From Stockholm to Rio

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 17.06.39

In some ways, the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992 was a re-run of the Stockholm conference twenty years earlier, sometimes with the same faces. It aroused great media interest but again subsequent actions by national governments have not matched the environmental sickness documented in the conference proceedings.

The Earth Summit launched a programme under the name of Agenda 21, which actually endorsed greater world trade ‘liberalisation’, something that has done demonstrable and huge harm to ecosystems and human communities around the planet. Like the 1987 Brundtland Reportfrom the World Commission on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit reflected and emphasised the notions of global environmental change and of sustainable development, the latter making a false assumption that social improvement and environmental conservation go hand in hand. This is in marked contrast to the notion of ‘limits to growth’ popularised in the early 1970s.

Though it is possible to point to minor achievements, the fact is, when set against what needs to be done to secure the future for the Earth and all its inhabitants, the Summit was a massive failure. But it will have served some purpose if the roots of the debacle are recognised. The seeds of failure were sown years before the 10,000 delegates, 700 UN officials, 7,000 journalists, and 12,000 NGO members boarded their jets to Rio, before some 100 million sheets of unrecycled paper piled up around the conference, before the Brazilians had spent $100m on a new road to speed the politicians past shanty towns and before a $23b. budget had been allocated.

The story starts in Stockholm in 1972 at the ‘One Earth’ conference, when the ideas that dominated this year’s Earth Summit took root. Stockholm too was a failure. Although, like Rio, some progress was registered and the world’s problems were highlighted, the march to ecological meltdown still speeded up. Stockholm left another and more dangerous bequest: the fallacy that has blinded not just decision-makers but also many pressure groups, namely that environmental protection and development (albeit reformed) go hand in hand.

In the following years, this fundamentally flawed perspective blossomed. In particular, the notion that ‘poverty is pollution’ took hold, when it is the total consumption of resources that determines environmental impact. London’s homeless huddled in ‘cardboard cities’, for example, damage the environment far less than the car drivers who speed past them. At the same time, demands grew for a ‘new economic order’ in which raw material producers in the Third World would get a higher price for their exports.

Other bad ideas encouraged the thesis that the world was suffering from ‘misdirected’, rather than too much, growth. There was, for example, the so-called ‘demographic transition theory’, whose misconception was that affluence was the best contraceptive. Meanwhile, the market mechanism was peddled as the way to solve resource shortages, to identify the ‘optimum’ level of pollution and even put a price on the value of wildlife.

All these ideas came together in two key publications—the Brandtand BrundtlandReports. They reflected the fact that concern the environment, human suffering and the arms race was not confined to ecofreaks and dissident scientists. Far-sighted members of business, academic and political elites realised that environmental damage would interfere with growth.  The programme of these ‘Planet Managers’ was the efficient allocation of land, energy and mineral resources (people became ‘human resources’) through scientific management. It is a bit like Taylorism (the ‘time and motion’ managerialism of turn-of-the century America) applied to the entire world. Even the genes of living things are to become an offering on the altar of production.

Another source of misconceptions was the fast growing empire of pressure groups and non-governmental organisations. In  particular, they contributed to a one-sided blaming of the world’s ills upon the rich ‘North’. There was a resurgence of the ‘Third Worldism’of 1960s when many radicals in the rich countries held up as heroes people like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. The problems of the Third World were ascribed solelyto imperialist machinations. Organisations such as Oxfam denied the reality of global overpopulation. Others came up with the absurd argument that past deforestation in temperate lands meant that no-one there had the right to criticise the same thing in tropical areas today. More generally, there was an unwillingness to recognise that neither national sovereignty nor any other grounds constitute a right to abuse local environments.

The Earth Summit was therefore a child of many parents Their failings are the failings of Rio and its action programme, Agenda 21. They must not be disguised in the bouts of ‘Bush-bashing’ in the search for scapegoats. The role of the American government under the then George Bush senior merits all the criticism it has received. The Bush administration, like the Tories in Britain, has denied the existence of problems, blocked action and, when those tactics failed, only signed agreements devoid of targets, timetables or mechanisms for enforcement. Yet outrage over their behaviour should not conceal more important realities.

