Are we ready for global unity?

Published: Wednesday 15 July 1992

EVERY time an American family decides to take its car out, the resulting carbon dioxide adds to the existing stock in the atmosphere for at least a hundred years. When the polar cap cannot bear the trapped heat, it will melt and drown the distant country of Maldives or Bangladesh. Every time somebody in the United Kingdom decides to use a fire extinguisher with halons, it is the Australians and the Chileans who are likely to feel the impact of the ozone hole. And every time an Indian uses DDT to kill a few mosquitoes, he can rest assured that one day the substance will find its way into the sea, probably as far away as Antarctica, and affect some animal life there.

That is the integrated character of the global ecosystem we live in. And it is precisely this scientific knowledge that has, over the years, created a powerful environmental movement demanding a change in the way we live and behave. But are we truly ready for one world?

Somewhere along the line, Rio stopped asking itself that question. And as soon as that happened, it became a meeting of people who did not want to give up anything: money, technology, sovereignty or even words. The US wanted the world's genes, but did not want to share its biotechnology. The European Community was more generous with its words and purse strings, but did not have the courage to stand out alone against the US. The oil-rich Arab countries felt so threatened about the adverse impacts on their oil revenues that they resisted every move to talk about reducing overconsumption or promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy, but wanted the South's forests to be kept as global carbon sinks and reservoirs. The South, of course, with nothing more than its sovereignty to lose, was not prepared to lose its last fig leaf. George Bush kept the conference mesmerised with his words even while he was in Washington DC, and finally when he did come to Rio, he gave nothing away.

What destroyed Rio was its psychological climate: the lack of trust and faith. There was no graciousness or charity, or caring or sharing. Steadily, the conference degenerated into a debate over words and how to find sentences that would satisfy over 125 governments. The obvious result was insipid and uninspiring documents. Nor was there the will to carry anything forward. The massive Agenda 21 -- the blueprint for sustainable development -- never got any money to back words with true intentions.

Where does this leave us all? Simply where we started. The work of those who helped to create the global environmental concern has just begun. But this time round, hopefully, they will work less with their governments and more amongst themselves to create a better world.

There has to be a greater dialogue and debate between northern and southern NGOs on what constitutes a better world. For example, the world's forests will not be governed better, as northern governments and NGOs proposed, if 150 governments together begin to control them through an international law.

There is an old adage: too many cooks spoil the broth. And it is important to remember that this applies to governments too. Northern NGOs' faith in their governments is indeed very touching, but it is definitely not shared equally by southern NGOs who have relatively stronger anti-statist positions.

The central dilemma is a cultural one in the end. How do we manage a world with such extraordinary cultural diversity? The differences between northern and southern NGOs over the forest convention had their roots in dramatically different cultural perceptions. Most northern NGOs do not have the same faith in the wisdom and energy of local communities to manage their local environment on a sustainable basis as do southern NGOs. Leading US NGOs argued that their local communities only want to log the forests. That is the only cultural relationship that most local communities in the US have with their forests. But the relationship of the women in the Himalayas, who led the Chipko movement, with their forests is of a totally different kind. Their forests are a part of their food system and constitute their daily survival base. Southern NGOs, therefore, found it hard to accept globalised control of forests as a step forward towards sustainable forest management.

Not only is a better appreciation of such cultural differences needed on either side, but also a recognition of the inherent need to maintain such differences, if we want to develop a correct global perspective about human-nature interactions. But doing this is not going to be easy when the power to disseminate information is so lopsided.

Getting over such hurdles is where the future challenge lies. And then probably the next conference will be held in an atmosphere of greater trust.

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