement on green-globalising capitalism's dogmas; that ecological investment requires growth of the economy and growth needs global open markets. That pollution can only be reduced by commodifying it. And if all fails, we can rest easy in our pious faith in technology to save us.
Even the book the UN published with the Rio declaration was financed by car, airline and oil company advertisements every other page, describing their silent engines or wonderful green fuel cell innovation. But in righteous UN tradition, third world airlines boasted an equal share of the adverts.

This summer, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 65000 delegates, representatives and observers will evaluate the climate change convention, the convention on biodiversity, the rain forest principles and the agenda 21 of 'sustainable human development'. Will they negotiate with the realization that we are alive as part of the earth, not to control it? Or the realization that overdeveloped economies need to be downsized drastically for this world population to have a future? Or that northern consumers are much less likely to survive a breakdown of the economic system then 'underdeveloped' peasants of the south?

Should we be naive and believe some words of good intentions, support ngo's and southern states to oppose Bush in negotiations? To decide on a position towards the Earth Summit, let's first take a closer look at the processes governing the negotiations and the UN framework.
It is safe to say that different factions have competing economic interests; the main game is power play. A second thing of importance: many experts and advisers may actually be true believers in the neoliberal ideology.
Thirdly, the United Nations itself is in competition with other supranational institutions, World Bank, IMF and WTO, over influence.
They will have to play the game to stay in. The UN Center on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC) was dismantled after it suggested transnational corporations should be regulated. In 1999 the UN Development Program even received money from big business in exchange for favors. Now secretary-general Anan has signed a 'Global Compact' with 250 of the biggest corporations who voluntarily promise to be good and they are allowed to use a special UN logo. While the UN used to have some limited function in protecting vulnerable regional economies, now the opposite is more valid.
''The UN, in other words, appear to be turning itself into an enforcement agency for the global economy, helping western companies to penetrate new markets while avoiding the regulations which would be the only effective means of holding them to account. By making peace with power, the United Nations is declaring war upon the powerless.'' (George Monbiot, in The Guardian)[1]

On to the process. It is important that the conferences have to end in some agreement. No matter how completely weak and pathetic, some principle, protocol or convention has to be stated or started.
Although the Kyoto protocol will not do any good to the climate [2], corporate media convince the public that something is being done.
Another thing that has become a ritual in UN conferences is the behavior of the US, sometimes supported by Canada, Australia and Japan (climate), in other cases by Argentina (biodiversity) or others, of negotiating on, weakening the proposals, and when the text is finalized: reject it anyway.
Continually, people are asking why other delegations accept this.
Well, basically, everyone likes a good row. A European minister may walk out because her opponent from the US refuses to go with something that's in reality brought down to nil ecological value. The American politician improves his image because he's bravely defending the American way of life, the French because French media like slagging at Americans. The Europeans get a green image while having the advantage that they're having to do or change less then they'd originally committed to.

These games lead to some astounding comments. ''I urge them to do so, if not in the interest of the living things of the planet, then in their own self interest. We are the dominant species of the planet, but we depend for our continued survival on all the others.'' It may surprise you that this was the Australian delegation leader Ros Kelly, when the US refused to sign the biodiversity convention in Rio de Janeiro. Australia's obstruction of environmental measures is often as bad as that of the US.

Many anti-globalization activists state they want to stop exploitation of poor countries. They should realize that majority world governments are very much playing the game as well. In fact, in UN meetings it becomes clear they can be as ecocidal as the West. The one nation, one vote system makes their influence much stronger then in one dollar, one vote organizations such as the IMF. In Rio, poor countries lead by Malaysia and India insisted they have the right to destroy their forests for so called development. Statements like this are basically poker chips.
Also, in a country like India, it is not mainly western corporations profiting from environmental destruction. Chemical and nuclear plants, industrial agriculture, large dams and roads: activities all leading to the severe deforestation discussed in the Earth Summits, are largely the responsibility of local corporations, often state or sub state owned. Environmental regulations are easily evaded with nepotism and bribes. The World Bank is often charged by western activists saying it backs western corporations. But the bank does fund (and UN programs support) development projects contracting these southern companies. They're just not much better.

