The year of ecobabble

  • 27/02/1994

The year of ecobabble "WHAT DID we achieve in 1993?" The simple answer is: "Not much!" If that is an unsatisfying note to begin a new year on, we could rephrase the question: "What did we lose in 1993?" The answer, once again, is: "Not much!" Wordplay and sarcasm aside, 1993 was an extremely eventful year in which very little was actually achieved. For historians that would make 1993 more of a rule, than an exception.

However, optimists would justifiably argue that the year's achievements were "momentous" for the sheer pace of events that kept conference-hopping, environmental jet-setters busier than ever before. Indeed, the pace of events was astounding. It was impossible to keep up with all that was happening...even for technology-totting whiz kids, glued to their computer conferences.

In some ways, that may be part of the problem. Suddenly, environment became "big", and for closet-Schumacherians who still believe that "small is beautiful" that alone was letdown enough. In all honesty, 1992 was a tough act to follow. But, in equal honesty, much of what happened in 1993 was a hangover of the heady intoxication of Flamingo Park and Rio Centro. Even so, we must not belittle what was achieved in the year past.

At the level of rhetoric, proclamations of eco-friendliness were lavished from all sides...the United Nation, the White House, business gurus, the World Bank, and even the International Monetary Fund. Institutionally, the year was incredibly fertile...(US vice-president) Al Gore's US Council on Sustainable Development, Ambassador Razali's UN Commission on Sustainable Development, Maurice Strong's star-studded Earth Council. And at the level of treaties NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) went through despite Ross Perot, GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) made it despite France, and the US reverted its position on population despite the right wing.

But, much of what is being touted as victory may be no more than failure masquerading as success. Were NAFTA and GATT really victories for the environment? Yes, Bill Clinton finally signed the biodiversity treaty, but isn't that too little, too late? And while all the pomp and glitter of environmental illuminati converging at the Earth Council inauguration in Costa Rica or of Jane Fonda mesmerizing UN ambassadors is all very good, what does it do for the woman who still walks 20 miles for fuelwood, the child who still dies for want of clean water, and the farmer who is still pushed onto ecologically fragile slopes in the name of structural adjustment?

Yardstick for achievement At the end of the day, the yardstick for achievement is not whether non-governmental organisations got more or less access to the UN cafeteria, or how many new institutions were created, or even how many nations signed how many new treaties. The ultimate yardstick is how the events of the year eased the life of rubber tappers in the Amazon, slum dwellers in Calcutta, pastoralists in the Sahel, and subsistence peasants in the Himalayas. On that count, the year achieved little. For the vast majority of its people, life on planet Earth remains as harsh as ever...if anything, harsher.

This is not to suggest that what was achieved in 1993 was in any way insignificant. It is only to assert that it was insufficient. It left unfulfilled both the promise and the potential of UN Conference on Environment and Development. Did 1993 herald in the promised era of "environmental enlightenment"? Maybe it did. Maybe I am being too pessimistic. Maybe we do need patience. Maybe change does take time. Maybe the small steps taken in the year past will become giant strides in the years to follow.

Having said all that, maybe we have talked enough, discussed enough, created enough institutions, made enough pledges and signed enough treaties. Maybe it is now time to act. Amidst all these "maybes" the only certainty is that we are running out of time. And maybe, just maybe, it is already too late.

Adil Najam is the administrator of the International Environmental Negotiation Network at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and teaches International Environmental Policy at the School for International Training at Brattleboro, Vermont, Usa.