For a start, such politicians reflect pressures upon them, including those from their electorates. Large sections of the public in countries like the USA and UK are not prepared to change their lifestyles in order to combat world poverty and environmental destruction. It is certainly true that responsible politicians would be trying to raise public consciousness rather than exploit it for the sake of self-aggrandisement. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the depth of the crisis in human culture and behaviour.

The leaders of other industrialised countries have been let off the hook by the behaviour of the Americans. The Japanese government in particular has been keen to present itself as the world’s new saviour. Yet Japan remains the global ecosystem’s leading rapist. The funds promised by Japan to protect the environment are but a tiny part of the profits made from its destruction to satisfy her consumer appetites. Other governments might seem less tarnished yet the picture remains substantially the same. Since Rio, the Norwegians, for example, have joined the Japanese in the campaign to resume the massacre of the world’s surviving whale populations.

Furthermore, the failings of Bush and other leaders of the industrialised countries have served to cloak those of the so-called G77 countries. For the Chinese government, for example, Rio was a handy device to cover its appalling record on human rights. Furthermore, its new concern for the Earth, has not stopped it from going ahead with one of the most disastrous projects anywhere in the world, the Three Gorges dam scheme on the Yangtse, which displaced more than a million people. The G77 leaders oppose the present division of the global cake, not its size or content. For many members of the G77 elites, the main concern is to get more resources to pay for the armies that keep them in power as well as the luxury imports essential to their lifestyles.

Many Earth Summiteers therefore wanted an agenda focussed upon symptoms, not the causes, of the Earth’s problems. Yet, though the hands of the assembled delegates may have been tied in many ways, they could have given the world at least a lead if they had addressed instead the real issues—not deforestation but the timber trade and the pulp industry; not global warming but the power supply, car and cattle industries; not hunger but the food trade; not indebtedness but the monetary and banking system; not war but the arms trade and militarism; not poverty and unemployment but the transnational corporations and the world market; not population growth per se but the social forces opposed to birth control.

Overpopulation, for example, is easily the biggest and most urgent of all the pressures tearing apart social and environmental systems. Yet the silence from almost all parts of the Earth Summit, official and unofficial, was deafening. The Friends of the Earth ‘Verdict on the Earth Summit’ (Press release, 14/6/92) did not even mention the issue. The main exceptions were opportunists like Lynda Chalker who use it as a way to divert attention from the profligacy of the lifestyles they support and who remain just as silent when it comes to overpopulation in their own countries.

Similarly, the rights of non-human species received scant support. Most debate about biodiversity was about the loss of potential resources to satisfy human wants, not our responsibility to share the Earth with other forms of life. Yet, the ‘resourcist’ approach accepts the logic of sacrificing more parts of the biosphere if the cost/benefit calculations deem it expedient. Contrary to John Major’s talk about the ‘Darwin Initiative’, the real issue is what biologist David Ehrenfeld calls the Noah principle: ‘long-standing existence in nature (carries) with it the unimpeachable right to continued existence’. It implies limits on many human activities which people like John Major bitterly oppose.

Many people have pointed to the weaknesses of the Rio treaties. However, the real problem lies in the background. It is within the Earth Summit’s main legacy, the action programme known as Agenda 21.It is about sustaining industrial society by fine-tuning the engine of production. Its goal remains the maximum-feasible expansion of human society.

The contradictory concept of ‘sustainable growth’ is at the core of the UNCED project (it is usually given the cosmetic rewording of ‘sustainable development’0. Within Agenda 21, notions such as ‘free trade’, ‘comparative advantage’ and ‘global integration’ will guide policy despite all the evidence of the damage done by unfettered market forces. Problems are to be solved by more research (as if we were not saturated by information), by technology transfer (as if the failure of the green revolution and other  technofixes never happened), by more crumbs from the rich man’s table, courtesy of the Global Environment Facility (as if underconsumption was not the necessary companion of overconsumption in a finite world).

