An Earth Summit of exploiters and despoilers

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The World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg from August 26 to September 4 addressed issues that are vital for the survival of the human species, just as the previous summit held in Rio did ten years ago. And just like Rio it will not mark a turning point in the despoliation of the planet but the start of a new descent as capitalism plunges ever further into crisis, dragging humanity with it. Capitalism threatens humanity

The statistics of death, disease and poverty have been repeated so many times and are of such enormity that they threaten to lose all meaning. 3 million people die every year from the effects of air pollution. 2.2 million die from contaminated water. 1.2 billion people live on 70p a day. A child dies every 3 seconds from disease, hunger or war. 1.1 billion people rely on unsafe water. In the 1990s another 2.4% of the world's forests were destroyed, mostly in Africa and Latin America. Half of the world's rivers are polluted. 11,000 species are threatened with extinction. 60% of coral reefs and 34% of all fish species are at risk. Water shortages are predicted to increase as extraction rates go above sustainable levels in major parts of the world. Global warming has reduced the polar ice caps, so much so that in the near future the famous north-west passage will become an open water-way for part of the year. Over the next 80 years sea levels are expected to rise by 44cm. Higher temperatures lead to more evaporation and consequently increased rainfall, while the destruction of the forests makes the consequent floods far more serious. The climatic changes have increased both the number and severity of 'natural' disasters. The recent floods in Europe were the worst for hundreds of years, but are as nothing compared to those elsewhere. In 1991 139,000 people died in floods in Bangladesh. In 1996 100 million people lost their homes or livelihoods in China because of floods. In 1998 the figure was 180 million. In both thousands died. In the same year 10,000 died when Hurricane Mitch tore through Central America. As more of the oceans reach the critical surface temperature of 28�C the number of hurricanes is predicted to increase. Alongside the escalation of 'natural' disasters diseases carried by micro-organisms that thrive in the warmer conditions are escalating. By 2050 it has been estimated that 3 billion people will be at risk of malaria. The bourgeoisie has no solution

On 4 September the conference ended with the adoption of a final statement that spoke of the "deep fault lines that divide human society between rich and poor" and of the need for 'fundamental changes' in the lives of the poor and of the "adverse effects of climate changes" that "rob millions of a decent life" (Guardian 5/9/02). The summit set a target of halving the 1.2 billion without basic sanitation by 2015, providing clean water for half of those without it, of halving the 1.2 billion who live on less than $1 a day, of restoring fishstocks by 2015 and reducing the loss of biodiversity by 2010. The World Trade Organisation will be required to consider environmental issues and an action plan on sustainable consumption is to be published within the next decade. A lot of noise followed about the lack of targets, as had been contained in Agenda 21 adopted at Rio, and 30 countries including the EU pledged themselves to set more precise targets. The reality, as the ten years that followed Rio confirmed, is that targets or not the bourgeoisie is incapable of even slowing the acceleration of the destruction of the environment, let alone halting and reversing the process.

The reason for this was evident throughout the summit when every issue was reduced to the level of grubby deals, of every nation putting its economic interests first. The negotiations over energy are one example: "There were two proposals: The EU, keen to see its strong renewable energy companies expand, wanted a target of 15% renewables by 2015. The US, Japan and Opec countries, who all fear that the rise of renewables will hurt their own strong fossil fuel companies, were opposed to the targets" (Guardian 4/9/02). The negotiations went up to ministerial level and into the final days of the summit and became one element within the overall manoeuvrings, with first one country then another putting forward proposals: "Japan now played its hand. With the EU it was proposing water and sanitation targets; but with the US it was opposing energy targets� The EU, battling to save its targets, held out, but after a 10-hour session the negotiators knew that without Japan they were isolated" (ibid).

