We need
a dream

Sunita Narain says that the preparations for the Summit lacked vision, and suggests new approaches for the future

It is truly amazing how something can be all there and yet not there at all. Such was the process leading up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development. After many preparatory committee meetings, we had a draft plan of implementation, which was unimaginative, weak, visionless and not worth the paper it was written on. It was full of empty sentences, with governments squabbling like reluctant and petulant children about issues, on which there is absolutely no reason to disagree.

But negotiations are more about posturing than about taking principled positions. So, on the one hand, some want to renege on the basic agreement between rich and poor on how responsibilities to protect the environment are common but differentiated – based on the nation ’s capability and responsibility for the problem. On the other, some governments do not want to accept that good governance, nationally and globally, is a critical determinant of sustainable development.

What Johannesburg needs most is a dream. And it needs ‘change-makers’ who believe in the dream. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit , the environmental agenda became centre-stage because civil society had led governments to take action. But since then, environmental groups have mostly followed the inaction of the governments in determining the fate of commas and fullstops in negotiating texts.

This ‘governmentalization’ of the environmental agenda has been disastrous, as it has become a cause without a concern. And this when the world desperately needs a global compact.

Environmental challenges are now developmental ones, both globally and nationally. The process of ecological globalization is driven by the fact that levels of production and consumption have reached a stage where what is done in one country can have major impacts on its neighbours, and even on the rest of the world.

Even simple things like using a refrigerator or an air conditioner can help destroy the world’s ozone layer; running an automobile, or cutting a tree without planting another, can help destabilize the world’s climate. Using a persistent organic compound like DDT in India can cause life-threatening pollution for people and other life in the remote polar regions, as it is slowly but steadily carried to them by the world’s oceanic currents and air streams. Never before have human beings so needed to learn to live in ‘one world ’.

We must recognize, first, that ‘ecological globalization’ is the inevitable result of the continuing processes of economic growth and globalization which not only stitch the world’s economies together, but take national production and consumption levels to a point that threatens the world’s ecological systems.

Multilateral conventions – from climate to biodiversity to trade in hazardous waste – are parts of the puzzle of how to share the world’s ecological (and economic) space. Their negotiations put together the rules and regulations – indeed the constitution – of a new agreement.

Secondly, we must recognize that the South – much more than ever – is learning painfully about the enormous costs to health of a dirty environment. The Western economic and technological model is highly material and energy-intensive, metabolizes huge quantities of natural resources, leaving a trail of toxins and highly degraded and transformed ecosystems in its wake. And yet we, in the developing world, are following it for economic and social growth, creating an extraordinary cocktail of poverty and inequality side by side with growing economies, pollution and large-scale ecological destruction.

The processes of wealth generation will clearly put increasing pressure on natural ecosystems and generate huge amounts of pollution. Literally every city in the fast industrializing South is gasping for clean air. World Bank studies now tell us that when the gross domestic product (GDP) of Thailand doubled during the 1980s, its total load of pollutants increased an amazing ten-fold. A study conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment similarly showed that when the Indian economy doubled recently, pollution from industry quadrupled, and pollution from vehicles increased eight times over.

A major global technology initiative is needed to address pollution. Developing countries need cost-effective technologies to meet their development and pollution prevention needs. A forward-looking approach would be to encourage developing countries to avoid ‘incremental changes’ in technologies and move towards frontier clean ones like fuel cells and solar cells. We need a global framework to support this transition, in the interests of us all.

Thirdly, there is now ample evidence to show that the globalization process is going to bypass or neglect billions of poor people for several decades, until they develop the capacity to integrate themselves into national and global markets. Life for these marginalized people is, to say the least, abysmal. Lack of access even to basic necessities like safe drinking water, adequate food and health care, means that almost a third of the people in the developing world have a life expectancy of just 40 years. It is also evident that the problem of rural poverty in large parts of the developing world is not one of ‘economic poverty’ but of ‘ecological poverty’ – the shortage of natural resources to build up the rural economy. More than 1 billion people live in absolute poverty – a large proportion of them on degraded lands. Regenerating these lands will play a key role in reviving local economies, built around agriculture and animal husbandry. This in turn requires good land and water management to ensure high productivity from trees, grasses and crops.

Unfortunately, ‘ecological poverty’ is not much studied because most economists do not understand environment or natural resource management, and most environmentalists do not understand poverty. In an interdependent world, all people should enjoy the most fundamental of human rights, the Right to Survival. Unemployment and poverty stalk much of humankind and force it into deprivation that can have no moral, legal or socioeconomic justification. Yet the vast numbers of unemployed and underemployed, especially in the rural South, provide us with an extraordinary opportunity for undertaking a massive, global enterprise for ecological regeneration and restoration of the natural resource base on which the poor depend for survival. All over South America, Africa and Asia – if given a chance – village communities can survive by improving their environment and local agroecosystems through afforestation, grasslands development, soil conservation, local water harvesting systems and small-scale energy development.

We need a major global programme to generate employment for ecological regeneration so that both poverty and ecological degradation – two of the worst evils stalking the world – can be arrested and, hopefully, banished. Such are the the bare bones of the dream that should drive the negotiations in Johannesburg. For the Summit to be a success – and a success it must be – world leaders should meet, not to disagree, but to write the preamble of this new global constitution. It is the least that we can do for our common future  

Sunita Narain is director, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, India.

PHOTOGRAPH: Yuri Abramochkin/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Agenda of hope | Changing the paradigm | Only one Earth | Beyond brackets | African renaissance | Unmissable opportunity | At a glance: GEO-3 | Asking the people | Recapturing momentum | Taking the measure of unsustainability | Breaking the grid lock | Training for transformation | Bring big business to account | Out of the changing room | ‘Dear delegates...’ | We need a dream | Two sides of the same coin: before and after Johannesburg| Quality environmental data for all

Complementary articles in other issues:
Malmö Ministerial Declaration (The Environment Millennium) 2001
Klaus Toepfer: Prospects for WSSD: Towards Johannesburg (Mountains and Ecotourism) 2002
Mohammed Valli Moosa: Achieving the vision (Chemicals and the environment) 2002
Juan Mayr Maldonado: Open doors (Chemicals and the environment) 2002

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
About the AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment