News and Features
When Rio hosted the first Earth Summit in 1992, there was so much
goodwill surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the
Summit to Save the World. This week in Johannesburg, at the follow-up
conference known as Rio + 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit
on Sustainable Development can save the world--the question is whether
the summit can even save itself.
The sticking point is what UN bureaucrats call "implementation" and the
rest of us call "doing something." Much of the blame for the
"implementation gap" is being placed at the doorstep of the United
States. It was George W. Bush who abandoned the only significant
environmental regulations that came out of the Rio conference, the Kyoto
Protocol on climate change. It was Bush who decided not to come to
Johannesburg (even his father showed up in Rio), signaling that the
issues being discussed here--from basic sanitation to clean energy--are
low priorities for his Administration. And it is the US delegation that
is most belligerently blocking all proposals that involve either
directly regulating multinational corporations or dedicating significant
new funds to sustainable development.
But the Bush-bashing is too easy: The summit isn't failing because of
anything happening now in Johannesburg. It's failing because the entire
process was booby-trapped from the start.
When Canadian entrepreneur and diplomat Maurice Strong was appointed to
chair the Rio summit ten years ago, his vision was of a massive
gathering that brought all the "stakeholders" to the table--not just
governments but also nongovernmental organizations (environmentalists,
indigenous and lobby groups) as well as multinational corporations.
Strong's vision allowed for more participation from civil society than
any UN conference before, at the same time as it raised unprecedented
amounts of corporate funds for the summit (it helped that Coca-Cola
donated its marketing team and Swatch produced a limited-edition Earth
Summit watch). But the sponsorship had a price. Corporations came to Rio
with clear conditions: They'd embrace ecologically sustainable practices
but only voluntarily--through nonbinding codes and "best practices"
partnerships with NGOs and governments. In other words, when the
business sector came to the table in Rio, direct regulation of business
was pushed off.
In Johannesburg, these "partnerships" have passed into self-parody, with
the conference center chock-a-block with displays for BMW "clean cars"
and billboards for De Beers diamonds announcing Water Is Forever. The
summit's main sponsor is Eskom, South Africa's soon-to-be-privatized
national energy company. According to a recent study, under Eskom's
restructuring 40,000 households are losing access to electricity each
And this cuts to the heart of the real debate about the summit. The
World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a corporate lobby
group founded in Rio, is insisting that the route to sustainability is
the same trickle-down formula already being imposed by the World Trade
Organization and the International Monetary Fund: Poor countries must
make themselves hospitable to foreign investment, usually by privatizing
basic services, from water to electricity to healthcare. As in Rio,
these corporations are pushing for voluntary "partnerships" rather than
"command and control" regulations.
But these arguments sound different from a decade ago. Post-Enron, it's
difficult to believe that companies can be trusted even to keep their
own books, let alone save the world. And unlike a decade ago, the
economic model of laissez-faire development is being militantly rejected
by popular movements around the world, particularly in Latin America but
also here in South Africa.
This time around, many of the "stakeholders" aren't at the official
table but out in the streets or organizing countersummit conferences to
plot very different routes to development: debt cancellation, an end to
the privatization of water and electricity, reparations for apartheid
abuses, affordable housing, land reform. The most ambitious is the Week
of the Landless, a parallel event arguing that unfulfilled promises to
introduce substantive land reform--in South Africa and across the
postcolonial developing world--have been the single greatest barrier to
sustainable development globally.
Key to these movements is that they are no longer willing simply to talk
about their demands--they're acting on them. In the past two years,
South Africa has experienced a surge in direct action, with groups like
the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Landless People's Movement,
Durban's Concerned Citizens' Forum and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction
Campaign organizing to resist evictions, to claim unproductive land and
to reconnect cut-off water and electricity in the townships.
A mass demonstration is planned for August 31, but the fate of the march
is by no means certain. The South African government appears to have
decided that if nothing else comes of it, the summit is at least an
opportunity "to change misconceptions about safety and security in South
Africa...[and] attract the attention of foreign tourists and investors,"
in the words of Provincial Police Commissioner Perumal Naidoo.
