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Another futile Earth Summit

The findings of a survey carried out by YouGov in the wake of the recent Earth Summit and published in the Observer (8 September) revealed that seven out of ten people think that the Johannesburg Earth Summit has made almost no difference to the future of the planet. And only one in 500 believes that the controversial £40 million meeting attended by leaders from more than 100 countries, with 60,000 participants, will make the world ‘a lot better’. This, of course, came as no surprise. In the run-up to the Summit, activists the world over had expressed little or no confidence that it would be noted for achieving anything tangible. And if developments since the 1992 Rio Summit were anything to go by, few were holding out for anything worth celebrating.

As the Summit closed, the UN, the British government and many world-wide delegations articulated their surprise that non-governmental groups had come away from the Summit feeling angered and cheated. Oxfam, for instance, had commented that the Summit had been a triumph for greed and a tragedy for people. Friends of the Earth remarked: Do not believe government spin doctors who claim success for this Summit. It is by any objective test a failure. And Christian Aid said: The overall winner of this Summit has been big business. It has triumphed in its bid to avoid any legally-binding regulation on its behaviour.

Yet more empty promises
The final text of the Programme of Implementation agreed upon at Johannesburg after nine days of deliberations contained but two new and explicit targets. The summit agreed to halve the number of people without sanitation (about 1.2 billion) by 2015 and agreed to plans to provide clean water for half of those without it. In other words, even by 2015 there will still be millions of people without sanitation or clean water.

With growing concern now about the destruction wrought on of the Earth’s life-support system, the bumbling negotiations were billed as being to map out a plan for reducing poverty and protecting bio-diversity. All they could agree on was to aim to reduce the loss of biodiversity by 2010 and to increase funding and technical resources to developing countries as well as to strengthen forest law and to merely reduce not stop illegal logging. The Summit acknowledged that poverty and environmental degradation are linked and further adopted the aim of halving the 1.2 billion who exist on less that $1 per day. Another paragraph considered over-fishing, and thus the depletion of a main protein source for many living in coastal areas. Here the Summit only agreed to restore, where possible, the world’s fish stocks by 2015 and merely to urge attention on marine pollution and the establishment of protected areas by 2010.

Back in 1992 at the Rio Summit, the world’s wealthier countries pledged to greatly increase their development aid to poorer countries to 0.7 percent of GNP. This was never achieved. Indeed, prior to the Summit, across the industrialised world it stood at 0.22 percent. What did the Johannesburg Summit do? It promised to urge the developed countries . . . to make concrete efforts towards the target of 0.7 percent of GNP as official development assistance. This would appear a step back – a promise is suddenly demoted to a promise to urge – and is perhaps an admission by the promise-makers, and the urgers, that promises are there to be broken. The US delegation, in particular, blocked all proposals involving regulating multinational corporations or dedicating significant new funds to so-called sustainable development.

The only outcome of the negotiations on sustainable consumption - the Holy Grail of the summit - was agreement to develop an action programme within 10 years, to publish indicators that evaluate progress and to give shoppers instructive eco-labels. The Summit failed in its proclaimed mission of setting definite targets and a timetable for increasing the use of renewable energies. Paragraph 19(e) watered down the Kyoto Protocol to combat climatic change by promoting clean fossil fuels. This said, the Kyoto Protocol was given a little more legitimacy with Russia and Canada promising to ratify it.

So, there was little or nothing to applaud at this Summit. The world’s leaders - and there were many on show - simply recommitted themselves to agreements they had already committed themselves to elsewhere. It was an affirmation by the global executive of capitalism that the Programme of Implementation should have carried the subtitle: Sorry, but there’s profits to be had.

Big corporate interests
In the past ten years, the real change has been the even more prominent role in negotiations given to business, predominantly multinational corporations. As never before, corporations are centre stage, with governments backing their interests. It was just naïve of the NGOs to imagine that the Summit was ever going to decide on a regulatory framework to try to make that the activities of corporations serve the interests of those in greatest need.

Entirely predictably, all that happened was that, with the blessing of the UN, multi-nationals negotiated a number of partnership agreements - quite simply voluntary commitments by corporations to respect the environment and protect human rights. But in an increasingly globalised world, where there are mega-profits to be made, and wherever these profits will come into conflict with environmental and human rights issues, any directors not seen to have profits forefront in their minds will be shown the door pretty damned quick. Thus, such promises are in truth not worth the paper they are written on. Insane? Yes. But this is actually capitalism functioning efficiently.

The relevance of the meeting was perhaps best revealed by the absence of George W Bush who, despite massive international lobbying for him to attend, decided that a war with Iraq was more important. This was understandable considering the numerous oil giants and weapons manufacturers he is indebted to, and not least because his advisers were all too aware he would have been heading for the mother of all heckling bouts and would undoubtedly have proved an embarrassment to the US delegation. Moreover, as US Capitalism plc was aware, they were going to get their way anyway at Johannesburg, so why send Dubya who was more valuable at home beating the war drum?

The debating aside, this was a meeting at which US Secretary of State Colin Powell was booed and jeered by US environmental campaigners and by many delegates and at which Tony Blair was lambasted from the speaker’s platform by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and the Namibian president Sam Nujoma as an interfering colonialist.

Were he not such an arrogant, murderous, hypocritical and corrupt agent of capital, Mugabe’s five minute bluster could have been applauded as sound socialist criticism. Apart from his much publicised anti-Blair broadside he angrily declared:

   "The programme of action we set for ourselves at Rio has not only been unfulfilled but it has also been ignored, sidelined and replaced by a half-baked unilateral agenda of globalisation in the service of big corporate interests. The focus here is profit, not the poor; the process is globalisation, not sustainable development, while the objective is exploitation, not liberation."

Mugabe was, for once, right.

Bearing in mind that previous world summits - and there have been several in recent years, all analysed in this journal – have been subordinated to the interests of big business and have consequently proved to be a waste of time in so far as addressing the problems of the planet was concerned, is it any wonder that not only NGOs, but the wider public have little faith in them? You would have to be very naïve to imagine that profit-driven corporations in a world subject to intense world market competitive pressures would, or could, be forced by the UN, take care of the planet in a responsible manner.

We can perhaps salvage one thing from Johannesburg that will serve the interests of humanity, and that is the fact - reinforced by this Summit - that capitalism cannot be trusted to run the world in the interests of humanity; that governments, including the UN which is made up of governments, serve the interests of profit first and that, if we are ever to take control of this planet and run it in the real interests of its inhabitants, then we must do so ourselves, without leaders and with a view to establishing a global system of society in which production is freed from the constraints of profit and in which each person will have free access to the benefits of civilisation.