Led by the Weak, We Must Shackle the Strong

Public enthusiasm for saving the environment is not influencing public policy

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian Earth Summit supplement, 22nd August 2002

The green wave broke just before the last earth summit. In the late 1980s, environmental programmes played at prime time across the television networks. Almost every child in the west possessed a rainforest pencil case or a ‘save the whales’ t-shirt. In 1989 the Green Party in Britain — hitherto the most environmentally hostile nation in Europe — polled 15% in the European elections. In the same year, Margaret Thatcher made 67 public statements on green issues, more than Tony Blair has managed since he took office.

By 1992, the issue had all but disappeared from the political agenda. Public enthusiasm had scarcely diminished, but governments and the media had turned their backs on the environment. When the Berlin wall collapsed, a new hypercapitalism proclaimed its invulnerability. The corporations bribed and bullied their way out of regulation. The advertisers demanded feelgood stories on the television. The middle classes refused to leave their cars at home.

As the media responded to globalisation with an unprecedented parochialism, campaigners in the rich world lost interest in the damming of the Amazon, the logging of Borneo and the killing of minke whales in the southern oceans. We began to work instead on preventing the construction of new roads at home, or reclaiming our streets and public spaces from cars and corporations. We kept the movement alive, but we also neglected the international solidarity required to deal with the big issues. But our greatest failure was that we permitted green consumerism to begin to take the place of green citizenship: many people chose to believe the seductive notion that we could buy our way out of trouble.

So, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the world’s people allowed their governments to mangle the environment. The summit was the largest gathering of national leaders in history, but not all of them arrived with good intentions. Before it began, the rich nations buried the UN code of conduct on multinational corporations. At Rio, George Bush Sr toyed with the unilateralism which George Bush Jr has now applied to almost every aspect of foreign policy. The US delegation sabotaged the climate change treaty; gutted and then refused to sign the biodiversity convention; and, with the help of other rich nations, replaced a binding forest protocol with a set of voluntary and deeply regressive “principles”. The rich world pledged some $7bn a year for environmental protection, which was just over 1% of the estimated cost of the measures the poor world was asked to implement.

Partly as a result of the failures of the earth summit, the 1990s were an environmental catastrophe. We entered the 21st century with a climate protocol which the world’s largest polluter refuses to sign and which will have almost no discernable effect on climate change. We have international conventions governing everything from the shipment of hazardous waste to the protection of endangered species, but every year they seem to become harder to enforce. We have a trade agreement which is used by both rich and poor nations to wage war against environmental protection. Many of the world’s fisheries, forests and freshwater supplies are vanishing.

But, ten years after Rio, we also have something which was desperately lacking before: a global people’s movement led by the poor world. While in the 1980s campaigners were obsessed with single issues, today they are seeking to pull together the concerns which had previously held them apart, linking climate change and debt, deforestation and water privatisation, corporate power and starvation; acknowledging the inseperability of social justice, human rights and the protection of the environment.

Though this is perhaps the biggest international movement in world history, its influence on governments is minimal, and it expects almost nothing from the Johannesburg summit. While official negotiators have proved staggeringly ineffective, the corporations have moved with great foresight and panache, attempting to replace the rules which prevent the rich from destroying the lives of the poor with “voluntary commitments”. Just as big business is less trusted by the public than ever before, it is demanding that regulation is abandoned in favour of trust.

To me, the successive failure of the world’s environment summits, starting with the Stockholm meeting in 1972, reinforces the notion that we must find a means of bypassing the coercive, arbitrary and deeply compromised system of global governance and create a system of our own: a world parliament perhaps, with the moral authority and democratic legitimacy all other global bodies lack. Until we can hold governments to account for their international actions, we can only stand back and gawp as they permit the world to become unfit for human habitation.