This is not some aberration, but a manifestation of the logic, the very essence, of capitalism, as each nation uses the negotiations to defend its interests on the world market. Imperialist confrontation

The presentation - in the European media at least - of the US as the main obstacle to the summit was a constant theme throughout the summit: "If we all lived the way that George Bush jealously protects for the US we would need the resources of three additional planets" (Observer leader, 25/8/02). President Bush's refusal to attend was reported as a "snub" (Guardian 17/8/02), despite the best efforts of Tony Blair, wher energy are one example: "There were two proposals: The EU, keen to see its strong renewable energy companies expand, wanted a target of 15% renewables by 2015. The US, Japan and Opec countries, who all fear that the rise of renewables will hurt their own strong fossil fuel court. This is because its imperialist rivals - which include all of its supposed allies in the democratic west, including Britain -have spent the last decade and more using these as traps to snare American ambitions. The Earth Summit was no exception and in fact went hand in hand with the efforts to use the UN to try and rein back the planned assault on Iraq. The reception given to Bush's representative Colin Powell - a reception that must have had at least the tacit support of the organisers and main participants for it to happen in the conference centre - expressed most publicly the hostile anti-Americanism that had been built up in the months and weeks before the summit as well as during the summit itself.

Britain played an active part in this, although its approach was more discreet. Rather than criticise Bush directly, the press tended to report other people's criticisms. The Guardian, for example, in its report on Bush's decision not to attend, quoted the Greenpeace spokesman in Washington as saying "The fact that President Bush will be on vacation in Crawford speaks volumes for how little he cares for the environment�He's turning his back on the world" (17/8/02). The truth is that all of the heads of state who made such a fuss about going most just showed their faces for a few hours and spoke for a few minutes (the full text of Blair's speech is less than 700 words long). Blair for his part played the role of candid friend to Bush. While his speech in Mozambique, in which he criticised the US for not signing the Kyoto Agreement on climate change, was described as "a calculated rebuff to the American president" (Guardian 2/9/02) it was followed by a declaration of support for a war against Iraq. This two-faced approach is the strategy Britain has pursued with the US for a number of years. The loyal opposition

The Summit wasn't only attended by the world's governments and business leaders; there was also a noisy 'left wing' made up of Non-Government Organisations and environmentalist groups of various degrees of radicality, whose mouthpieces are figures such as Jonathan Porritt, George Monbiot and Naomi Klein. Such elements may attack the summit, they may denounce the politicians and the multinationals with varying degrees of vigour but they share the logic. For Porritt "you'd have to be an insane optimist to have any expectations at all of the World Summit" (Observer 25/8/02). The solution lies in government and industry changing and "some multi-nationals have genuinely become a 'force for good'" (ibid). Monbiot goes further: the last summit was partly responsible for the "environmental catastrophe" of the 1990s (Guardian 22/8/02) and the solution lies in "a global peoples' movement led by the poor world" resulting in "a world parliament" that will "hold government's to account for their actions" (Guardian 22/8/02). For Klein "the entire process was booby-trapped from that start" because it is now in the hands of the big corporations and the solution lies outside: "unlike a decade ago, the economic model of laissez-faire development is being rejected by popular movements around the world" (Guardian 4/9/02). What unites these critics, not only one with another but also with those they are criticising, is the call to ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism.

The fact is that it is not the excesses of capitalism that cause the problem, but capitalist accumulation itself: "Accumulation for accumulation's sake, production for production's sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie�" (Marx, Capital vol. 1, chapter XXIV). Even in its early days capitalism was capable of causing tremendous local destruction of the environment, but this was largely outweighed by the historic potential that capitalist industrialisation was creating for mankind. However, with the decadence of capitalism the process of destruction became qualitatively worse as competition for the world market became more murderous - quite literally more murderous as it overflowed into the orgy of destruction represented by the two world wars and many more local imperialist wars that went on during the twentieth century. Today, when declining capitalism has begun to rot on its feet, its debt-fuelled and increasingly irrational 'growth' has become completely destructive, not only endangering the basis for our future on this planet but causing increasing misery right now. Any apology for capitalism, with the multinationals becoming 'a force for good', as Porritt would have it, or in the hands of corporations that are smaller, as Klein wants, or with Monbiot's 'world parliament', is nothing but a prop for the very system which is pulling the human species towards the abyss.

The working class - a term not mentioned in any of the mountains of articles written - is the only force capable of saving humanity because it is the only force capable of replacing the capitalist mode of production with communism, of replacing competition between national states with a unified world community, production for production's sake with conscious, planned production for need. To do this it will have to take on not only the governments and multi-nationals of the world but also all of their green and radical friends.

North, 7/9/02

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