From the Archive | Why the Earth Summit failed

Sustainable development goals were mooted at the 1992 climate conference in Rio de Janeiro, but cynical Western leaders ignored the urgency of the crisis, with consequences unfolding today.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from an article published by International Socialism in 1992, later republished in 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – also known as the Rio Summit or Earth Summit – which was held in Rio de Janeiro from 3 June to 14 June 1992.


“We are in our third decade of a series of developmental and environmental conference hinges, each of which is first said to herald salvation and then derided for its impotence. There is one difference today: the ‘Cold War’ can no longer serve as a pretext to set aside the real issues. Far from history having ended, its real contours are only now becoming clear. It is not socialism which has failed but … modernity as a whole, including the very economic model which the North has urged – and continues to urge – upon the disadvantaged South. The Earth Summit will see divergent objectives. The North wishes to talk about the environment while the South wants to talk first about development. A new world outlook has to begin with the interconnection of these goals. Tragically, there is no reason to believe that it will start in Rio.”

The inability of capitalism even to begin to solve the social and environmental problems it has created was demonstrated to the world with breathtaking clarity in June 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit. Just a month earlier, the mass rebellion in Los Angeles had exposed the bankruptcy of George Bush’s claim to have instituted a New World Order out of the human and ecological devastation of a Gulf War which, in order to guarantee US control over the region’s petroleum resources, took the lives of 200 000 and condemned hundreds of thousands more to medieval conditions of disease, material deprivation and continuing political tyranny. Millions then witnessed the unabashed contempt displayed by the world’s most powerful leader for the hopes and expectations of so many who saw in the Earth Summit the last opportunity to embark on a commonly agreed global programme of “sustainable development”; first, in his reluctance even to attend the Summit, and then in his refusal to sign key binding agreements on biodiversity protection and atmospheric emissions involving significant financial commitments and compliance with specific timetables.

Related article:

There is an enormous gap between the widespread sense of urgency aroused by the current environmental and developmental crisis and the outrageously cynical and inadequate response offered by Western leaders. This gap mirrors the almost instantaneous disillusionment that has greeted the redemptive promises of market capitalism in the New World Order, both East and West, since the collapse of Stalinism. The Guardian editorial which prefaces this article, with its talk of the “failure of modernity” and of the Northern “economic model”, is symptomatic of the current political and ideological vacuum at the centre of this crisis, which so urgently demands a revolutionary Marxist intervention.

The first responsibility of such an intervention must clearly be to identify with the genuine concerns and fears that the environmental crisis has generated, while arguing against that brand of “ecocatastrophism” which interprets each successive disaster as the warning eruption of an imminent apocalypse, whose cause and outcome lie beyond the rational control of human beings. The public sense of catastrophism, if it exists, has real roots in the history of the last decade, which has seen the greatest concentration of social and environmental disasters not otherwise accounted for by military conflict – the leakage of poisonous dioxin gas from the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal in 1984, the explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1986, the 1988 floods in Bangladesh and the increasing levels of rainforest destruction in South East Asia, equatorial Africa and Amazonia, to name just a few examples.

The challenge to the revolutionary Marxist tradition goes beyond merely identifying the 1980s as a “decade of disasters” however, and poses the need, which this article seeks to address, for an analysis of the crisis within the wider context of the specific character of recent capitalist development at a regional and global level.

Related article:

Some of the representatives of developing nations and nongovernmental organisations at the Earth Summit attempted unsuccessfully to prioritise the link between the environmental crisis and the impact of debt, the world recession and the structures of trade and aid on the Third World economies. For many observers sceptical of the possibilities for genuine international co-operation, the deadlock reached on every key item after the 15 solid weeks of preparatory negotiations leading up to the Summit had revealed two irreconcilable agendas dividing the issues of environment and development between North and South: the North’s determination to offload its responsibility for the global environmental mess onto the South, and the South’s concern, first and foremost, with its own economic development. As the Summit itself unfolded, that North-South polarisation was increasingly expressed through two counterposed arguments over the responsibility for the crisis: on the one hand, the North’s over consumptive industrial “model” of development and, on the other, the South’s inability to manage its “population explosion”.

