The second summit

Although corporations and governments have long made the case that the global economy is helping to bring peace and prosperity to the world’s poorest nations, the African leaders at the UN Global Earth Summit made it clear that they are not necessarily in favour of the Western model of economic development.

At the opening of the Earth Summit, South African president Thabo Mbeki told more than 100 world leaders assembled in Johannesburg that it was time to change the current world order, based on what he called the "savage principle of the survival of the fittest."

Mbeki compared the apartheid that once existed in that country with the current economic apartheid between rich countries and poor countries. The environment, he said, is suffering because of this world order.

Not much has changed since the first Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a decade ago. Except for the tone.

The last meeting was heralded as a breakthrough, encouraging countries to work together to find solutions to the world’s environmental problems. This year, frustrated by the lack of progress, the language being used is stronger.

"A global society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, characterized by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable," said Mbeki. "This is a world in which a rich minority enjoys unprecedented levels of consumption, comfort and prosperity while a poor majority enjoys daily hardship, suffering, dehumanization."

Whether or not the 2002 Earth Summit is capable of reaching solutions that would result in a more equitable sharing of the world’s wealth without depriving the planet of its capacity to produce it – especially with notable absence of the American president – is doubtful. The African solution would require the west to give more aid and open up its markets to Third World products, and the west just isn’t ready to share.

In a nutshell, our whole western way of life is based on our ability to buy goods and resources from poor countries at prices well below the market value, keeping things cheap for consumers and margins fat for manufacturers. To allow African nations, with their low wages, free access to those consumers would put the western manufacturers at more of a disadvantage than they are already.

The only solution to this issue that could help the environment is for the west is to meet the Third World in the middle – reduce our own consumption, trade fairly, and stop putting the global economy ahead of the global environment.

Aside from poverty, issues discussed at the 10-day Earth Summit include HIV and AIDS, gender equality, health, food security, habitat, foreign investment, sustainable finance, global public goods, tourism, freshwater, climate change, the Conventions signed at the previous Rio Summit, and the status of the world’s oceans.


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