Magazine article Reason

Wilting Greens: The World Summit on Sustainable Development Disappointed Environmentalists-And Heartened the Poor. (Columns)

Magazine article Reason

Wilting Greens: The World Summit on Sustainable Development Disappointed Environmentalists-And Heartened the Poor. (Columns)

Article excerpt

"IT'S CLEAR THAT we've suffered a number of major defeats," declared Andrew Hewett, executive director of Oxfam Community Aid, at the conclusion of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September. Greenpeace climate director Steve Sawyer complained, "What we've come up with is absolute zero, absolutely nothing." The head of an alliance of European green groups proclaimed, "We barely kept our heads above water."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Environmental activists hoped the summit would set the international agenda for sweeping environmental reform over the next 15 years. Indeed, they hoped to do nothing less than revolutionize how the world's economy operates. Such fundamental change was necessary, said the summiteers, because a profligate humanity consumes too much, breeds too much, and pollutes too much, setting the stage for a global ecological catastrophe.

But the greens' disappointment was inevitable because their major goals--preserving the environment, eradicating poverty, and limiting economic growth--are incompatible. Economic growth is a prerequisite for lessening poverty, and it's also the best way to improve the environment. Poor people cannot afford to worry much about improving outdoor air quality, let alone afford to pay for it. Rather than face that reality, environmentalists increasingly invoke "sustainable development." The most common definition of the phrase comes from the 1987 United Nations report Our Common Future: development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

For radical greens, sustainable development means economic stagnation. The Earth Island Institute's Gar Smith told Cybercast News, "I have seen villages in Africa...that were disrupted and destroyed by the introduction of electricity." Apparently, the natives no longer sang community songs or sewed together in the evenings. "I don't think a lot of electricity is a good thing," Smith added. "It is the fuel that powers a lot of multinational imagery." He doesn't want poor Africans and Asians "corrupted" by ads for Toyota and McDonald's, or by Jackie Chan movies.

Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain decried the "pernicious introduction of the flush toilet" during a recent PBS/BBC television debate hosted by Bill Moyers. Luckily, most other summiteers disagreed with Narain's curious disdain for sanitation. One of the few firm goals set at the confab was that adequate sanitation should be supplied by 2015 to half of the 2.2 billion people now lacking it.

Sustainable development boils down to the old-fashioned "limits to growth" model popularized in the 1970s. Hence Daniel Mittler of Friends of the Earth International moaned that "the summit failed to set the necessary economic and ecological limits to globalization." The Jo'burg Memo, issued by the radical green Heinrich Boll Foundation before the summit, summed it up this way: "Poverty alleviation cannot be separated from wealth alleviation."

The greens are right about one thing: The extent of global poverty is stark. Some 1.1 billion people lack safe drinking water, 2.2 billion are without adequate sanitation, 2.5 billion have no access to modern energy services, 11 million children under the age of 5 die each year in developing countries from preventable diseases, and 800 million people are still malnourished, despite a global abundance of food. Poverty eradication is clearly crucial to preventing environmental degradation, too, since there is nothing more environmentally destructive than a hungry human.

Most summit participants from the developing world understood this. They may be egalitarian, but unlike their Western counterparts they do not aim to make everyone equally poor. Instead, they want the good things that people living in industrialized societies enjoy.

That explains why the Largest demonstration during the summit, consisting of more than 10,000 poor and landless people, featured virtually no banners or chants about conventional environmentalist issues such as climate change, population control, renewable resources, or biodiversity. …

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