Heart to heart

A tongue-in-cheek report of a conversation overheard at a bar during a meeting of the Commission for Sustainable Development.

By Navroz K Dubash
Published: Wednesday 15 December 1993

-- (Credit: Ajit Ninan)Person 1: These international meetings get tiring, don't they?

Person 2: Well, more tiresome than tiring.

Person 1: Anyway, I think it's good that we are finally beginning to recognise environmental problems at the international level. My name is Donna Dogood. I used to work with the US Environmental Protection Agency, but now I work for the Global Organisation for Nature, Everywhere (GONE), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Washington DC.

Person 2: Jose Holistic, from the Local Organisation for Community Awareness (LOCA), Brazil. We work with local people's groups on low-income enhancement and resource conservation projects. I am afraid I do not share your post-Earth-Summit euphoria. I find it hard to understand how speeches, press conferences and negotiations about the placement of punctuation in official documents will make any difference to the people we work with.

Dogood: Surely, that is too harsh a judgement. I see the current spate of activity as a vindication of my organisation's work. From our early years of advocating preservation of the wilderness, we have moved on to encouraging sustainable and efficient energy and water use and the effective disposal of waste. We have also begun looking at how all these problems, combined with the population explosion, lead to potentially catastrophic global environmental problems. Admittedly, the Commission for Sustainable Development is not at a stage where it can formulate concrete and enforceable actions for all countries.

Holistic (interrupting): Excuse me, whose lifestyle are you out to change? Not mine. Nor that of people I work with. Of course, there are a few in my country who benefit from close contact with the West. The rest are too busy worrying about food, clothing and shelter to care about wilderness preservation, marginal health risks from industrial pollutants, or half-baked ideas about global destruction through ultra-violet rays or global warming.

Let me be honest. Your concerns are valid, but they are too much in the future for me. My organisation was created to empower local people and to organise the fight for control of local resources. You are only beginning to broaden your environmentalism to include development. I have never been an "environmentalist" and will never be if it means putting nature before people. I am here largely because the people in power in my country now listen more to your government than to its own people.

Forgive me if I sound angry, but as far as I am concerned, these negotiations are not about efficiency and global objectives, it is about inequality and local problems and the perpetuation of these problems by existing international power structures.

Dogood: You talk of changing existing power structures. I am more modest. I am guided by immediate problems on which I could have a positive impact. For example, I know that promoting energy efficiency -- in my country and in developing countries -- is cheaper than building economically wasteful and environmentally destructive thermal power plants. I focus on using the technical skills and political influences that I have to convince governments to implement energy efficiency measures. We could spend all our time complaining about unequal power, but I prefer to use sound analysis and take practical measures to solve the problem.

Holistic: You are looking at only a few pieces of the puzzle, the pieces that suit your analytical methods. There are many things to which we cannot put a price.

Dogood: But we cannot throw up our hands and say some things do not have a price. Like it or not, we have to operate within the market system. We must find a way to incorporate our values into the market framework. For instance, I agree with you that undervaluing natural resources encourages wasteful use. My organisation is looking into ways to incorporate depletion of natural resources into national income accounting methods.

Holistic: There are values -- other than economic ones -- that cannot be ignored. Your approach deifies materialism and equates it with happiness. It assumes a common set of values -- irrespective of geography, history, socioeconomic status and culture. My approach would be to give control over natural resources back to local communities. This would enable collective decision-making on resource use, based on the values practised by the local community.

Dogood: But you are ignoring the global dimensions to these problems. Unsustainable resource use at local levels has a global impact. Destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, for instance, deprives future generations the aesthetic and medical benefits of its biodiversity. Rapid population growth puts pressures on the globe's resource base and waste processing capabilities. Holistic: Concern over global population growth is the best illustration of the distorted perspective of this conference. When a Bangladeshi consumes less than 1 per cent of the energy consumed by an American, what does it matter to you if many more Bangladeshis are born? It is an important problem for the Bangladeshis who have to feed those people.

I have repeatedly heard Northern delegates say your attempts to curb greenhouse gas emissions will be in vain because people in the developing world would also demand your style of development and therefore emit increasing amounts of greenhouse gases.

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