What this means in practice is that while street signs welcome delegates
to "feel the pulse" of "the Sensational City," Sandton, the ultrarich
suburb where the conference is being held, has been transformed into a
military zone, complete with "mega search park" and remote spy planes
patrolling the skies. All protests are confined to a 1.8-kilometer
"struggle pen," as many are calling it, and even there, only
police-permitted marches are allowed.
Vendors and beggars have been swept from the streets, residents of
squatter camps have been evicted (many have been relocated to less
visible sites, far from busy roads). Moss Moya, a township resident
facing eviction from his home of eighteen years, holds out little hope
that the summit will help South Africa's poor. "If they are going to
help us," he said, "they need to see us."
But when Moya and his neighbors held a rally to resist the attempts to
relocate them behind a grove of trees, the police cracked down, and
Moya, a former ANC supporter, was shot in the mouth with a rubber
bullet, knocking out six of his teeth. When he went to file a complaint
with the police, he was thrown in jail.
Moya and some 1,000 other township residents decided to take their
struggle to downtown Johannesburg, holding a peaceful rally outside the
offices of the Premier of Gauteng, the province in which Johannesburg is
located. Right underneath a sign that announces, The People of Gauteng
Welcome WSSD Delegates to the Smart Province, seventy-seven
demonstrators were arrested, including the entire leadership of the
Landless People's Movement. (All but one--a US citizen, still facing
deportation--have since been released.)
On August 24, police even attacked a candlelight "freedom of expression
march," held to protest these and other mass arrests. The spontaneously
organized march was headed to a downtown prison, but before the crowd of
1,000 local and international activists had walked a block, riot police
surrounded them and barricaded the road. Without warning, stun grenades
were fired at the marchers, injuring three.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development isn't going to save the
world; it merely offers an exaggerated mirror of it. In the gourmet
restaurants of Sandton, delegates are literally dining out on their
concern for the poor. Meanwhile, outside the gates, poor people are
being hidden away, assaulted and imprisoned for what has become the
iconic act of resistance in an unsustainable world: refusing to
Privatization must be stopped, and water declared the common property of
In South Africa, the only country in the world where people's right to
water is actually written into the Constitution, the townships
surrounding cities like Johannesburg and Durban have become hotbeds of
resistance to water privatization. More than 10 million residents have
had their water cut off since the government implemented a World
Bank-inspired "cost recovery" program (which makes availability
dependent on a company's ability to recover its costs plus a
profit)--something that never happened in the worst days of apartheid.
More than 100,000 people in Kwazulu-Natal province became ill with
cholera recently after water and sanitation services to local
communities were cut off for nonpayment.
Water is at the heart of every fight in this country, where the
population is growing four times faster than the water supply and where
women collectively walk the equivalent of going to the moon and back
sixteen times a day to fetch water for their families. Access to water
is a deeply political issue. Six hundred thousand white farmers consume
60 percent of the country's water supplies for irrigation, while 15
million blacks have no direct access to water. Labor unions like the
South African Municipal Workers Union work with township activists to
organize neighborhood-by-neighborhood resistance, re-hooking up the
water supply and pulling out water meters. Such actions are a growing
sign that citizens are prepared to challenge by action, when they cannot
by law, injustices often originating with foreign-owned firms but
implemented by their own governments.
In 1998 the World Bank notified the Bolivian government that it would
refuse to guarantee a $25 million loan to refinance water services in
the Bolivian city of Cochabamba unless the local government sold its
public water utility to the private sector and passed on the costs to
consumers. Bolivian authorities gave the contract to a holding company
for US construction giant Bechtel, which immediately doubled the price
of water. For most Bolivians, this meant that water would now cost more
than food. Led by Oscar Olivera, a former machinist turned union
activist, a broad-based movement of workers, peasants, farmers and
others created La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (the
Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) to deprivatize the local water
In early 2000 thousands of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba in a showdown
with the government, and a general strike and transportation stoppage
brought the city to a standstill. In spite of mass arrests, violence and
several deaths, the people held firm; in the spring of that year, the
company abandoned Bolivia and the government revoked its hated
privatization legislation. With no one to run the local water company,
leaders of the uprising set up a new public company, whose first act was
to deliver water to the poorest communities in the city. Bechtel,
meanwhile, is suing the government of Bolivia for $25 million at the
World Bank's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment
Who says the good guys never win? California's new global warming law is
a bona fide big deal. Signed into law by Governor Gray Davis on July 22,
the global warming bill requires that the greenhouse gas emissions of
all passenger vehicles sold in the state be reduced to the "maximum"
economically feasible extent starting in model year 2009. It doesn't ban
sport utility vehicles, but it does the next best thing: It forces
automakers to design them as efficiently as possible. Hybrids and
hydrogen, here we come!
