Monday, February 8, 2010

Can 2012 Earth Summit Save The World? (Part 1)

[News: The UN General Assembly has called for a new "Earth Summit" in 2012.]

Five decades after biologist Rachel Carson’s best-selling book “Silent Spring” rang the alarm about environmental pollution, world leaders will gather for the fourth time to deal with the rapidly worsening problem.

Their previous meetings achieved limited but important goals; in 2012 they have an opportunity – if they think big – to reverse the trend and save the world form certain environmental disaster.

What exactly does thinking big mean?

It is best explained by looking at the previous three meetings.

The first UN Environment Conference in 1972 (Stockholm), put the issue on the world’s political agenda. It led to the creation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro agreed on a voluminous action programme. Dubbed Agenda 21, it acknowledged the magnitude of problems affecting the planet’s eco-system and identified “major groups” that should be activated to take remedial action.

The 2002 “Rio+10” conference at Johannesburg elaborated on the implementation of Agenda 21.

At all three meetings, the focus was heavily on symptoms. The conferences identified specific problems – climate change, loss of bio-diversity, deforestation etc. – and initiated separate courses of action to deal with them. The core issue of why so much bad stuff was happening was dealt with only tangentially, with blame apportioned mainly to "unsustainable" patterns of production and consumption. That approach was like that of a physician prescribing symptomatic treatment for a patient suffering from cancer.

As a result, the implementation of Agenda 21 quickly lost focus and energy. Problems have been worsening rapidly as billions of people seek to “develop” by joining industrialized countries in an ever more global economy.

To remedy the situation the 2012 meeting must consider root causes. If governments will not do it, civil society must undertake the task. In either case, implementation will depend heavily on citizen action.

Even a cursory review of historical trends will show that all the most serious problems are rooted in the nature of industrial civilization. Two factors about it are especially problematic.

The first is enormity of scale (yes, size has a moral dimension). The environmental impact of a local population using wood from a forest is quite different from a corporation selling it to a global market. One harvests to meet a need, the other devastates for profit. 

The second factor is that the central institution of industrial civilization, the commercial corporation, is blind to moral, aesthetic and natural claims unrelated to its profit. The wilful nature of that blindness is indicated by the monumental flop of the Global Compact, a UN initiative to have corporations pledge to uphold certain minimum human rights and environmental standards. Only some five thousand corporations have joined the Compact, many of them small and medium enterprises. The mega corporations with over $1 billion in annual revenues, of which there now over 60,000, have stayed away in droves.

How do we address these two problems? I’ll deal with that in my next post. Those impatient to know what I suggest can get part of the answer by reading the article on Gandhi at my web site (scroll down to Essay 1 under the title Hind Swaraj II).

1 comment:

Felix Dodds said...


If you want to keep abreast of developments on Earth Summti 2012 then our web site is set up fro that it is at
warm regards

felxi dodds
executive director
Stakeholder Forum