TCS Daily

Zelig in Africa

By James Pinkerton - September 4, 2002 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG - The headline in the September 2 edition of Business Day, the most serious-minded newspaper here in Jo'burg, was blunt: "Spectre of failure puts pressure on summit." As the last two days of the summit counted down, the paper reported, "Delegations representing developing countries, the European Union and the US remained divided over trade and finance issues, a target for renewable energy, and the wording on health in around-the-clock talks at the weekend." Other than that, other than not being able to agree on anything, the World Summit on Sustainable Development was going just fine.

Dan Esty, a veteran of the Bush 41 Environmental Protection Agency and a non-governmental member of the official American delegation, was equally candid in an interview: "The problem with the summit is that it's too big." Esty, now a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Management, lamented that "a whole social agenda has swamped the environmental agenda." And so, he concluded, the summit has "a lack of focus, a lack of action orientation."

But how could this be? How could such a simple phrase as "sustainable development" (SD) lead to such a mess? After all, the concept of SD started out simply; in the beginning, just 15 years ago, was the word. Or the words. Twenty-three of them:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

That was the key sentence from the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, commonly known as the Bruntland Commission, after Gro Harlem Bruntland, the former prime minister of Norway, in a report entitled Our Common Future. The Bruntland Commission set in motion a series of summits, held every five years since; next was the 1992 "Earth Summit" in Rio De Janeiro, which set in motion, most notably, the 1997 Kyoto treaty on global warming. And now to "Rio + 10," known formally as the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

But if Bruntland's words set in motion a bureaucratic process, they also set in motion an evolutionary process, as the definition of SD changed and expanded. Of course, that's the way evolution works; as Charles Darwin observed, all systems evolve toward complexity.

It's that complex multiplicity of meanings that has turned the WSSD into a Tower of Bureaucratic Babel, in which everyone speaks his or her own language, explicating SD in his or her own way. No wonder the summiteers are having so much trouble. So I took it upon myself to survey the definitions of SD on display here. But just as an entomologist can visit a rain forest and discover perhaps one percent of the bugs in the eco-system, I probably found no higher a percentage of the SD definitions in my week here at the summit. But even so, I collected a good 30 lbs. of printed material, most of it on thick glossy paper; I can only wonder what appropriately sustainable method for disposing of all the thousands of tons of save-the-earth material will be utilized by WSSD officials.

The green groups came to Jo'burg with a vision of SD that would ring familiar to most Americans. For instance, the IUCN - in English, the World Conservation Union - declared, "biodiversity is at the core of sustainable development." For its part, another group, a San Francisco-based green organization called Redefining Progress, measured the "ecological footprint" of countries as a way of "moving sustainability from abstract concept to concrete goal." (According to its data, Mozambique imposes the smallest ecological footprint per person, the United Arab Emirates the largest.) Yet the Worldwatch Institute, another green outfit, spun more toward anti-poverty than anti-pollution: "Critical to the success of the summit will be the ability to frame global environmental objectives in the context of the development needs of poor nations." And in one of the few references to 9-11 to be found anywhere in WSSD literature, Worldwatch declared, "At a time when they are understandably preoccupied with international terrorism and economic insecurity," the big test for rich countries is if "they can recommit themselves to addressing the underlying causes of economic and political instability."

Not surprisingly, many greens were pessimistic all along. Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland), predicted that "the embedded inequalities of decision-making, resource use and wealth between nations drive global development problems" which will lead, he predicted, to "continuous environmental, social and political upheavals." The only way for the WSSD to forestall that fate, he insisted, is to write "a new social contract between citizens and the State, and a new international concordat between governments, in order to secure the fundamental entitlements for well-being." Such documents would include a UN Convention on Sustainability Rights and, for good measure, a Treaty on Corporate Accountability and Liability. Yet such green wish-list items aren't on the table here, which suggests that many greens will come away from the WSSD as unhappy as when they arrived here.

But while maximalist greens may never be satisfied, the eco-agenda has, in fact, had a huge impact on business. Many multinationals have jumped on the SD bandwagon. Nestlé, long targeted by activists for its sales of infant formula in the Third World, now declares the Bruntland Commission to be a "milestone" for the planet. And DeBeers, once a pillar of apartheid, playing a strong local, as well as global, angle, has put up billboards all over, proclaiming its commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Yet some companies have striven subtly to tilt the definition of SD in a manner that favors their bottom line. Thus Unilever announces its commitment to "continuous improvements in the management of our environmental impact and to the longer-term goal of developing a sustainable business." Other companies tie SD more closely to their product line: "Within the limits and opportunities of its function as a financial services provider, ING stimulates its stakeholders in different ways towards sustainable development."

