Earth Summit: An Ideological World Away

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With a 10 million square mile, 3 kilometre thick mass of soot and carbon monoxide hovering over South Asia, central Europe still recovering from some of the most devastating floods of its history, and sub-Saharan Africa facing a catastrophic famine, the need for radical action against poverty and environmental destruction could not be clearer.

Yet the opulent £30 million Earth Summit which began in Johannesburg at the end of August had only neoliberal 'solutions' on the table.

Seven hundred corporations are expected to be represented in the negotiations. Not finding a voice inside the jamboree will be grassroots campaigners. Stun grenades have been fired at candle-holding protesters, and 90 leading members of the Landless People's Movement and the National Land Committee have been detained for planning what the South African government has compared to the Seattle protests which shut down the World Trade Organisation in 1999. Nearby, 20,000 activists from 120 countries have organised an alternative event, the Global People's Forum.

An ideological world away from this is the official summit, where the stated social and environmental aims are merely a figleaf for an agenda of public-private 'partnerships', 192 of which have been proposed at the time of writing. Tony Blair is at the forefront of this project. Britain is involved in 20 of the schemes, and has a delegation that barely found room for the environment minister, Michael Meacher, but made sure famed conservationists such as Thames Water, Rio Tinto and Anglo-American all had a seat. The spearhead of this drive is a grouping of international chambers of commerce, Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD), which helped to ensure that large sections of the world trade agreement have simply been pasted into the draft negotiating text. It is chaired by Phillip Watts of Shell, with the deputy chief of BP also on the board.

The proposals are thus an intensification of policies that have caused such misery since the last Earth Summit, in Rio, in 1992. Since then overseas aid from the richest countries has fallen from 0.35 to 0.22 percent of economic output. Up to 13 million Africans are at risk of starvation. Many of these are from Malawi, where the International Monetary Fund demanded that grain reserves be sold to pay off international bankers. The debt burden, which kills 19,000 children every day through lack of adequate food and sanitation, has increased by a third to £1.7 trillion since Rio. Where aid is offered it is tied to structural adjustment programmes like the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), which claims to promote 'good governance and democracy' but whose primary aim is the privatisation of utilities. South African activists have found popular support by responding to the resultant electricity cut-offs with illegal reconnections.

It would be easy to mistake the Bush administrations hostility to the summit as some sort of endorsement. Many multinationals based in the US, which is responsible for a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, were eager for Bush not to bestow the conference with the dubious honour of his attendance. When he declined to come, 31 political groups, seven of them funded to the tune of more than $1 million by Exxon Mobil, wrote to congratulate him on not giving credibility to 'various anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalisation and anti-westem agendas'. They also asserted that 'the least important global environmental issue is potential global warming, and we hope your negotiators can keep it off the table and out of the spotlight.' This will be no easy task.

The ten hottest years on record have all been in the last two decades and sea levels are rising. In the face of increasingly extreme weather patterns the White House scepticism about fossil fuel emissions causing the greenhouse effect is about as scientifically credible as the Flat Earth Society.

Bush would rather be in Texas championing logging firms than saving the rainforest. But it was the Clinton administration that drained the Kyoto climate change protocols of any potency.

South African President Thabo Mbeki opened the summit declaring, 'A global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, characterised by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable.' The Earth Summit's commitment to the very measures of privatisation, debt and rampant unregulated capital that cause such misery makes the outlining of an alternative vision all the more vital. In Florence between 6 and 10 November tens of thousands of activists will debate that alternative at the European Social Forum. George Bush need not attend.