Rich vs. Poor

Not Much Sustainability at the World Summit

South Africa is a country of fabulous wealth and grinding poverty, but few delegates to the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa August 26 through September 4 saw much more of the city than the malls and banking halls of one of the continent’s richest neighborhoods. They also ate. According to the British Sun newspaper, the 60,000 delegates dined on delicacies, including 4,400 pounds of fillet steak, 450 pounds of salmon, more than 1,000 pounds of lobster and shellfish, 1,000 pounds of bacon and sausages, buckets of caviar and piles of p?t? de foie gras.

The summit, the largest of its kind ever under United Nations auspices, was supposed to build on the progress made since the Rio Earth Summit 10 years ago. But activists say the government officials from 190 nations who hammered out the Johannesburg Plan of Action behind a wall of police and barricades forgot the connection between this summit and the last. As Tom Turner of Earthjustice put it, "People will be sifting through the ashes for some time, but a milestone this was not. If the environment is to survive, it will be despite this conference, rather than because of it."

"We saw a significant backtracking at this summit in terms of real principles," says Michael Dorsey, a Sierra Club board member. "The most important of those principles was that we have an obligation to work together to solve the world’s problems." For many environmentalists, the best thing out of Jo"burg was the agreement to halve the number of people without clean drinking water or sanitation by 2015.

Nowhere in the conference statement is population mentioned, largely activists say because of the Bush Administration’s hostility to family planning and abortion. But the world has grown from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to more than six billion today. Most of that growth has taken place in the developing world, and analysts say that if all those people suddenly began consuming resources at a western level, the environmental effects would be devastating.

"If we are going to be serious about the summit goals and the goal of human dignity, it’s essential that we start talking about issues of reproductive policy and population," said former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth (D-CO), who heads Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation.

Ironically, the only organization talking about population and consumption rates in Johannesburg was the World Bank. Estimating that the world’s economy will triple to $140 trillion by 2050, the bank warned, "A $140 trillion world simply cannot rely on the current production and consumption patterns."

There was also not much talk in Johannesburg about global warming reduction, recycling or any of the other resource issues discussed at Rio. Energy was at least on the agenda, but efforts to set a definite timetable for conversion to renewables were thwarted. Only a goal of ensuring access to energy for 35 percent of the African population by 2022 remained.

Without tackling the growing consumption of the developed world and the growing numbers in the developing, however, many green groups say the summit did little to protect the environment. Some dubbed it "Rio Minus 10." Environmental groups are particularly upset about the short shrift given the Kyoto Treaty, which was abandoned by President George W. Bush earlier this year. "Kyoto gets to the heart of consumption issues, because it encourages the development of clean societies and recognizes that the developed world is in the best position to do something to reverse the effects of climate change," says Don Henry, executive director of the Australian Conservation Fund. "We need global action on climate change now." A resolution calling for Kyoto ratification was finally issued, but it’s unlikely to have much effect on a recalcitrant U.S.—the most significant holdout.

Two miles from the convention center lies one of Johannesburg’s poorest slums, Alexandra, where tin shacks line the banks of the polluted Jukski river and children line up for a drink at open standpipes. Alexandra resident Zakhele Lengoati says he’s glad the summit took place in his city because it focused attention on the plight of his neighborhood. "For them to see Alexandra the way it is will help change it in the future," he says. Lengoati’s hope that this summit will help raise the poor to the standard of the rich was a prominent theme. As the sign of one South African protester noted, the poor want development, sustainable or not.

As many as 10,000 demonstrators, including many Alexandra residents and foreign activists, took to the streets outside the conference, waving placards that read "Land, Food, Jobs" and "Water: A Human Right." Said one activist, "Most of us have given up on the summit process as another greenwash."

Host nation South Africa has put the emphasis on new investment; meanwhile, developing countries were
hoping to get commitments from industrial nations to help fund clean water, sanitation and health programs.

Opening the summit, South African President Thabo Mbeki called for "shared prosperity," and said that "a global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, characterized by islands of wealth and surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable." Mbeki is probably the world’s most prominent advocate of this point of view and has spent recent months trying to get support for his New Economic Plan for African Development, which promotes international investment.

Mbeki has found support in many developing countries, which feel left out of the globalization process. Much of the debate in Johannesburg sounded more like trade talk than environment talk, with issues like the reduction of First World subsidies and tariffs on the top of the agenda. Developing countries say they would be less reliant on international aid if the European Union and United States would level the trade playing field.

The focus on the free market worried many environmentalists, who fear that free trade principles will supersede national environmental regulations. While they agree that trade barriers against poor nations should be dropped, they say free trade is not the answer to the world’s ills.

"You cannot promote trade at all costs because you will destroy the planet," says Remi Parmentier, political director of Greenpeace International. "We’ve got a real fight over globalization going on."