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A Planetary Defeat: The Failure of Global Environmental Reform

This article is reconstructed from the notes for several talks delivered in Johannesburg, South Africa during events leading up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, August-September 2002.

The first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 generated hopes that the world would at long last address its global ecological problems and introduce a process of sustainable development. Now, with a second summit being held ten years later in Johannesburg, that dream has to a large extent faded. Even the principal supporters of this process have made it clear that they do not expect much to be achieved as a result of the Johannesburg summit, which is likely to go down in history as an absolute failure. We need to ask ourselves why.

The first reason is perhaps the most obvious, at least to environmentalists. The decade between Rio and Johannesburg has seen the almost complete failure of the Rio Earth Summit and its Agenda 21 to produce meaningful results. This has highlighted the weaknesses of global environmental summitry.

Second, the U.S. refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention on Biological Diversity—the two main conventions evolving out of Rio—has raised questions about the capacity of capitalism to address the world environmental crisis. The United States, as the hegemonic power of the capitalist system, further signaled its rejection of global environmental reform by announcing that President Bush would not be attending the Johannesburg summit.

Third, both the rapid globalization of the neoliberal agenda in the 1990s and the emergence of a massive antiglobalization movement in Seattle in November 1999 have highlighted the system’s antagonism toward all attempts to promote economic and environmental justice.

Fourth, the World Summit on Sustainable Development is occurring in a period of economic and financial crisis that bodes ill for those concerned with the issues of the environment and third world development. The capitalist world economy as a whole is experiencing global recession. Hardest hit are the countries of the global South, which—thanks to neoliberal globalization—are caught in worsening economic crises over which they have less and less control.

Fifth, we are witnessing the growth of a new virulent wave of imperialism as the United States has begun a world war on terrorism in response to the events of September 11, 2001. This is taking the form of U.S. military interventions not only in Afghanistan but also potentially against Iraq, along with stepped-up U.S. military activities in locations throughout the third world. Under these circumstances, war is likely to trump the environment.

Sixth, South Africa, which nearly ten years ago became a symbol of human freedom with the overthrow of apartheid, was chosen mainly for that reason as the site of the second earth summit. It has now come to symbolize for many something quite different: the rapacious growth of neoliberalism and the refusal to address major environmental and social crises.

The Undermining of Rio

The inability of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to set in motion processes that would lead to genuine sustainable development has negatively affected perceptions of what is possible as a result of the Johannesburg summit. In the words of the sixteen environmentalists who contributed to The Jo’burg Memo, written for the World Summit on Sustainable Development and edited by Wolfgang Sachs:

Rio 1992 reveals itself a vain promise. While governments at the Earth Summit had committed themselves in front of the eyes and ears of the world to curb environmental decline and social impoverishment, no reversal of these trends can be seen a decade down the line. On the contrary the world is sinking deeper into poverty and ecological decline, notwithstanding the increase of wealth in specific places….Fifty years from now, when the Earth is likely to be hotter in temperature, poorer in diversity of living beings, and less hospitable to many people, Rio might be seen as the last exit missed on the road to decline.*

How can it be that the Rio Earth Summit, which ten years ago was thought to mark a decisive change in the human relation to the environment, has come to be seen as such a colossal failure? The answer is that it was undermined by global capital both from within and without.

A close examination of the Rio summit reveals that it was far from the earth-friendly phenomenon that it professed to be. The Convention on Biological Diversity was much more about deciding who was to have the right to exploit living nature than protecting the earth’s biodiversity. (The Convention was nonetheless opposed by the United States because it supported the South’s rights to its genetic resources over the demands of the U.S. biotechnology industry.) The UN Framework for Climate Change, which later became the Kyoto Protocol, was resisted by the United States and other countries because of its attacks on the auto-petroleum economy. The Agreement on Forest Principles, which emerged out of Rio, never even mentioned the problem of deforestation in its “forest principles,” but was concerned much more with the sovereign right of each country to use/exploit its forests as it pleased. The forty chapters of Agenda 21 presented economic growth under free market principles as the primary objective, within which a commitment to the environment was to be situated. “The market economy of the world” was seen as the place in which all environmental problems would be addressed. As Pratap Chatterjee and Matthias Finger observed in The Earth Brokers, the leading critique of the Rio Earth Summit, “The only mention of corporations in Agenda 21 was to promote their role in sustainable development. No mention was made of corporations’ role in the pollution of the planet” (p. 116).