If the bill survives a promised legal challenge from the auto industry,
it will rank as the most significant official action against global
warming yet taken in the United States. It also ranks as the biggest
environmental victory of any sort scored during George W. Bush's
presidency. What's more, the behind-the-scenes story of the bill offers
valuable lessons for how environmentalists and progressives in general
can win more such victories in the future.
§ Lesson 1: Pick a target that matters. "Once the election
was decided and Bush and [Chief of Staff] Andrew Card were in the White
House, it was clear Washington was a dead end for progress on auto fuel
efficiency or global warming," says Russell Long, executive director of
the Bluewater Network, which initiated the California bill. "But
California is the fifth-biggest economy in the world." California is
also the single most important automotive market. It not only accounts
for 10 percent of all US new-auto sales, it has historically led the
nation in auto regulation. Unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters,
hybrid cars--all appeared first in the Golden State.
How so? In 1967 California's air quality was so noxious it was granted
the right to set its own air standards; other states have had the option
to choose California's (tougher) standards or the federal government's.
In short, change the law in California and you can tip the entire
national market. "You can't make one car for California and another car
for Washington, DC," explains Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Since transportation accounts for
33 percent of America's greenhouse gas emissions, the ultimate impact of
California's example could be huge.
§ Lesson 2: Embrace radical ends but flexible means.
Corporate lobbyists love to portray all environmental regulations as a
"command and control" form of economic dictatorship, as in the old
Soviet Union. That's a canard, of course, but the authors of the
California bill defanged that argument by omitting any specific
directions for how automakers are to achieve these unprecedented
greenhouse gas reductions. The bill empowers the California Air
Resources Board to decide what is feasible (by 2005, subject to the
legislature's review), but it explicitly prohibits such political
nonstarters as banning SUVs or raising gas or vehicle taxes. How to get
there from here will be left to the auto industry's engineers.
§ Lesson 3: Unite grassroots pressure with insider muscle and
celebrity clout. This part was tricky. Early backers of the bill
included the Bluewater Network and the Coalition for Clean Air, but
support from the larger national environmental groups only came later.
"They saw this bill as too extreme for their agenda, and they had other
things on their plate," said one legislative aide in Sacramento who
insisted on anonymity. "But once they saw it had traction, they got on
board and helped a lot." That traction came from dogged lobbying by the
bill's sponsor, freshman Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. A Democrat and
longtime activist from the Los Angeles area, Pavley apparently didn't
care that the bill was a long shot. Her aide Anne Baker says, "I've
worked in Sacramento a long time. If we hadn't had an outside group and
a freshman member, this [bill] probably wouldn't have been tried in the
What the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council
eventually brought to the fight was lobbying experience, vast membership
rolls and contacts with luminaries like Robert Redford and John McCain,
who telephoned wavering legislators at crucial moments. "The Latino
caucus also was a strong supporter," recalls NRDC lobbyist Ann Notthoff.
"We have cooperated with them on toxics and air pollution issues before,
and that gave us credibility on this issue."
§ Lesson 4: Remember, the bad guys make mistakes too. In the
end, the bill passed the Assembly without a single vote to spare, and
only because the industry overplayed its hand with a wildly misleading
million-dollar-plus advertising blitz. "They didn't think they could
lose," explains V. John White, a consultant who lobbies for the Sierra
Club. "We ended up splitting the business caucus, largely because the
auto industry was so shrill and arrogant. They wouldn't negotiate,
wouldn't compromise--they were just against the bill. So that left
members with a simple choice between the industry and us." Since polls
showed that 81 percent of Californians favored the bill, even
traditionally probusiness members felt safe bucking the auto industry.
It also didn't hurt that the bill was backed by a wide range of groups,
from city governments and water agencies to church leaders and Silicon
What's next? The automakers will sue, claiming that federal
fuel-efficiency law pre-empts the California measure. But that's the
lawyers. In their design and marketing departments most companies are
already accelerating their pursuit of green technologies. Thanks to
California, the writing is on the wall.