The World Bank and the UN of course have neoliberal, technophilic premises regarding development.
Because only minor adjustments are possible within the capitalist framework, participants in the negotiations such as Australian Mr. Kelly may even feel that they are doing all they can.
Large NGO's do not know how to deal with it. For example, while the UN's climate scientist panel say 60% greenhouse gas reduction is necessary within very short time and the final goal can only be 90%, no NGO's participating in the talks seriously represents this view, although by any objective standard it would be the most reasonable.
No reformer really has any idea on how to achieve the reduction, but rather then draw the conclusion that the premises and process are flawed many go into damage limitation mode.

If this greenhouse gas reduction must happen, as well as similar reductions in other Earth Summit topics, then either there will be a rapid change to very high levels of technology or to very low levels.
The first means giving corporations increasing power as they are ones who would develop technology to clean up from older technology.
Consumer society is on that track and, judging from the Rio declaration textbook, so has the UN. Many NGO's as well as many churches and unions oppose the consequences but do not embrace the alternative. That lies beyond capitalism, requiring large levels of regional self sufficiency, low levels of technology and resource use, de-urbanization. One complex problem there is how (much) to help nature recover from industrial capitalism. Of course all that means reconnecting with nature for (urban) people, hardly an important topic in the Earth Summits.

For corporations and states, and their leaders, their short term economic or political interest holds them bound to capitalism even would they want to deviate (as with democratic socialism). But NGO's also don't deviate. Maybe there isn't a strong enough feeling of impending doom, and there is the mindset of industrial capitalism in the way. But as with Mr. Kelly, parts of alternate thinking do surface. "'We hold no hope for governments in the short term,'' says Greenpeace's Tani Adams right after Rio. ''Solutions for the major planetary crises will have to come from citizens, if they are to emerge at all.''
But the main point is that with a radical viewpoint they won't be taken serious in the negotiations. Why do they want this so badly?
One reason is a need to maintain their organization. This becomes a purpose in itself, especially for the management. They have to maintain income from membership fees, donations or state funding.
They are dependent on some of those they have to oppose, and sometimes in competition with each other as well.
This is not so different from any social structure, including states or corporations. With size the effect tends to increase. There's the necessity to conform to be accepted (and gain influence to 'make the change').
Another point is that NGO representatives get so absolved in the conference process, they see how hard it is to get any agreement at all, that for them it seems like a victory when there is one. This is equally valid for scientists or government representatives.

Finally, big NGO's don't think holistically. A clear example of this is that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch actually signed on to the Global Compact as supporter. It's almost as if as long as everyone pledges they won't torture anyone and children can go to school, every pledge by anyone is great. Another example, albeit not directly related to the UN process, is the WWF buying Amazon rain forest land and having tribal people removed because nature should not be disturbed.
You can fanatically work on one issue and make some progress without really getting anywhere fundamentally different. It is helpful that nuclear energy has been protested and lobbied out of the Kyoto protocol, but this also makes it harder for environmental organizations who have taken part in the climate conference and lobbied not to embrace it.

So what happens can be summarized as all talk, no action. The talk satisfies both conscience and image. In Rio the biggest talkathon was Agenda 21. It's supposed to be a blueprint for everything, it's very long, it has a huge number of issues, it's very eco, and nothing in it actually happened. From the necessary $600 billion to execute it, about $7 billion was granted by the member states. It's kind of announcing the world's making your birthday cake and all you get is a spoonful of genetically modified beet sugar.

Considering the first Earth Summit and the conventions it sprouted, it's just not very likely the second Earth Summit will go beyond the ideological status quo. There are few voices that call out against the summit; focus of critics is mainly on corporate influence. While this is important, it is equally important to show that both western and majority world governments are also acting out of short term competitive interest. While NGO's criticize this behavior and try to limit damage, they are not brave enough to suggest fundamental alternatives.
For many commoners (except maybe those in the slums of Johannesburg getting evicted for the conference) the UN is still synonymous for hope for a better future. As a neoluddite activist, having a go at the UN in general will most likely be as effective as attacking the state directly, a thing you tend to do only under specific circumstances, literally or verbally. When that doesn't seem smart, explaining the UN sustainable human development processes, going beyond the evil of the US and transnationals, and that those processes are fundamentally flawed.


The 2nd European People's Global Action Conference, August 31 - September 4 in Leiden, The Netherlands, will be a symbolic counter conference to the Johannesburg summit.

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