Otherwise, it is business-as-before: the same goals, lifestyles, and institutions that created the crisis in the first place. Perhaps there will be National Sustainability Plans and even an international Commission to monitor them but they will have little value if based on the kind of ‘sustainable management’ that, for example, has destroyed most old growth forest in regions like Canada and Scandinavia.

Beneath the concept of ‘sustainable growth’ is the notion that we live in an open-ended system capable of more expansion. Shorn of rhetoric, it is nothing more than a revival of the old dream of the perpetual motion machine. In reality, in a geologically finite, entropy bound and ecologically interconnected world sustaining more of this means choosing to sustain less of that.

What matters at the end of the day is the total impact of human society as a whole on the biosphere. It is now quite unsustainable. The Ehrlichs, for example, estimate that already ‘our one species has co-opted or destroyed some 40% of potential terrestrial productivity.’ Coppinger and Smith estimate that, on present trends, by the year 2050, at least 60% of all terrestrial animal biomass and 25% of all plant life would be composed of humans and a few domesticated species. Far from baking a bigger cake, such trends will destroy the very oven!

The Earth Summiteers refused to recognise that human society and its artefacts have grown too large in proportion to the biosphere on which they totally depend. Further attempts at more physical production, no matter how refined or regulated, can only be achieved at the expense of a lowering of the long-term capacity of environmental systems to sustain life. The primary task is to reduce the impact generated by that all important equation of human numbers multiplied byper capita consumption multiplied bythe kinds of technologies we use. Every policy and indeed every aspect of society must be judged in the light of whether it increases or decreases human pressure on the biosphere.

Genuinely sustainable systems will be slower and smaller than today’s superficially productive farms and factories. The reason is simple. Any stable system has to use a lot of what it produces simply to protect and maintain itself: there is less left over for other uses. An agriculture based on the cultivation of perennials, for example, would be much more ecologically sustainable than one that cultivates annual crops but its food yield would be lower. The sustainable cake will cater only for reduced demand.

There are areas where there is avoidable waste such as planned obsolescence and military spending which offer scope for a better use of a lowered throughput of resources (though it must be remembered that ambulances have the same ecological price tag as armoured cars even if they are more socially useful). Beyond that, increased output is possible only at the cost of extra inputs and increased entropy in the system.

In calculating right targets and the policies needed to achieve them, a genuinely ecological approach starts from the outer boundaries of the biosphere and specific ecosystems and works inwards It would deduce what is the carrying capacity for human numbers and derive equitable per capitaconsumption from what space/resources are available afterthe conservation of biodiversity, fertile soil, potable water and clean air has been ensured.

Forestry can illustrate how things would change. To conserve many species, sufficient old trees and snags must be left; to protect soil and water, felling must be done selectively; to maintain soil fertility, sufficient dead trees must be left to decay; to protect people and wildlife, toxic chemicals would be prohibited. Such criteria rule out certain practices and permit others.

Of course, in today’s culture, ‘think shrink’ is not exactly a popular slogan to engrave on one’s banners. Yet the problems of presentingand popularisingpolicy should be kept separate from the development of the right policies. Acceptance of the idea of ‘sustainable contraction’ is theprecondition for the formulation of measures that really will solve the fast-escalating global crisis. Otherwise, we will chase the will o’ the wisps of technological miracle workers and new financial mechanisms until one day, not too far away, it will be too late.

More global conferences like the Earth Summit clearly are not the way forward. Conventional politicians, intergovernmental bureaucracies, global business elites are too much part of the problem to becomes sources of solutions. Fortunately, there is another road. It is one shown, in the same period of the conference, by the struggles of ordinary men and women fighting for democracy on the streets of Bangkok and for their land in the forests of Brazil. It was also shown by the electorate of Denmark in their vote against the Maastricht Treaty. All these struggles are partial ones and will still need political leadership to link them into an unstoppable movement to save the Earth and all our futures.