These results stemmed in part from direct pressure exerted by capital. Important lobbying came from the Business Council for Sustainable Development, led by Swiss industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny. Membership on the Business Council included top officers of leading multinational corporations: Chevron Oil, Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Nippon Steel, S.C. Johnson and Son, Dow Chemical, Browning-Ferris Industries, ALCOA, Dupont, Royal/Dutch Shell, and others. Schmidheiny’s 1992 book Changing Course, which was written to influence the Rio summit, promoted a view that the market mechanism if allowed to operate freely was the only conceivable means of achieving sustainable development. The primary agents of such a transition to a more sustainable world were to be multinational corporations, which would supposedly extend principles of total quality management and full cost pricing to encompass environmental concerns. The Business Council for Sustainable Development played a role, through the corporations associated with it, in financing the 1992 Earth Summit, and was brought directly into the core planning of the summit.

If the Rio summit was transformed from within into a vehicle that mainly served the interests of capital, processes were going on outside Rio that further weakened any attempts at global environmental reform. Even while the Rio summit was taking place, the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations was proceeding. With the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, the leading capitalist states had created an international structure to promote neoliberal free market principles while making environmental reforms in individual countries much more difficult. Globalization of capitalism was to supplant local control, countries were to be encouraged to exploit their natural resources to the fullest, public goods were to be opened up to relentless privatization, and environmental regulations were to be geared to the lowest common denominator in order to not interfere with free trade. The WTO was meant to mark the total triumph of capitalism, limiting environment and development policies in the third world to those acceptable to the ruling interests of the wealthy capitalist states.

It was the promise of development in the periphery of the capitalist world economy that was invariably used as the justification for watering down and effectively eliminating meaningful global environmental change. As conceived by the centers of world capital, development could only be sustained by pursuing the neoliberal agenda of opening up whole countries and every single sphere of economic activity to market forces. Far from developing the global South, this strategy, however, only served to deepen the economic stagnation or decline of most third world countries and to reinforce a growing gap between rich and poor countries—along with accelerated destruction of the environment. Still, insofar as it served the economic interests of the rich countries, it was treated by the dominant powers as an unmitigated success.

A quick look at global trends in relation to the environment and development shows how disastrous this period of unfettered global capitalism over the last ten years has proven to be. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are at their highest in the last 420,000 years. CO2 emissions (excluding other greenhouse gases) increased 9 percent globally between 1990 and 2000 and in the United States by double that rate. The fourteen warmest years recorded since measurements began in 1866 have all been since 1980, with the decade of the 1990s the hottest on record. Global consumption of water is doubling every twenty years, much faster than population growth. By the mid-1990s about 40 percent of world population in some eighty countries were suffering from serious water shortages. The United Nations has projected that by 2025 two-thirds of the world population may be suffering from water stress. Water tables are falling under large expanses of agricultural land in China, India, and the United States due to the overpumping of ground water for irrigation. The overall species extinction rate is now at least a thousand times (and maybe as much as ten thousand times) faster than the normal or background rate of extinction. Habitat destruction, particularly of tropical forests, threatens as many as half of the world’s species over the course of this century. Coral reefs, second only to forests in biological wealth, are being degraded at an alarming rate. Over a quarter of coral reefs have now been lost, up from 10 percent in 1992, and the share to be lost is expected to rise to 40 percent by 2010. Genetically modified crops pose once again the issue of the sorcerer’s apprentice, as agribusiness continues to alter the bases of life and our food supply in ways radically at variance with evolutionary processes. Commercial technologies are altering the genetic and chemical composition of what we eat, with very little consideration of consequences beyond questions of profitability.*

Where development itself is concerned, there have been no appreciable gains in the relative position of the global South, which, taken as a whole, is falling further behind the rich countries. Income inequality has been rapidly increasing both within countries and between countries over the last two decades. Fifty-two countries experienced negative growth over the 1990s. Between 1975 and 2000 per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa (in purchasing power parity terms) dropped from one-sixth to only one-fourteenth of that of the rich countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The income of the richest 10 percent of the U.S. population (around 25 million people) now equals that of the poorest 43 percent of world population or some 2 billion people (United Nations, Human Development Report 2002, pp. 17–19).