Critics on the left might call this wordsmithing, corporate co-optation of the greens, while critics on the right might call it corporate pandering to the greens. Either way, the 23 words of the Bruntland Commission are sluicing through the world in different ways in different places, spilling ever further away from what the first SD-ers had in mind.

And so it goes. General Motors issued its own booklet for the summit, A Sustainable Balance, which argues, not too surprisingly, that GM should figure prominently in an SD world: "Sustainability can make transportation, education, and health care and the global markets more universally accessible." It may seem self-serving for companies to define their output as input into SD, but they have a point: It will, after all, be a while before, say, mass-transit light rail gets to Central Africa or Central Asia.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Similarly, other industries, make reasonable arguments. The International Aluminum Institute hailed - surprise, surprise - "aluminum's contribution to sustainable modern living." But is it wrong to argue that aluminum is critical to lowering the cost of transportation, to the creating of safe and secure food packaging, and to the building of corrosion-resistant structures?

Even the arch-villains in the green worldview, the energy companies, have a case to make. BHP Billiton, the Australian coal company, emphasizes that "sustainable development requires secure and reliable access to affordable energy." Is that wrong? After all, the company notes, two billion people lack such affordable energy, preventing them from accessing not only public health but also "modern information and education services." And the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, based in Washington DC, declares that it knows "there are technological responses to the world's environmental and economic challenges simply because we build them."

Interestingly, for all the criticism of American transnationals here at the WSSD, according to the 2002 KPMG International Survey of Corporate Sustainability, Yankee firms rank third in the world for the percentage of top 100 companies producing sustainability reports, at 36%. Japan ranks first, at 72%, followed by the UK at 49%, leaving US outfits ahead of all other Europeans. One might wonder whether writing reports about SD is the same as actually sustaining development, but in any case, American companies keep grinding out the verbiage. An August 27 press release from Hewlett-Packard, issued here, touts a local assembly factory: "Budget PC plant supports sustainable development." Can't hurt, H-P must figure, to get in one last p.r. point.

Indeed, in the past 15 years, SD has become an industry unto itself. A magazine called Tomorrow: Global Sustainable Business follows the phenomenon. It's published in Stockholm but printed in English, Spanish, and Chinese as well. The latest issue features an SD assessment of 22 economic sectors, from advertising to water.

And although unions are not much heard from in the SD cacophony, one exception is the Brussels-based European Trade Union Confederation, which declares itself to be an "actor for sustainable development." The Brussels-based group defines SD in a way that owes more to its labor heritage than to contemporary green thinking. SD, it declares, means "giving recognition to fundamental social rights, jobs and training as fundamental shaping factors in the war on poverty, as well as the importance of access to collective goods like water, energy, health, and communication infrastructures through public services." In other words it proposes recreating the social-democratic welfare state in the guise of sustaining the environment.

Meanwhile, the world's governments are getting into the SD game, each in its own characteristic national fashion. France announces it will pursue to SD "through solidarity." Canada trumpets itself in a politically correct bilingual ad: "Canada - contributing to sustainable development" appears bilingually alongside "Le Canada participle au développement durable." The Israeli Ministry of the Environment goes one language better, offering a trilingual document, in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. Israel is all for sustainable development, but stipulates that "security constraints" must take precedence. At the same time, the export-minded Israelis define SD to include "an increasingly liberal and open trading policy."

Yet if the Israelis see open trade as boon, other countries - particularly those with leftist governments - see open trade as a bane. According to a "Dokumentation" produced by the German Ministry of Economics and Technology, a "sustainable energy policy" must not be left to the free market. Why not? Because the market moves "much too rapidly to reward the long term goals of environmental protection and supply security. Energy policy therefore requires intervention into the workings of the market." Americans, remembering the Uncle Sam-generated energy crises of the '70s, might only marvel that the Germans seem eager to recreate that policy disaster in a green guise.

As is often the case in world affairs, the most refreshing candor comes from the recently liberated East Bloc countries. Romania's Ministry of Waters and Environmental Protection, Petru Lificiu, issued a booklet in which he notes that the Revolution of December 1989, which put an end to communism, signified "the beginning of a new era" for the Romanian people and "the first concern regarding environmental protection matters."

Of course, no world conclave would be complete without the usual horde of non-governmental organizations making themselves heard - and making known their own particularistic definition of SD. Each definition seems suspiciously in keeping with the pre-existing mindset of the definer.

