Let's get political

The environmental movement is politically weak. That is the lesson from the Rio summit

By Praful Bidwai
Published: Wednesday 15 July 1992

-- NEVER before has an idea with so much power and such a profoundly universal appeal been turned so quickly into an issue of narrow, sectarian self-interest of the powerful. Environmentalism, which many of us thought was an idea whose time had come the world over, is now like a dream that turned sour -- as soon as it was appropriated by the rich and the greedy, by capital.

And yet, precisely those interests and agencies which have caused environmental havoc and brought the world so close to the edge of the precipice have now been entrusted with protecting the globe in the name of humanity and its common heritage, in the name of "our common future".

That is what the Rio summit sanctified. How do we draw up its balance sheet? To be fair, the UNCED deliberations did put a whole series of ideas on the table. It focussed sharply on some major issues of our times. It at least posed the question of differential responsibility for the parlous state to which the global environment has been reduced. And it played a tremendously educative role for large numbers of people all over the world.

However, in operational terms, the Rio summit achieved very, very little. The conventions settled there were soft, the negotiated texts woolly. Even in terms of the UNCED bureaucracy's mandatory optimism, the outcome cannot be considered satisfactory. There was violent disagreement not just on specific issues but on broad approaches and general doctrines. The leader of the world's biggest economy, USA, refused to sign the biodiversity convention. The treaties that were signed place few obligations on anyone to do anything.

If that was not bad enough, the rich refused to put their money where their mouths are. In place of the US $125 billion in new and additional funding that is needed to roll back the damage to the environment, and instead of the initial US $10 billion that UNCED was hoping for, the North's commitments ranged, according to various estimates, between US $2 and US $5 billion, itself an embarrassment. Only one of the seven richest nations promised to raise aid (such as it is) to 0.7 per cent of the GDP by the end of the century.

In return for these crumbs, the South jettisoned principle, dignity, self-respect, even self-interest, accepting compromise after unconscionable compromise and beating retreat after ignominious retreat.

Last but not the least, if anyone thought that the Rio summit was going to put, or help substantially to put, the world on the trajectory of sustainable development, they could not have been more sorely disappointed at the end of the 12 days.

Judged by any criterion, then, the Rio conference was on balance a failure,which appears monumental in the light of two facts. First, this was the biggest gathering of the world's leaders since World War II and the establishment of the UN; no other issue has attracted that kind of attention for 47 years.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, opportunity at Rio was lost not so much because ideas and arguments to make sustainable development work are lacking, but simply because the existing structures of power in the world and the myopia and the greed of those who wield it simply leave no room for that kind of development.

The reasons for the Rio summit's failure are many: inability of northern governments to distance themselves from powerful interests tied up with rampant consumerism, gargantuan overconsumption of resources and pollution; rising pressure on, and erosion of, southern environmental resources; unequal and increasingly inequitous distribution of decision-making power in the world; lack of cohesion within the South; growing pro-northern biases in the UN system and multilateral institutions especially since the end of the cold war, and their complete domination by a handful of western powers, notably the US; lack of awareness of global issues within an otherwise fairly significant and growing Green opinion in the West.

In the final instance, these failures are not environmental in nature. They are political, they pertain to control over governments by peoples and the ability of the latter to influence and make decisions pertaining to themselves.

The critical issues involved here pertain to democracy, equity, empowerment of ordinary people, and their effective ability to demand and secure justice from the system of governance. This is true of forest-dwelling tribals in Bihar or Sarawak, or of Afghanistan or Zambia fighting the US on global warming.

The failure at Rio has one major lesson for all of us. The environmental movement, to the extent we can talk about it globally, is politically weak. Many of us tended in the past to overemphasise environmental issues, the interconnectedness of things, the commonness of our global fate; we articulated a whole range of "deep ecology" concerns about nature and society.

It is now time to effect a shift and move into politics: the politics of moulding public opinion; of articulating genuine grassroots concerns; the politics of empowerment of those who are disenfranchised by the owners and managers of the horrendous global system that is at the root of environmental destruction -- precisely those the Rio summit failed to confront in a real way.

---Praful Bidwai is senior assistant editor with The Times of India, New Delhi.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.