The Earth Summit in Rio, 1992, illustrated the difficulties of developing an effective international response. It is already forgotten by many, including the media who devoted so much space and time to what was hailed as the last chance to save the planet. Though it is possible to point to minor achievements, the fact is, when set against what needs to be  done to secure the future for the Earth and all its inhabitants, the Summit was a massive failure.

But it will have served some purpose if the roots of the debacle are recognised. The seeds of failure were sown years before the 10,000 delegates, 700 UN officials, 7,000 journalists, and 12,000 NGO members boarded their jets to Rio, before some 100 million sheets of unrecycled paper piled up around the conference, before the Brazilians had spent $100m on a new road to speed the politicians past shanty towns and before a $23b. budget had been allocated.

The story starts in Stockholm in 1972 at the ‘One Earth’ conference, when the ideas that dominated this year’s Earth Summit took root. Stockholm too was a failure. Although, like Rio, some progress was registered and the world’s problems were highlighted, the march to ecological meltdown still speeded up.

Stockholm left another and more dangerous bequest: the fallacy that has blinded not just decision-makers but also many pressure groups, namely that environmental protection and development (albeit reformed) go hand in hand.

In the following years, this fundamentally flawed perspective blossomed. In particular, the notion that ‘poverty is pollution’ took hold, when it is the total consumption of resources that determines environmental impact. London’s homeless huddled in ‘cardboard cities’, for example, damage the environment far less than the car drivers who speed past them. At the same time, demands grew for a ‘new economic order’ in which raw material producers in the Third World would get a higher price for their exports.

Other bad ideas encouraged the thesis that the world was suffering from ‘misdirected’, rather than too much, growth. There was, for example, the so-called ‘demographic transition theory’, whose misconception was that affluence was the best contraceptive. Meanwhile, the market mechanism was peddled as the way to solve resource shortages, to identify the ‘optimum’ level of pollution and even put a price on the value of wildlife.

The Earth Summit was therefore a child of many parents Their failings are the failings of Rio and its action programme, Agenda 21. They must not be disguised in the bouts of ‘Bush-bashing’ that happened as the search for scapegoats followed the Rio failure. The role of the American government merits all the criticism it has received. The Bush administration, like the Tories in Britain, has denied the existence of problems, blocked action and, when those tactics failed, only signed agreements devoid of targets, timetables or mechanisms for enforcement. Yet outrage over their behaviour should not conceal more important realities.

For a start, such politicians reflect pressures upon them, including those from their electorates. Large sections of the public in countries like the USA and UK are not prepared to change their lifestyles in order to combat world poverty and environmental destruction. It is certainly true that responsible politicians would be trying to raise public consciousness rather than exploit it for the sake of self-aggrandisement. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the depth of the crisis in human culture and behaviour.

The leaders of other industrialised countries have been let off the hook by the behaviour of the Americans. The Japanese government in particular has been keen to present itself as the world’s new saviour. Yet Japan remains the global ecosystem’s leading rapist. The funds promised by Japan to protect the environment are but a tiny part of the profits made from its destruction to satisfy her consumer appetites. Other governments might seem less tarnished yet the picture remains substantially the same. Since Rio, the Norwegians, for example, have joined the Japanese in the campaign to resume the massacre of the world’s surviving whale populations.

Furthermore, the failings of Bush and other leaders of the industrialised countries have served to cloak those of the so-called G77 countries. For the Chinese government, for example, Rio was a handy device to cover its appalling record on human rights. Furthermore, its new concern for the Earth, has not stopped it from going ahead with one of the most disastrous projects anywhere in the world, the Three Gorges dam scheme on the Yangtse, which will displace more than a million people. The G77 leaders oppose the present division of the global cake, not its size or content. For many members of the G77 elites, the main concern is to get more resources to pay for the armies that keep them in power as well as the luxury imports essential to their lifestyles.

