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Stockholm, Rio and Beyond

Conflict of Interests?

In 1992, 1600 scientists warned that humanity is on course for a collision with nature. They predicted an environmental crisis by the year 2020 unless humankind can achieve a change in the nature of its 'stewardship' of the environment.

While there is much uncertainty about the extent to which humans are 'irretrievably mutilating' the earth, as these scientists claimed, it is clear that radical change is needed. At present, 'stewardship' over the earth is in the hands of a small minority of the world population (Who Owns The World?). Their interests often prove to be irreconcilable with the need to protect the environment from pollution and degradation.

Awareness of the damage being done has increased markedly over the last two decades. A growth of pressure groups, non-governmental organisations and international conferences, reports and legislation have at least provided us with ever more information, if little else. Indeed, ever since the first international conference on the environment in Stockholm 1971, there has been no shortage of well-intentioned statements of principle from governments. For example, the Stockholm declaration stated that:

man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.(1)

In 1987 the Brundtland report, Our Common Future, called for the development of our productive activities to become 'sustainable', " [meeting] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

It goes without saying that most of us would favour these goals of protecting the earth's resources for future generations and preserving the quality of our environment. The question is whether they have any chance of being achieved by a social system where profits come first.

Documents such as the 1987 Brundtland Report and 1992 Agenda 21 which followed the highly publicised 'Earth Summit' at Rio de Janeiro do not acknowledge that there is any necessary conflict between making profit and protecting the environment. The goal of 'sustainable development' is seen as achievable within the market system. For example P.H.Sand, an expert in international environmental law, argues that Agenda 21

affirms that the promotion of economic growth in developing countries is essential to address the problems of environmental degradation." (1) Similarly, the Maastricht treaty, expresses as a goal: " harmonious and balanced development of economic activities (and) sustainable and non-inflationary growth respecting the environment.(2)

Again, there is no acknowledgment of any conflict between these two supposedly complementary goals.

The United Nations Food & Agricultural Organisation have stated that:

The objective is to create an economic environment in which it is more profitable to conserve resources than destroy them.(3)

Again, conservation and profitability are seen to be compatible. Yet, as is shown by our coverage of environmental issues, these two goals have proved to be incompatible. Only by replacing the profit system with truly democratic organisation can we give the environment the priority it deserves.

  • Sources:

  • (1) Greening Environmental Law—P.H.Sand

  • (2) Greening Environmental Law—P.H.Sand

  • (3) Long term strategy for the food and agricultural sector (FAO Publications)