SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Business conquers world summit

PREDICTABLY, THE World Summit on Sustainable Development in September provided no solutions to environmental destruction or world poverty.

Official statements tout vague feelgood rhetoric – talking of halving the numbers of people without access to proper sanitation, for example. Substance to back the claims is markedly absent. And no mention is made of the police crackdown on protests, the army’s use of teargas and rubber bullets. There is no description of how Sandton, the rich suburb of Johannesburg where the summit took place, was transformed into a militarised zone – with 27,000 police/army personnel – distancing delegates dining in gourmet restaurants from the anger erupting onto the streets.

The stated aim of the summit was to draw up a balance sheet on progress since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. However, the only significant initiative to come out of Rio was the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions and that was scuppered by the world’s biggest polluter, the USA. George W Bush did not even show up, underlining his contempt for environmental issues and his oil industry agenda. The US was represented by secretary of state, Colin Powell. In a scene reminiscent of the reception for US health secretary, Tommy Thompson, at the Barcelona Aids conference in July, Powell’s speech was drowned out by protesters incensed at his claims that the US was fighting international poverty and climate change.

Big business conquered the World Summit. Environmentalists left empty handed. The conference centre itself was wall-to-wall corporate logos, the products familiar, the message tinted green. BMW plugged ‘clean cars’ and De Beers diamonds slogan was ‘Water is Forever’. The main sponsor was Eskom, South Africa’s national energy company, currently being prepared for privatisation – a process which is causing 40,000 households to lose access to electricity each month. (Naomi Klein, The Guardian, 3 September)

This lavish international circus was rightly condemned for its huge cost. Bringing together some of the world’s leading practitioners of political hypocrisy and double-cross does not come cheap – at least $1 billion, in fact. In an attempt to deflect criticism, a plan was drawn up to neutralise the estimated 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted at the summit by raising $5 million from the delegates – to be spent on solar energy and forestry schemes in South Africa. The total so far collected? A mere $300,000.

Two new targets were announced: to halve the proportion of people who do not have access to basic sanitation (paragraph 7); and to establish marine protected networks by 2012 (paragraph 31c). The other statements reiterated previous commitments, watered down some, trashed others.

More than 2.5 billion people do not have adequate sanitation and 30,000 people die every day from water-related diseases. In reality, the summit’s non-binding aim of halving the number of people not connected to water supplies to 550 million and of those without proper sanitation by 2015 will not happen.

No agreement was reached on renewable energy. Currently, 14% of the world’s energy comes from renewable sources – 2% from wind, solar and wave, and 12% from less-clean biomass burning. The EU proposed to increase the total to 15% by 2010. Delegates agreed to act "with a sense of urgency" to "substantially increase the global share of renewable energy sources". Paragraph 19e promotes so-called ‘clean’ fossil fuels, a retreat from even the totally inadequate Kyoto Protocol. This can be used to justify increasing the use of nuclear and coal-fired power stations.

Paragraph 42 raises the need for "a significant reduction in the current rate of loss of biological diversity", again diluting the current UN convention.

Paragraph 5a urges rich countries "to make concrete efforts towards the target of 0.7% of GNP as official development assistance". Rio had already agreed to that but, instead of boosting aid to $125 billion by 2000, the money provided had fallen from $69 billion to $53 billion. Britain’s contribution remained at 0.33% of gross national product, with the US on 0.1%. Meanwhile, the debt burden of developing countries climbed by 34% to $2.5 trillion.

This year’s big idea was ‘partnership initiatives’ between governments, corporations and non-governmental organisations. A Dutch group aims to collect 100,000 old bikes, repair them and send them to Africa. Ikea has a deal with the World Wildlife Fund to buy timber certified as ‘sustainably harvested’. The claim is that communities will ‘own’ the projects, so the aid will be ‘locally driven’. Yet of the 172 initiatives listed by the UN, only two – youth networking in the Philippines and South Africa – place community groups as the leading partner.

The UN has not even worked out the rules, let alone how they could be enforced. There are no mechanisms for dealing with inefficiency, exploitation and corruption. There is no accountability.

In spite of this, some commentators still desperately grasp for something – anything – positive. An editorial in New Scientist claimed: "Delegates had thrown out a sentence in the summit’s final resolution that would have ceded to the World Trade Organisation the final say in any conflict between free trade and environmental protection. It doesn’t sound much. Nothing agreed in Johannesburg is binding on anyone… But this vote could just be the start of a fight-back against the blind faith in free trade that has disfigured our world over the past decade, while giving little to the world’s poor". (7 September)

As the editorial suggests, however, the WTO will continue to dictate terms to the developing world. Many activists call for controls on big business, correctly criticising the WTO and other agencies which serve the interests of the dominant economic powers and multinational corporations. The problem is that this critique does not fully take into account the nature of capitalism, which is a profit-driven, class-ridden system. An extremely small minority class of people dominate and control the rest of humanity and the world’s resources. Its motivation and the inner logic of capitalism is the drive for short-term profits and the consolidation of wealth and power.

Daniel Mittler, Earth Summit Coordinator, commented: "This is a betrayal of the millions of people around the world who looked to this summit for real action, and particularly of poor people and vulnerable communities in the South. It is an indictment of the world leaders who came to this summit and posed for photographs but lacked the vision and commitment to face the scale of the world’s problems". (Friends of the Earth:

OK, but how many more times does this message have to be hammered home before more far-reaching conclusions are drawn? The multinationals and their political stooges will never be accountable to summits or the mass of the population. The only social force which can exert some restraining power over the capitalist system is the working class – because of its role in producing society’s wealth and through its collective cohesion – when it is well organised and on the offensive.

To avoid environmental catastrophe and eliminate poverty for good, however, workers must use their strength to secure a fundamental shift in the way society is run. A socialist system, based on the democratic control of the working class, would be motivated by people’s needs not the relentless drive for profit. On that basis, it would be possible to implement a plan of production which ensured that environmental sustainability went hand-in-hand with economic development.

The World Summit’s emphasis on big business was a stark illustration of untrammelled capitalism. Capitalism is based on the brutal exploitation of workers, peasants and natural resources. It cannot be reformed to make it act ‘responsibly’. The environmental and anti-capitalist movements must call for revolutionary change.

Manny Thain


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