For instance, the Women's Environment & Development Organization, based in New York City, and the Rachel Carson Institute, based in Pittsburgh, disseminated their feminist compendium on SD here. One contributor, Cora Weiss, president of the Hague Appeal for Peace - those of a certain age will remember her as the leader of Women Strike for Peace, an anti-Vietnam War group - declared, "sustainable development must begin at home." And that means, she asserted, cutting the Pentagon budget; as she put it, "We must transfer funds from the military to peace education with gender and environmental sensitivity." Another contributor, Devra Lee Davis, a professor at the Heinz School of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, noted with pride the gender of Ms. Bruntland, the mother of SD. But, she noted, "The Bruntland Commission discovered no single priority focus." And that's the problem for SD-ers: no single priority focus gives everybody the option of focusing on whatever he or she wishes to focus on.

It's that lack of priorities of course, that leads to so many visions of SD, many of them in direct conflict - from pro-globalization to pro-localization. While Ritu Kumar, a consultant to the Commonwealth Science Council in London, praises the Sustainable Trade and Innovation Centre, which concentrates on "the practical needs of developing country exporters," others claim that world trade is part of the problem. The International Forum on Globalization, based in San Francisco, invokes SD to bolster its autarkic argument; its report, A Better World Is Possible: Alternatives to Globalization, advocated "discriminating actively in favor of the local in all policies." That's green thinking at its greenest: no international trade, although maybe some aid.

Other definitions of SD can only be described as avant-garde definitions. One publication, WSSD GEM, co-published by the Johannesburg-based Gender Links and the Nairobi-based African Woman and Child Feature Service, highlights the Voices for Healing Workshop, which emphasizes the therapeutic aspects of singing and dancing. "Sustainable development also means nourishing the collective soul" the publication explains.

Others have a vision of SD that can only be described as somewhere between retro and irrelevant. An August 31 march to the summit site featured a few thousand protestors - red-flagged, red-shirted and red-bereted - chanting "Viva," as in "Viva Castro." Speakers alternated between advocacy of communism and victory for the Palestinian intifadah.

But most Africans seem to put economics well ahead of environment. Writing in an official WSSD publication entitled, simply, Welcome, Joe Mofokeng avers that "Poverty alleviation is the main focus in this year's World Summit on Sustainable Development." And the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg, Amos Masondo, declares, "We are proud to be a part of a promising prospect of prosperity for the world whilst protecting the planet and its natural resources." One might note that "protecting the planet" is subordinated to the "prospect of prosperity." For his part, Mohammed Valli Moosa, the South African government's Minister for Environmental Affairs and Tourism, writes, "The establishment of an equitable, stable and balanced global economic system, with sustainable systems of production and consumption, is a priority for sustainable development." Even the minister of environmental affairs gives short shrift to the environment.

As for the rest of Africa, the place most desperately in need of development, the concept of SD is even less embraced. Zambia, for instance, set up an exhibit that didn't mention SD at all; from the looks of its presentation, that poor but scenic country appears to define SD as "tourism."

Indeed, many Africanists see SD as economics - first, foremost, and utmost. The UN's Economic Commission for Africa emphasizes that the continent needs "a rapid, sustained, and broad-based economic transformation." Many from the North seem to empathize with that redistributionist perspective. Clare Short, development minister for Britain's Labour government, more of an Old Leftist than a New Environmentalist, sounded distinctly un-SD when she demanded that WSSD must not use environmental concerns as an excuse for "imposing rules that prevent poor countries from development." Again, eating comes before greening.

And so the puzzlement of SD: like the interpretation of dreams, it means just about everything to everybody. Bruntland's 23 words command attention, but at the same time they allow plenty of interpretational leeway, permitting all of us to see SD through our own personal prism. As Laurie Michaelis, of Oxford's School of Geography and Environment, notes ruefully, the SD vision leads folks in wildly different directions: "Paint a scenario that looks like utopia to one group," he says, "and it will look like a disaster to another."

By now it's obvious that if the thousands of visionaries here in Jo'burg and around the world can define SD as everything from AIDS prevention to emissions control to victory for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, then SD has become all things to all people. One thinks of the 1983 Woody Allen movie "Zelig," in which the ubiquitous character is hailed as "a metaphor for everything."

Such a polymorphous concept can be useful for entertainment, but not for public policy. To be sure, some critics of the WSSD see a method in this seeming madness. Julian Morris, director of the London-based International Policy Network and editor of the just-published Sustainable Development: Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty?, sees the greens as having an objective that far transcends this summit. Their objective, he warns, is to "to put together an agreed-upon international text with various clauses that they can use to develop a global central plan." It's not entirely a coincidence, he muses, that the five-year increments of these Earth summits recall the Soviet Five Year Plans of the last century. In other words, the greens are really reds.

Maybe Morris is right. But for the time being, a Leninist sense of discipline among the players here is hardly visible; the revolution may be gathering force, but it's still a way off. And until then, as Yale's disillusioned Dan Esty puts it, "When sustainable development is everything, it's nothing."

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