Counterinsurgency aid will be a big boost to Occidental Petroleum.
The journalist I.F. Stone used to joke that the government issues so
much information every day, it can't help but let the truth slip out
every once in a while. The Bush Administration's recent report on global
warming is a classic example. Though far from perfect, it contains some
crucial but awkward truths that neither George W. Bush nor his
environmentalist critics want to confront. Which may explain why the
Administration has sought to bury the report, while critics have
misrepresented its most ominous conclusion.
U.S. Climate Action Report 2002 made headlines because it
contradicted so much of what the Administration has said about global
warming. Not only is global warming real, according to the report, but
its consequences--heat waves, water shortages, rising sea levels, loss
of beaches and marshes, more frequent and violent weather--will be
punishing for Americans. The report's biggest surprise was its admission
that human activities, especially the burning of oil and other fossil
fuels, are the primary cause of climate change. Of course, the rest of
the world has known since 1995 that human actions have "a discernible
impact" on the global climate, to quote a landmark report by the United
Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But the White House
has resisted this conclusion. After all, if burning fossil fuels is to
blame for global warming, it makes sense to burn less of them. To a
lifelong oilman like Bush, who continues to rely on his former industry
colleagues for campaign contributions as well as senior staff, such a
view is nothing less than heresy.
No wonder, then, that Bush and his high command have virtually
repudiated the report. Although their staffs helped write it, both EPA
Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Energy Secretary Spencer
Abraham claimed they were unaware of the report until the New York
Times disclosed its existence on June 3. Bush himself dismissed it
as a mere product of "the bureaucracy," that oft-vilified bogyman of
right-wing ideology. But he could equally have blamed his own father.
The only reason U.S. Climate Action Report 2002 was compiled in
the first place is that George Bush the First signed a global warming
treaty at the 1992 Earth Summit that obligates the United States to
periodically furnish such reports to the UN (one more reason, it seems,
to despise treaties). But somebody in the Administration must have seen
trouble coming, because the report could not have been released with
less fanfare: It was simply posted on the EPA's website, three unguided
links in from the homepage. If you weren't looking for it, you'd never
The Administration has been hammered for issuing a report that on one
hand admits that global warming threatens catastrophe but on the other
maintains there is no need to reduce consumption of fossil fuels. The
report squares this circle by arguing that global warming has now become
inevitable, so we should focus less on preventing it than on adapting to
it. To deal with water scarcity, for example, the report advocates
building more dams and raising the price of water to encourage
conservation. Critics see such recommendations as proof that the
Administration is doing nothing about global warming. Unfortunately,
it's not that simple.
The worst thing about the new global warming report is that it is
absolutely correct about a fundamental but often unmentioned aspect of
the problem: the lag effect. Most greenhouse gases remain in the
atmosphere for approximately 100 years. The upshot of this undeniable
chemical fact is that no matter what remedial steps are taken today,
humanity is doomed to experience however much global warming the past
100 years of human activities will generate. That does not mean we
should make matters worse by continuing to burn fossil fuels, as Bush
foolishly urges; our children and grandchildren deserve better than
that. It does mean, however, that we as a civilization must not only
shift to green energy sources immediately but also begin planning how we
will adapt to a world that is bound to be a hotter, drier, more
disaster-punctuated place in the twenty-first century.
Many environmentalists know it is too late to prevent global warming;
the best we can do is minimize its scope. They don't like to admit this
truth, because they fear it will discourage people from making, and
demanding, the personal and institutional changes needed to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions. There is that risk. But a truth does not
disappear simply because it is inconvenient. Besides, a green energy
future would mean more, not less, economic well-being for most
Americans, while also increasing our chances of avoiding the most
extreme global warming scenarios. Sometimes the truth hurts. But
avoiding it will hurt even more.
The EPA cites chapter, and some verse,
To show this warming's making matters worse.
It's getting worse no matter how you score it.
So here's the plan: They think we should ignore it.
Scum and foam were piled so high on the surface of streams and ponds in
the rural Illinois area neighboring the Inwood Dairy that it looked like
Facebook Like Box