Summit or Plummet?

September 8, 2002

By Michael Jessen

The words flowed like wine as the World Summit on Sustainable Development came to an end. As 104 heads of state each put in five minutes at the microphone, the oratory was eloquent, but will it be effective?

Obviously, only time will tell. As Prime Minister Jean Chretien ( said, Canadians "believe that it is not just admirable goals that will ensure a better world for our children. It is concrete results. We prefer action to rhetoric." Many of the world's citizens -- not just Canadians -- are hungry for action and far too many are hungry for food.

Depending on who you ask, the 10-day gathering in Johannesburg, South Africa, was either "an absolute success" (Australia), "a dialogue of the deaf" (Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez), "a triumph for greed and self-interest, a tragedy for the poor and the environment" (Oxfam), or the “World Summit of Shameful Deals” (World Wildlife Fund). The WWF felt that governments led by the United States were trying to shirk responsibility by involving businesses in aid projects. Chavez was highly critical of the traditional format of UN summits, where negotiating teams finalized most issues before the arrival of world leaders. Because of this, the leaders had no real impact on the outcome, which was illogical. (For European reaction to WSSD, see

Unlike earlier environmental summits (Stockholm in 1972 and Rio de Janeiro in 1992), this conference had a broader agenda. Social and economic development issues shared the podium with the environment in recognition that these areas are interrelated. Johannesburg was not going to spawn the "next great manifesto." Johannesburg was really just about taking stock of how far we've come and how far we still have to go. It isn't pleasant to look in the mirror and realize that the condition of the poor and the environment get failing grades after 30 years. (A United Nations press release about highlights and implementation initiatives at the summit is at

About 1.2 billion people, or one fifth of humanity, live on less than a dollar a day. And many of the world's most underprivileged are going to have to wait even longer. The commitment to halve the proportion of people without access to sanitation by 2015 matches the goal of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water. That will still leave at least a billion citizens without a toilet or clean water.

World leaders flew around the world in pollution spewing jets and ate expensive South African food, while a short distance away in the countries of Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, 13 million people are threatened with famine.

"Spend more money on helping the poor people and children around the world rather than attending too many meetings," Analiz Vergara, a 14-year-old girl from Ecuador told world leaders. "Remember we cannot buy another planet."

Youth delegates admonished the heads of state for their lack of action. The young said they were tired of "brackets, commas, and implementation plans." See Severn Cullis-Suzuki's observations of the JoBurg summit at

Kjell Magne Bondevik ( -- Norway's Prime Minister -- gave one of the most heartfelt speeches that I read. "Empowered people make a difference. Investment in human resources is fundamental. Respect for human rights is key. Empowerment of women is vital. The rights of indigenous peoples must be respected. Sustainable development is to empower poor people. To this end, good governance, human rights and accountability is essential," said Bondevik.

"We have to correct the injustices of our time, injustice towards the world's poor, injustice towards our grandchildren," Bondevik concluded. "As we leave Johannesburg, we will be held accountable. Together we have to make the difference. This is what political leadership is all about." Bondevik made a point of underlining the "we".

Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General ( said action starts with governments. "The richest countries must lead the way," Annan said. "They have the wealth. They have the technology. And they contribute disproportionately to global environmental problems."

But governments cannot do it alone, he warned. "Civil society groups have a critical role, as partners, advocates and watchdogs," Annan stated. "So do commercial enterprises. Without the private sector, sustainable development will remain only a distant dream. We are not asking corporations to do something different from their normal business; we are asking them to do their normal business differently."

And therein lie two of the seeds that just may make Johannesburg a big stepping-stone to saving the Earth. Since Stockholm and Rio, experts, interest groups and ordinary people have made inroads into the policy-making process. Also business is beginning to recognize its wider responsibility towards people, communities and the environment. (See for the International Institute for Sustainable Development's list of 10 successes and 10 failures since Rio's Earth Summit.)

The United States played a curious role at this summit with President George W. Bush preferring to stay home and plan a war against Iraq. The American delegation played a pivotal role in watering down resolutions on environmental standards, corporate accountability, and renewable energy. Beyond renewable energy, other key recommendations in the 70-page final declaration included these:

Trade: The text reaffirms the idea of phasing out agricultural and other trade-distorting subsidies, but it does not actually eliminate subsidies important to the United States and Europe.

Water and sanitation: Halve the number of people without access to sanitation by 2015, matching the goal for those without access to safe drinking water. The United States initially lobbied against a specific goal but later accepted it.

Biodiversity: The stated goal is to “significantly reduce” the loss of species by 2015. The declaration does not set a specific number or percentage of species as a protection goal.

Fisheries: Nations agreed to restore depleted fish stocks by 2015, recognizing that oceans are essential to ecosystems and a critical source of food, especially in poor countries.

Chemicals: The declaration states that by 2020, chemicals will be made and used to minimize severe harmful impacts.

Good governance: Proposed by the United States and Europe, this wording emphasizes the need to fight corruption and promote democracy. It does not, however, make good governance a condition for receiving foreign aid.

Much of the language in the Johannesburg action plan includes words like "concrete efforts," "substantial reductions," "fundamental changes," and "in a timely manner." It is up to all of us to maintain the momentum of Johannesburg, to keep the toes of our political leaders in the fire of sustainable development.

Perhaps deliberately invoking the image of a jumbo jet, Gro Harlem Brundtland -- UN World Health Organization director general -- said the equivalent of a planeload full of children are killed every 45 minutes from environmentally related illnesses. "I can't believe that," said Roni Moyo, a South African working as a volunteer at the conference, directing world leaders to the side exits on the last day of debates. "But if they were talking here about changing that ... then I suppose this was an OK meeting."

It is up to all of us to ensure the results of this conference are more than OK.

ONE GREEN STEP - Dominique Conseil, President of Avenda ( the cosmetics company, has said it very eloquently: "Saving the Earth is entirely up to us as individuals," says Conseil in his online letter. "If you focus on what you can control, it will make a great difference and you will feel good about your integrity. Let others worry about what they can control. The problem is not out there, it is in the here and now! You’re in charge. In the liberal world we live in, manufacturers will go where consumers decide to take them. We, the human species, will have had more impact on the ecosystem of the planet in 100 years, than nature’s elements had in hundreds of thousands of years… The planet does not belong to us. We belong to this planet." Now those are words to raise a glass to.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at

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