Any serious attempt to explain the failure of the Earth Summit must first acknowledge the central role played by imperialism in sacrificing the interests of the world’s dispossessed majority to the destructive dynamic of global capital accumulation and market competition. The only significant decisions to emerge from the UN Conference, as shown below, actually served to strengthen the ability of institutions already dominated by the major advanced economies, such as the World Bank, to dictate the priorities of development within the societies of the Third World. The link between political leadership in environment policy and the imperialist struggle for control over the resources of the developing world was exposed when Japan offered to assume the role of ecological superpower apparently left vacant by the US. A major polluter and consumer of tropical timber via its logging activities in the Pacific Rim countries, Japan has decided to boost its international economic profile by committing 7.7 billion US dollars, far more than any other Northern contribution, to overseas environmental aid.

Related article:

But such an analysis must also challenge the “third worldism” of those who implicitly or explicitly accept that imperialist exploitation imposes a contradictory set of interests between, on the one hand, the peasants and workers of the developing world and their own agricultural and industrial bourgeoisie and, on the other, their counterparts in the imperialist countries. If the last 10 years have simultaneously been the decade of environmental disasters, East and West, North and South, of international debt crisis and of unprecedented economic turmoil, then these are symptoms of both the deepening integration of the global system and its consequent instability.

The incorporation of the newly industrialising economies, in particular, into the doubly exploitative structures of that imperialist system has depended on the collaboration of local ruling bourgeoisies, who have pursued conscious and deliberate strategies of capitalist modernisation in order to guarantee the integration of once peripheral territories, resources and populations into their own national markets. This is merely the latest, most intensely concentrated and violent phase of a process of regional and global integration which began with Europe’s colonial expansionism in the 15th century.

The environmental disasters of the 1980s and early 1990s cannot be viewed, then, simply as the wounds inflicted on a marginalised Third World by a predatory, extractive imperialism, for all that this has often defined its character historically. Neither, therefore, can the environmental crisis be resolved through the regulation of consumption patterns or controls on population growth, were they even desirable, or by piecemeal reforms or adjustments to the conditions of international trade and debt, even if the bankers and business community were open to persuasion. The world’s resources, environments and peoples are locked into a globally integrated system of exploitation, whose defenders and representatives, gathered together at the Earth Summit, inhabit not only the cities of New York, Tokyo and London, but São Paulo, Jakarta and Bombay, too. The struggle to rescue the planet’s environment from destruction and set it on a path of genuinely sustainable, rational development is inseparable from the battle between contending classes for the organisation of society in the interests of either profit or need, a battle that is being waged in the forests of tropical Latin America and Asia, in the mines and oil fields of eastern Europe and the Gulf, and in the factories and shanty towns of the industrialised world, both North and South. Its outcome will be decided by our ability, the ability of a united, international working class movement, to challenge the conditions of our present, global exploitation in their entirety, and ultimately abolish them.

Winners and losers at Rio

There is general agreement that the single most serious threat to the global environment is the impact of toxic emissions on climate patterns. The pollution of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, released by the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of trees, is producing a cumulative greenhouse effect whereby the sun’s heat is trapped after being radiated back from the Earth. Even the apparently minimal increases in global temperatures caused by this process will be sufficient to melt the polar ice sheets, flooding low lying land and literally drowning entire nations. Other greenhouse gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), are destroying the vital stratospheric ozone layer which protects living organisms from the effects of ultraviolet radiation. The discovery of a hole in this ozone layer over the Antarctic has heightened fears of increased rates of skin cancers, damage to crops and fisheries, and further disturbances to temperature levels.

Yet while the scientific community is calling for a 60% reduction in atmospheric emissions immediately, the most that was agreed at Rio was an open ended, non-legally binding statement of intent to hold emissions at 1990 levels. With the help of Britain’s environment secretary, Michael Howard, the US, whose industries are responsible for 25% of global emissions, managed to delete the specific target date of 2 000 from the treaty, previously agreed by 110 countries.

Related article:

A biodiversity agreement aimed at protecting the world’s stocks of plant and animal species was similarly undermined by the US’s refusal to sign or commit significant resources to aiding developing countries in this task. If, as a result, current rates of tropical deforestation continue, “some 15 to 20% of the world’s estimated 3.5 to 10 million plant and animal species may become extinct by the year 2000 … [though they have] tremendous future potential as renewable sources of energy, industrial products, medications, genetic inputs to agriculture and applied biological research, if they are not eliminated first”. This will gravely jeopardise our capacity to meet future global needs for the diversification and substitution of food crops, given that 90% of the world’s current food production is dependent on just 16 of the planet’s 80 000 edible plant species, all of which are located in the tropics. At the same time, a wealth of medicinal resources and expertise, much of it accumulated by the forests’ indigenous inhabitants, will be sacrificed, and with it the potential to combat diseases such as the HIV viruses and various forms of cancer.

