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close this bookSPORE Bulletin of the CTA No. 41 (CTA Spore, 1992, 16 p.)
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Rio Bravo!

The UN Conference on the Environment and Development was held in Rio de Janeiro in June.

Mr Marc Lévy, a member of CTA's Advisory Committee, attended this important event. For the benefit of Spore readers he has prepared this personal account of the main points to emerge from the meeting.

By convening and organizing the meeting at Rio which became known as the Earth Summit, the United Nations has reconfirmed the global nature of environmental problems. The Rio Conference highlighted four main issues.

Environment and Development

The coupling of these two terms implies that one can neither be content with protecting the environment whilst disregarding development strategies nor with pursuing current development trends without considering environmental degradation.

The consumption model of the "North" has been much criticized and the impossibility of its being generally applied to the whole planet is obvious. Now it is also being queried because of its onus on the environment. But now the development of the countries of the North itself is affected. The whole development model is being contested.

The tasks ahead will be to establish means of combining growth with poverty control, restoring balance to the quantitative approach to economies and taking qualitative criteria into account, and to convince people that inequalities cannot be dealt with only by increasing production and productivity. It will mean affirming the need for science, but scientists must be referred back to their controversies in order to embody the truth. Man will have to be viewed both as an individual with rights and resources and also as a member of a population with duties and limitations. Values such as universality, equity and solidarity will need to be recognized. The pioneering attempts at sustainable development of some 20 years ago will point the way to the enterprises of the next century.

A new international order

Since the Berlin Wall came down and East West confrontation ended, the face of the world has suddenly altered. Alliances have changed as a consequence and the North South relationship has lost its predominance and some of its capacity to provoke aggravation. For some time the main international preoccupation has been to integrate the countries of the East into the market economy and the European block rather than to address under-development of the South, which was relegated to the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank and the IMF.

The Rio Conference has, in a spectacular manner, restored the balance by turning the spotlight back on North-South issues. The countries of the East and the former Soviet Union were, incredibly, absent from the Conference. The United States had difficulties in asserting its technological and financial predominance. Its intransigent position during the Rio Conference led to its isolation.

The Earth Summit was an extraordinary performance with a new international geopolitical scenario marked by the Soviet exit, the new focus on North-South issues, a strong Japanese presence, a lack of unanimity among the Europeans and the group of 77, and the isolation of the USA. This was the first summit without a super power.

North-South confrontation

The North-South confrontation again emerged as a crucial issue. On the one and, the South is bargaining with the environment for more aid; on the other hand, the United States demands that the countries of the South accept the reforms it considers essential in order to make aid effective. Certain countries in the South, such as Malaysia, brandish the threat of "eco-terrorism" because they have the possibility of polluting the planet; similarly, certain countries in the North would willingly use the environment as a prop to maintain a state of domination.

These arguments and grounds for confrontation, not to mention the effects of global overpopulation, are neither false nor totally cut off from reality. But not all the countries of the South are "nothing but" poor, neither are the countries of the North "nothing but" rich. The frontiers of underdevelopment and the means of enrichment have crossed national boundaries.

In other words, without denying the importance of macro-economic reality or the existence of geopolitical categories of a North-South type, it must be hoped that the lessons learnt from this confrontation will make it possible to formulate policies which are closer to real life experiences and peoples' very diverse interests.

The state and other powers

First and foremost, the Earth Summit brought together states, institutions of unquestionable sovereignty. It was the Heads of State who signed the conventions and other agreements. However, it is well worth stressing that throughout the preparatory stages, and during the summit itself, special importance was given to organizations which represent ordinary citizens. Likewise, the official and less official presence of commerce, often referred to as "the industrial lobby" in the press should be noted. The scientists, for their part, were rightly called to the conference by UNESCO to make their voice heard at this international "concert". This did not seem sufficient to about 250 of them who thought it right, in the so-called Heidelberg appeal, to denounce the irrationality of the ecologists and, on the contrary, to praise the unending virtues of scientific truth and industrial progress.

Not the least of Rio's merits was to have allowed this "setting" of the powers present and to have affirmed that on problems as global as those which were dealt with, there could be no questions of thinking and acting in "State" terms alone.

The individual "States" did not emerge as the indisputable guarantors of a more "just" and "cleaner" planet. The contradiction between the planet with today's challenges and issues of national sovereignty was very clear. The future course of this debate will be crucial.

The prospects for sustainable development mirror the problem of scientific and technical choices at community and world level The desirability of limiting national sovereignty in favour of international authorities, and the need for discussions between all the social groupings on scientific and technical choices and on development strategies, were the two facets of the challenge voiced by the Rio Conference.

If the Rio Conference made it possible to define the issues under debate and to emphasize the need to redesign central growth models, it has served to demonstrate the diversity and contradiction of the interests at stake. As a European, I would like to hope that with our colleagues from the South we shall be able to make sure of this opportunity to renew and reinforce our interdependent relationships.