To Summits, traversing slippery slopes

By Anupam Goswami
Published: Thursday 15 September 1994

-- WHATEVER happened to the North-South wrangle on the consumption issue? Two grandiose international meets are around the corner: on population next fortnight, and on social development 6 months later. In terms of attendance and task, they will belong to the genre of global summits concerned with sustainable development. Yet their official agendas indicate that the issue of inequitable, or unsustainable, consumption will not be a highly-discussed one.

Not that it may have vanished. Quite to the contrary, it is constantly iterated by environmentalist NGOs, journalists, academia from the South. Even the South's national governments are prone to air it in their saner moments. What they have stopped is press for sustainable and consensual consumption as a point of international negotiation.

Five years ago, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development at Rio, the delegations of several developing countries showed vociferous clarity that runaway consumption by the developed countries was among the major causes of environmental degradation, as well as for the jarringly apparent model of unsustainable development being pursued all over the world. This time, at the Population Summit in Cairo, the belief will probably be restricted to a few of the African nations.

Ironically, the developing countries have never denied the tremendous strain that their fast-growing populations place on their own as well as the global environment. Only, they have also been known to assert that the apparent environmental sins they commit by numbers are more than matched by those caused by the quantities of resources consumed by the developed countries. Concerted support from the South to this argument led population summits in the past, beginning from Alma Ata, to recognise that no population policy would be viable unless accompanied by equitable and sustainable economies, within nations and between them.

This conviction, as well as its assertion, seems to have been diluted these days. Delegations from most Asian countries will come to Cairo carrying documentary proof, in the form of country reports on population policy, that the North's insistence that population growth be recognised as a graver problem -- and that curbing it the more urgent task -- has prevailed. And while some Latin American countries have announced their opposition to the precept and practice of birth control, their dissent is entirely influenced by the religious sensibilities of the Vatican.

Overall, despite the limited opposition, the Cairo summit will see the developing countries more firmly committed than ever before to precise population figures through increased investments in technology-intensive birth control programmes. Of course, the North will gladly promise to be forthcoming with money and scientific knowledge, because it is precisely this that allows it to run scot free from charges of excessive consumption.

Indeed, this trend has been marked at almost all the summits that make up the range of international development negotiations. Even at Rio, green camaraderie among governments was more prevalent in talks of how the North would help the South to go in for schemes of sustainable development. The industrialised countries made few commitments about reducing the burden placed on the global environment and the world's natural resources by their own consumption patterns. A US negotiator bluntly warned the UNCED's third PREPCOM meeting in August 1991, "The American way of life is not for negotiation."

Since then, the need to rescue their economies from industrial recession has actually hardened the attitude of the developed countries. Their governments' anxious attempts to enhance production are sprouting only this year, but already agencies like the World Bank have estimated that the OECD group will double its economic output by AD 2000. Moreover, some of this growth is to be achieved through corollary production in the developing countries willing to link up the North's economy. Obviously, many of latter are sufficiently under the diktat of globalisation to opt for silence over any accrual of the already gargantuan appetite of the North for the world's resources.

For some time to come, therefore summits for sustainable development will see nations traversing paths smoother than those that will call for tough steps to curb spiralling and increasedly inegalitarian consumption of global resources. The concern for empowerment of women at the Cairo meet has already been made benign by the lack of any quantifiable indicators by which nations will be judged on this count. Similarly, the draft declaration for the World Summit for Social Development talks even more good naturedly of increasing global employment, without discussing sustainable economic models for the same purpose. Enthusiastic as many governments from the South have been about these 2 meets, they can hardly be sanguine that they are not slipping up somewhere.

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