Tom Turner is in South Africa at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to edit a daily news report, Eco, on behalf of a coalition of civil society organizations. He is senior editor at Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm.

Monday, 26 Aug 2002

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

Boasting the slogan “People, Planet, Prosperity,” the World Summit on Sustainable Development has come to South Africa with a vengeance. It is the biggest event the nation has hosted in years, and is expected to be the largest U.N. conference ever held. Sixty-five thousand people are attending, ranging from delegates to reporters to interested observers. (The Sandton Center, where the official events are being held, can accommodate only about 7,000, which seems like a recipe for trouble.)

The Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg.

Photo: IISD

In hosting this conference, the U.N. is celebrating — if that’s the right word — the 30th anniversary of the first big international environmental bash, held in Stockholm in 1972. It’s also marking the 10th anniversary of a similar summit held in Rio de Janiero in 1992, when there was a different George Bush in the White House. (Different in more than years; light-years different in policies and attitude.)

I’m attending the summit to work with an eclectic coalition of a half-dozen heavy-hitting groups that make up part of what is called, these days, “civil society.” That means not government, not press, and not commercial interests. Civil society used to be known as NGOs — nongovernmental organizations — until businesses decided that they, too, were NGOs and began to muddy the waters.

Tom Turner at work in Johannesburg.

This coalition will be publishing a daily news report to let people know what’s happening at the far-flung meetings, events, and demonstrations of the WSSD; the report will also feature the opinions of well-informed observers about what is right, wrong, and missing in the proceedings.

The first of these reports appeared 30 years ago in Stockholm and spawned a series of editions now numbering well over 100. These reports have investigated the inner workings of the U.S. nuclear industry, the International Whaling Commission, the Antarctica Convention, U.N. conferences on food and human settlements, and a host of other important but underreported gatherings.

As with so many of those past gatherings, it looks as if this will be another event where being American is not something to be entirely proud of. Selfish is not too strong a word for the way the U.S. delegation has been acting and is expected to act during the conference. There is one school of thought — actually quite a compelling one — that holds that the U.S. doesn’t just want to ensure that no substantial international agreements emerge from the WSSD; it also wants to use the conference to diminish the power and influence of the U.N. in favor of, for example, the World Trade Organization. The Bush administration is also pushing for partnerships between the public and private sectors, with only the most vague of voluntary systems to protect natural resources, human rights, and other concerns that are generally the province of governments.

This is Reaganism writ large, and it is pushed incessantly by the current administration both at home and abroad; it is sure to be promoted here with equal gusto. Luckily, there are tens of thousands of ordinary citizens here with other ideas in mind. It should make for a frothy two weeks.