Environmentalism’s Woodstock: The UN "World Summit on Sustainable Development"

by Steven Hayward
Pacific Research Institute


Cambria CA – In two weeks some 60,000 members of the international chattering class will assemble in Johannesburg, South Africa for the United Nations’ “World Summit on Sustainable Development” (WSSD). The unctuousness of U.N. gabfests can always prompt a smile, as they chiefly produce paperwork sufficient to supply several recycling plants in perpetuity. The U.N.’s Environmental Programme (UNEP), for example, is about to conduct a study of environmental conditions in Palestinian territories. One wonders whether they will reach the bold conclusion that terrorism is incompatible with sustainable development.

These U.N. meetings are the Woodstock for NGOs, non-government organizations. These are better understood as the self-appointed pressure groups who purport to represent the public interest precisely because they never have to face voters. They thrive on “dialogue” and the promulgation of endless declarations, pledges, commitments, ministerial statements, lists of principles and goals, resolutions, frameworks, and annexes. These myriad statements are always bulked with talk of interdependence, solidarity, collaboration, stakeholders, public-private partnerships, policy integration, and empowerment. And that’s just on the first page.

Occasionally the process produces a treaty, such as the Kyoto protocol. Always it produces agreement to have more conferences. They are, after all, inside work with no heavy lifting, and well catered to boot.

The WSSD is a follow-up to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which was merely the latest, though most prominent, in a series of U.N. environmental conferences stretching back to 1972. The WSSD is hoping to build upon the principal work product of the Rio summit, a document known as “Agenda 21,” which has been described as “a road map to a postindustrial, postmodern era of economic, political and environmental sanity.” As one might expect from a U.N. gathering devoted to such a fulsome purpose, Agenda 21 is the size of a New York telephone directory and therefore defends itself against the risk of being read.

The blather-to-substance ratio is pretty high, the predictable outcome of a grab-bag process where every NGO’s wish-list is incorporated in windy bureaucratic prose such as establishing “modalities for operationalization.” It is expected that everyone will have the good manners to overlook the vague generalities or contradictions between sections of the Agenda. A typical example: “Governments should adopt policies at the national level regarding a decentralized approach to land-resource management, delegating responsibility to rural organizations.” Doesn’t a decentralized approach mean not adopting policies at the national level?

Implementing Agenda 21 is the objective of the WSSD, and the draft plan that will be discussed and ratified in Johannesburg offers some specific policy goals in an attempt to move beyond the generalities of Agenda 21. There appears repeatedly in the draft plan another non-specific statement from the Rio conference that is clearly intended to create the authority for all kinds of redistributive mischief: “in view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities” (emphasis added). Translation: Let’s shake down the rich countries, especially the United States.

The good news is that President Bush isn’t going to the summit. By rejecting the Kyoto Protocol last year, Bush has shown that the U.S. isn’t playing patsy at these meetings anymore. Without the U.S. rolling over, how long can the U.N. process be sustained?

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