The Johannesburg Summit: Grasping at Straws

Given this generally dismal picture of past accomplishments, there is reason to question what can be accomplished as a result of the Johannesburg summit. What might lead us to believe that the record ten years from now will not be far worse than what confronts us today a decade after Rio? Even amongst those environmentalists who are sharply critical of global neoliberalism, multinational corporations, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, there is a tendency to seek out some sort of compromise in the face of defeat. Environmentalists have been driven to such a state that they frequently seek salvation in the very institutions to which they attribute the present evils.

One example of this is The Jo’burg Memo. The environmentalist authors of this memo are on the left in the sense of identifying with the antiglobalization movement. They argue that neoliberalism and particularly the WTO crushed the global environmental reform program introduced at Rio. They believe that the world needs to put the environment and social justice first. But their solutions for the World Summit on Sustainable Development sound like an attempt to find a middle ground with current economic policies, without challenging the fundamentals of the neoliberal project, much less the logic of capital accumulation itself.

What crushed the hopes engendered by Rio, according to The Jo’burg Memo, was “a fateful style of economics.” What is needed therefore is a new style of economics, less opposed to sustainability. What would this new style of economics involve? Their more general proposals in this respect are derived from the work of U.S. environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken, a contributor to the memo, who has argued in favor of what he calls “natural capitalism”—or capitalism that fully incorporates nature into its system of value (Mother Jones, April 1997). As stated in The Jo’burg Memo, “as long as corporations’ short and long term interests diverge from the public interest, no tinkering, reforms, regulations, or World Summits will change the status quo.” The problem then becomes one of ensuring that corporations conform to the public interest with respect to the environment. This can be achieved by turning environmental amenities, which have no value from the standpoint of the market, into goods that have market value. An economic system is not fully “capitalist,” we are informed, unless everything—including nature—is treated as capital. Moreover, the potential for “radical resource productivity”—the more efficient utilization of energy and materials through new technology—means there is no incompatibility between rapid and unlimited capitalist economic growth and environmental sustainability. Environmental reform must therefore tap into the “unrivaled effectiveness” of markets.

At an international level, according to The Jo’burg Memo, what is needed is a “global deal,” particularly between the global North and the global South, that would make development sustainable, while at the same time enhancing the developmental opportunities of the South.* Among the proposals is the notion that it is necessary to “frame the WTO sustainably.” Thus the WTO, which up to now has been concerned solely with the penetration of capital into every nook and cranny of the globe, must be converted into a much broader institution concerned also with environmental sustainability. This is to be accomplished by launching, through the WTO, a “Multilateral Agreement on Sustainable Investment,” which would establish verifiable guidelines for the foreign direct investment of multinational corporations. Nor do the reform plans stop with the WTO. “Both the IMF and the World Bank,” the memo states, “need to be re-directed, democratized and re-structured” to take into account environmental needs. The IMF should abandon its structural adjustment programs. Furthermore, a “balance of power” needs to be established between Bretton Woods institutions, namely, the IMF, the World Bank and GATT, and the UN system. This would make possible an equilibrium between financial goals and more universal goals, such as those of the environment and social justice. One major step forward, it is suggested, would be the creation of a World Environment Organization within the UN system. Another key proposal of The Jo’burg Memo is to establish a convention on corporate accountability that will allow for legal redress in the face of corporate wrongdoing.

Similar proposals for change have been introduced by the International Forum on Globalization, a leading antiglobalization organization based in San Francisco and headed by John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander. In its Intrinsic Consequences of Economic Globalization on the Environment, prepared for the Johannesburg summit, the International Forum on Globalization recommends “reigning in corporate power.” In addition to the creation of an Organization for Corporate Accountability, which would monitor corporations and provide information on their business practices, they propose cutting the staffs of the IMF and the World Bank and creating a separate International Finance Organization under the UN system. The main fault of the present world economy, we are told, is its emphasis on the globalization of economic relations. Instead, a principle of localization should be applied wherever possible in order to promote ecological well-being and sustainable development.

