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Johannesburg Summit results: Stealing the future

Monday, 9 September 2002 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Jakarta Post, 9 September 2002 : HEADLINE NEWS

We might believe that sustainable development is the only direction to which leads the history of humankind. Whether this is a doctrine or a cliché something looks clearer and clearer by the day: The rich are living off the resources of the poor.

Researcher William Rees wrote last year that the world’s total available productive land was about 1.75 hectares per person. But in 2000 around four hectares to six hectares of land were used to feed the average person in the West. The difference is called “appropriated carrying capacity” — meaning the West is running an unaccountable ecological deficit, either using that capacity from elsewhere or from future generations.

Aged 12, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, a Canadian girl, addressed world leaders at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. She fervently hoped they were still intent on saving the world by considering the kind of earth in which future generations would live. Her speech was unforgettable.

Now 22, as a member of the UN secretary-general’s counselor board, a desolate Culliz-Suzuki told the Johannesburg Summit last week that the voice of youth would be swept aside by political and economic interests. The Rio promises were empty. The past 10 years instead became the most voracious era for using up resources.

The UN World Summit on Sustainable Development that ended on Sept. 5 in Johannesburg may simply have been too complicated. The ambitious project to increase development today and rescue the destitute from their plight without further damaging the earth’s environment for future generations ended with a sprawling document that had something for everyone but few specific promises, the International Herald Tribune wrote.

South Africa‘s President Thabo Mbeki and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan are still optimistic that the summit can make sustainable development a reality and lead to less poverty — a path that works for rich and poor, today and tomorrow. Time will tell if they are correct. Or, whether the thousands of environmental and development activists who came to Johannesburg were right to despair of governments that were incapable of acting for anything other than narrow, national interests.

We might be able to see this tension. The world has changed politically, making a significant difference between the Rio and Johannesburg summits. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War marks the coming of a new realism as a result of globalization. So the action plan agreed in Johannesburg is less visionary and compromises more on the current practice of globalization — at its heart it is driven by business practices of multinational (MNCs), or transnational companies.

That is why, in the view of many pressure groups, letting giant MNCs with annual sales greater than the gross domestic product of many nations into the development process of countries, without any regulation of their activities, is as dangerous as letting a wolf into a sheep pen. The summit results were considered to be a triumph of hard neo-liberal values, of globalization and of business as usual — citizens’ rights have been replaced by corporate rights. The summit hence neglected many important issues.

Take energy. There were so many attempts to get the summit to set targets on the development of renewable energy sources. But these efforts were successfully stopped by the U.S. and petroleum-producing nations — backed up by the giant oil corporations — that have no interest in seeing oil supplanted by cheap solar or wind power in the future.

And the logic on which withdrawal of this noble initiative was based? Market logic: Energy from the sun or wind is still many times more expensive than electricity produced from carbon sources or nuclear plants — until economies of scale bring the price down. Of course, this will not happen unless targets are set clearly — which did not take place at the summit.

The European Union reacted strongly and announced that it would go its own way with like-minded countries to develop renewable energy according to a set timetable.

The implementation plan includes strong calls for ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Protection and saving plant and animal life; and to reduce by half the number of people without clean water and sanitation. Yet, apart from failing to set targets and timetables on renewable energy, the plan failed to address the relationship between trade and environmental accords. Substantial issues, such as human rights, gender equality or youth, were not given a proportional place within the results.

The summit, to some extent, was a betrayal of the millions of the poor and vulnerable, as words on paper do not stop deforestation, nor do signatures feed people. Mechanisms, time frames and commitments are valid issues to address.

It seems that this is a world in which governments can no longer be relied on to protect the people’s interests.

Blinded by the allure of the market, they put corporate interests first. Corporations have thus become too powerful, even compared with governments. But the takeover by corporations of government responsibilities should not be viewed as a reason for governments to pull out.

Corporations can indeed play some role in alleviating poverty and inequity and protecting the environment, but social investment, social responsibility and social justice will never become their core concern. This is because governments and corporations differ in their “intended action” and “unintended consequences”.

The intended action of business practice is to accumulate profit. That they must be concerned with society is another matter. Their contribution to society’s needs will remain at the margins as that is an unintended consequence.

Today Microsoft puts computers in our schools and governmental offices; will it determine what our children learn and what our officials do? To maintain profit, Reebok Indonesia halted its contract and planned to look for a new country in which to invest, and its 11,000 workers are to be laid off. An Indonesian court pronounced the Shangri-La hotel workers guilty although they had won at the level of the International Labor Organization.

Due to unstoppable, yet profitable, illegal logging, Kalimantan is losing its tropical forests and is now suffering from the smoke of forest fires, with the government seemingly unable to do anything about it.

This is not about ethics; this is about business. Sometimes the two will coincide, but not always. Corporations are not society’s guardians: They are commercial entities acting in pursuit of profit, not ethical considerations.

Business Action for Sustainable Development, the corporate lobby at the summit, welcomed “the growing realization that business is an indispensable part of the solution” to the world’s problems.

That business is part of the solutions is only half the story. The other half is the converse: that business is also part of — and even creates — the problems. All the dynamics of the summit proved it: Business practices have stolen the future of our earthly life for their accumulation of profit.


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