According to the 1992 World Development Report, developing countries will need to spend between 75 and 100 billion US dollars annually by the end of the 1990s to stabilise and reduce pollution and environmental damage. This is equivalent to between 1.5 and 2.5% of these countries’ GDP. By contrast, most donor governments attending the Summit failed even to honour their long-standing UN commitment to raise Official Development Assistance aid to 0.7% of GDP. Compare this to the 6 billion US dollars in military aid transferred from the US and the Soviet Union to the Third World in 1972 alone, at the height of the Vietnam War, or the 950 billion US dollars earmarked for worldwide arms spending in 1993. The paltry 3 to 4 billion dollars that are to be pledged by the rich nations will be channelled through the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), a scheme first devised behind the closed doors of a G-7 summit meeting, ensuring the exclusion of Southern governments from the discussions.

As a recent Ecologist magazine editorial argues, the GEF will in fact serve to further impose the economic priorities of the dominant powers on the developing nations, under the guise of “helping” those countries “to contribute towards solving global environmental problems”: “By designating the atmosphere and biodiversity as ‘global commons’, the GEF implicitly suggests that everyone has a right of access and that local people have no more claim to them than a corporation based on the other side of the globe. Pressing problems with a direct impact on local peoples – desertification, toxic waste pollution, landlessness, pesticide pollution and the like, all of which occur throughout the globe and could therefore be judged as being of ‘global’ concern – are pushed to one side while the local environment is sized up for its potential benefit to the North and its allies in the South.”

Related article:

By framing environmental problems in terms of solutions which can only be provided by the input of capital, technology, managerial expertise and economic policies under the control of the imperialist powers, the GEF will effectively tighten its grip on those aspects of the environment – the seas, forests, the atmosphere and biodiversity – that are essential to the profitability of the global capitalist economy.

In the furtherance of these interests, the GEF is ironically already being used to subsidise environmentally damaging projects under the cloak of financing “suitable mitigatory measures” and so “internalising” ecological costs. “Thus the Arun Hydro-Project in Nepal is being indirectly funded by GEF biodiversity conservation money. It should be of no surprise to learn that the administration of the GEF is being entrusted to the World Bank, whose intimate association with Third World mega-disasters is now notorious. The Bank’s powers have been additionally strengthened by the creation of an “Earth Increment” fund and a 15% budget increase for its affiliate, the International Development Association, which makes loans or grants of up to 6 billion US dollars a year to developing countries.

Related article:

In 1987, following successive exposures of the World Bank’s support for hydroelectric, roadbuilding and colonisation schemes in the Philippines, Amazonia and India, which violated even its own guidelines on environmental and social protection, it announced a review of its policies and the appointment of a new staff of specialised environmentalists. But within days of the close of the Earth Summit, a hitherto suppressed independent report revealed how the same policies had been flouted in the implementation of the Sardar Sarovar dam and irrigation project on India’s Narmada river. Flooding devastated the lands of 240 000 mainly tribal people, at the same time damaging downstream fisheries; fewer than half of those displaced will receive compensation, and fewer still will benefit from irrigation. Their future is likely to repeat that of the 20 000 Amazonian peasants and Indians deprived of their land and livelihoods in the 1970s by another Bank-financed project, the Tucuruí hydroelectric scheme. Many of them still lack domestic electricity supplies and are plagued by the malaria carrying mosquitoes which infest the stagnant water surrounding their homes.

The Earth Summit has therefore reinforced the collective strategic influence of the dominant capitalist states over development in the Third World. “In the GEF, the World Bank is judge, jury and executioner” of an agenda set by its majority shareholders, and presided over by its US chairman. The Bank’s role, as defined by the Bretton Woods Charter in 1944, is that of promoting “private foreign investment by means of guarantees or loans”; that is to say, its financial commitments to the infrastructural sectors of energy and transport serve as a catalyst to attract private capital investment in projects oriented towards the external market. In this sense it has complemented the broader function of its sister organisation, the International Monetary Fund, whose lending policies, exercised during the last decade through Structural Adjustment programmes, have been designed to maximise the export of capital and goods from the developing economies, and “to seek the elimination of exchange restrictions that hinder the growth of world trade”. In other words, the precarious nuclear power programmes of Brazil and the Philippines, and the devastating roadbuilding and hydroelectric schemes of Amazonia, Indonesia and India are the price paid by local people for being obliged to participate as vulnerable and unwilling junior partners in the global “free” market.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.