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September 2002 • Vol 2, No. 8 •

Saving the Planet 

By Ignacio Ramonet

“Agenda 21,” adopted by 178 countries in 1992 as the world goal for the environment, includes the elimination of abject poverty and the supplying of clean and sufficient water. The distance between words and deeds is seen here.

Afghan Ajbibi, 10, plays next to her mud house in Shomali village, 30 kilometers north of Kabul, Afghanistan, July 14, 2002. She came back with her family from Pakistan two weeks earlier. There are some 1.2 million Afghan refugees who returned home since the fall of the Taliban in November,2001, the fastest refugee influx ever in the history of mankind. (AP Photo)

Those hoping for a normal life face discouraging obstacles. In addition to the long drought, the destruction from the US war, the UN's World Food Program is being forced to cut rations for millions of hungry and vulnerable Afghans because international donors have failed to pay promised cash.

Johannesburg will host the world summit on sustainable development from 26 August to 4 September—an event of great importance, the biggest gathering of government leaders and heads of state in a decade, 60,000 people from more than 180 countries. The aim is to find answers to humanity’s most pressing problems: how to save the environment, eradicate poverty, save our planet.

The planet is in a sorry state. The diagnosis of its ills was apparent a decade ago at the first earth summit, held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. Alarm bells rang: global warming was a fact; world supplies of drinking water were running out; forests were disappearing; many species were en route to extinction; and poverty was destroying the lives of more than 1billion of our fellow humans.

The world’s leaders agreed that “the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries, which is a matter of grave concern, aggravating poverty and imbalances.” They adopted two conventions, one on climate change and one on biodiversity, as well as the plan known as Agenda 21, to promote sustainable development worldwide.

The idea of sustainability is simple: development is sustainable if future generations inherit a quality of environment at least equal to that inherited by their predecessors1. Sustainable development presupposes the application of three principles: the precautionary principle, adopting a preventive rather than remedial approach; the principle of solidarity between all peoples of the world and between the present generation and those to come; and the principle of people participation in decision-making2.

In many areas things have not improved in 10 years. They have got worse. With the acceleration of free-market globalization, the “unsustainable pattern of consumption and production” has become even more entrenched. Social inequality is now at levels not seen since the times of the pharaohs. The fortunes of the world’s three richest individuals now exceed the total wealth of the inhabitants of its 48 poorest countries. The ecological destruction of the biosphere by the rich countries has also accelerated.

Although the 30 most developed countries represent only 20 percent of world population, they produce and consume 85 percent of synthetic chemical products, 80 percent of non-renewable energy and 40 percent of drinking water. And their emissions of greenhouse gases per inhabitant are 10 times greater than those of the countries of the South3. During the past decade emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, increased by 9 percent.

In the United States, the leading polluter, the figure increased by 18 percent. More than a billion people still do not have access to drinkable water, and almost 3 billion (half of humanity) have only water of inferior quality. Thirty thousand people die every day as a result of drinking this polluted water—10 times the number killed in the attacks of 11 September.

The devastation of forests continues; 17m hectares disappear each year—an area four times the size of Switzerland. And since there are fewer and fewer trees to absorb the carbon dioxide, the greenhouse effect and global warming worsen. More animal species are being eliminated—13 percent of all bird species have gone, 25 percent of mammals, 34 percent of fish, a mass extinction the planet has not seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.

The delegates who will gather for the summit travel with great hopes. But these will come to nothing if national egotism, the fetishism of growth, the logic of the market and the law of profit are allowed to take over. That was what happened during the preparatory conference in Bali in June. As a result it was unable to adopt a plan of action for sustainable development and ended in stalemate.

To save the planet it is imperative that the powerful nations meeting in Johannesburg commit themselves on at least seven key issues: an international program for renewable energy, prioritizing energy access for the South; undertakings on access to and supply of clean drinking water, aiming to reduce by the year 2015 the number of people who still lack this basic right; measures to protect forests, as already agreed in the biodiversity convention adopted in Rio in 1992; the establishment of juridical frameworks to make companies answerable for their ecological impact, and reaffirming the precautionary principle as the governing principle of all commercial activity; initiatives to modify the rules of the World Trade Organization in the light of United Nations principles for the protection of ecosystems, and the standards of the International Labor Organization; a commitment by developed countries to contribute at least 0.7 percent of their wealth to development aid;* binding recommendations to wipe out the debt of the poorest countries.

By destroying the natural world mankind has been making planet Earth less viable as a place to live. There are processes under way that may lead to environmental catastrophe. The Johannesburg summit must find ways to reverse them. This is the challenge that we face at the start of the 21st century. Otherwise we may find that the human race is threatened with extinction.


—Translated by Ed Emery, Le Monde Diplomatique

1 See Edward Goldsmith, “The Way: An Ecological World View,” University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1998.

2 See the dossier “Environnement et développement. Le défi du xxie siècle” in Alternatives économiques, July-August 2002.

3 See “State of the World 2002,” Worldwatch Institute, Washington, 2002. Also the official UN website on the Johannesburg summit.

* By “0.7 percent of their wealth” the author means 0.7 percent of the Gross Domestic Product of a country to be given annually. For United States in 1999, such a contribution would have been about $65 billion.





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