There is no doubt that the intention of these proposed reforms is to promote social and environmental justice. Yet, such proposals seek to strike an accord with neoliberal institutions while leaving the underlying logic of the system intact. One thing should be clear to those who do not simply deny the harsh reality of twenty-first century capitalism: that the WTO and its sister institutions cannot promote sustainability since this would contradict their whole reason for existence. Their role is to facilitate the accumulation of global capital and protect the big banks and financial centers up North. A “balance of power” strategy that sets UN system institutions against Bretton Woods institutions will inevitably come up short, since it is predicated on the vain illusion that real power is based in these institutions rather than in the vested interests they serve.

The main lesson to be derived from the failure of global environmental reform associated with the Rio summit is that there is no possibility for an effective movement for social justice and sustainability separate from the struggle to create an alternative society. An approach that acknowledges the failure of global ecological reform, and at the same time adopts the position made famous by Margaret Thatcher, that “There is No Alternative” to the present market-driven order, has little to offer in the way of real change. Its initiatives are limited to a few alterations or additions to international organizations, the mythical conversion of corporations into “public citizens,” or the illusion that the earth’s salvation lies in treating nature (and thus everything in existence) as capital.

The Real Struggle

The truth is that no “global deal” will be arrived at as a result of the Johannesburg summit. The leading capitalist powers are not prepared to strike a deal that would interfere with opportunities to make more and more profits. The main issue supposedly on the table is that of free trade and development. The countries of the South are demanding that the North abide by its own principles by removing tariff and non-tariff barriers that protect Northern industry, in precisely the same fashion as the North demands that protectionist measures be removed in the South. Yet, neither genuine free trade nor environmental sustainability will be advanced by the summit talks. The rich countries at the center of the capitalist world system are not about to apply to themselves the same rules they impose on poor states in the periphery. Their goal is to continue to extract surplus from the periphery. Fiddling with their own trade barriers is not a means for achieving that end.

What we will see, as always, are further promises on the part of the wealthy capitalist states to provide capital in the form of loans, needed technological assistance, and some debt relief to the very poorest countries (those that are completely unable to pay). In return the rich countries will insist on the elimination of all barriers to capital erected in third world states, including such things as food subsidies to the poor, which are seen as distorting markets. Privatization of water and food are perceived as solutions, not as problems.

The way that the global struggle over sustainable development is now being played out can be seen quite clearly in the case of South Africa, which during the preparations for the Johannesburg summit had vowed to make it a true summit of the South. Tragically, the South African state has come more and more to symbolize the present period of global neoliberalism and imperial expansion. It is currently in a battle with its population over the privatization of water and basic services such as electricity. This is in sharp contrast to what was imagined only a decade ago when the overthrow of apartheid made South Africa one of the foremost symbols of the advance of human freedom. Today South Africa is the principal, subimperialist force behind the neoliberal penetration of the African continent through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). It is with this subimperialist South Africa that the United States is increasingly willing to deal, since its goals are not incompatible with those of the American Empire. None of this, however, has anything to do with genuine sustainable development.

But there is also another South Africa. In the last few years a militant mass movement has risen up in South Africa against neoliberalism and NEPAD—one that has its roots in the same townships that led the way in the fight against apartheid. This new anti-neoliberal, antiglobalization struggle is animated by a spirit of socialism and environmental justice in a way that belies the view that there is no alternative. If the second earth summit, despite everything, still offers a rational basis for hope, this has less to do with the summit process itself than with the mass social action taking place in the streets of Johannesburg, Durban, and throughout the world. In the end there is only one absolute certainty in our uncertain future—that the global struggle for a just and sustainable future will continue.


* In addition to Sachs, such well-known environmentalists as Hilary French, Paul Hawken, Hazel Henderson, and Anita Roddick (of The Body Shop) were among the sixteen contributors to The Jo’burg Memo. The memo is available at

* United Nations Environment Programme, Global Outlook 3 (Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2002), pp. 150–52; Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2002 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), pp. 5–12; International Forum on Globalization, Intrinsic Consequences of Economic Globalization on the Environment: Interim Report (San Francisco: IFG, 2002), pp. 101, 146; Lester R. Brown, Eco-Economy (New York: W .W. Norton, 2001), pp. 9, 27, 71.

* The Worldwatch Institute also argues for a “global fair deal” in its report prepared for the Johannesburg summit. In Worldwatch’s case this means new “partnerships” between multinational corporations, NGOs, governments. and international organizations. See Worldwatch, State of the World 2002, pp. 183, 198.

2003, Volume 54, Issue 08 (January)
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