Many Earth Summiteers therefore wanted an agenda focused upon symptoms, not the causes, of the Earth’s problems. Yet, though the hands of the assembled delegates may have been tied in many ways, they could have given the world at least a lead if they had addressed instead the real issues—not deforestation but the timber trade and the pulp industry; not global warming but the power supply, car and cattle industries; not hunger but the food trade; not indebtedness but the monetary and banking system; not war but the arms trade and militarism; not poverty and unemployment but the transnational corporations and the world market; not population growth per se but the social forces opposed to birth control.

Overpopulation, for example, is easily the biggest and most urgent of all the pressures tearing apart social and environmental systems. Yet the silence from almost all parts of the Earth Summit, official and unofficial, was deafening. The Friends of the Earth ‘Verdict on the Earth Summit’ (Press release, 14/6/92) did not even mention the issue. The main exceptions were opportunists like Tory minister Lynda Chalker who use it as a way to divert attention from the profligacy of the lifestyles they support and who remain just as silent when it comes to overpopulation in their own countries.

The USA and other industrialised countries adopted positions for UNCED which in some areas (e.g. military waste) fell behind what was agreed in Stockholm in 1972. Demands that TNC’s accept environmental responsibilities were defeated. At the final UNCED Prepcom meeting the US delegate even objected to the inclusion in Agenda 21 of a recommendation for “less energy intensive consumption patterns and lifestyles in developed countries” as this would “infringe on personal freedom”. References to overconsumption being a cause of environmental degradation were watered down, although, as former World Bank president R.S. McNamara told the UN in 1991, it is “neither morally defensible nor politically acceptable” to avoid the issue of how the rich can “adjust consumption patterns… so as to help assure a sustainable path of development for all the inhabitants of our planet”.

Similarly, the rights of non-human species received scant support. Most debate about biodiversity was about the loss of potential resources to satisfy human wants, not our responsibility to share the Earth with other forms of life. Yet, the ‘resourcist’ approach accepts the logic of sacrificing more parts of the biosphere if the cost/benefit calculations deem it expedient. Contrary to British Prime Minister John Major’s talk about the ‘Darwin Initiative’, the real issue is what biologist David Ehrenfeld calls the Noah principle: ‘long-standing existence in nature (carries) with it the unimpeachable right to continued existence’. It implies limits on many human activities which people like John Major bitterly oppose.

Many people have pointed to the weaknesses of the Rio treaties. However, the real problem lies in the background. It is within the Earth Summit’s main legacy, the action programme known as Agenda 21. It is about sustaining industrial society by fine-tuning the engine of production. Its goal remains the maximum-feasible expansion of human society.

The contradictory concept of ‘sustainable growth’ is at the core of the UNCED project. Within Agenda 21, notions such as ‘free trade’, ‘comparative advantage’ and ‘global integration’ will guide policy despite all the evidence of the damage done by unfettered market forces. Problems are to be solved by more research (as if we were not saturated by information), by technology transfer (as if the failure of the green revolution and other  technofixes never happened), by more crumbs from the rich man’s table, courtesy of the Global Environment Facility (as if underconsumption was not the necessary companion of overconsumption in a finite world). Otherwise, it is business-as-before: the same goals, lifestyles, and institutions that created the crisis in the first place. Perhaps there will be National Sustainability Plans and even an international Commission to monitor them but they will have little value if based on the kind of ‘sustainable management’ that, for example, has destroyed most old growth forest in regions like Canada and Scandinavia.

The Earth Summiteers refused to recognise that human society and its artefacts have grown too large in proportion to the biosphere on which they totally depend. Further attempts at more physical production, no matter how refined or regulated, can only be achieved at the expense of a lowering of the long-term capacity of environmental systems to sustain life.

More global conferences like the Earth Summit clearly are not the way forward. Conventional politicians, intergovernmental bureaucracies, global business elites are too much part of the problem to becomes sources of solutions. The answer is more likely to be found by a combination of direct action, individual lifestyle change, political campaigning within existing parties and, last but not least, the formation of new parties.

 

 

Advertisements