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August 23, 2002
Rio + 10 Series: The Rhetoric of the World Summit on Sustainable Development
    by William Baue

Sustainable development's amorphous definition may prove a difficult hurdle to gaining consensus on concrete action plans at the Johannesburg Summit.

The various names of the upcoming United Nations Summit encapsulate the tension between the diverse agendas that are on the table. Calling it the "Rio + 10 Summit" stresses an historical assessment of progress and regress in the decade since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The "Johannesburg Summit" label orients the event geopolitically to a complex set of associations, from the overthrow of apartheid to the diverse crises facing the world today, such as climate change, poverty, and the AIDS epidemic. The "Earth Summit" designation suggests a priority on the environment, while the official title, the "World Summit on Sustainable Development," introduces the pivotal term that attempts to reconcile economic growth with environmental conservation and social equity. This disparate nomenclature may reflect a lack of precise goals for the Summit. Perhaps this should temper expectations for the outcome of the Summit.

The 1987 Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, introduced the theory of sustainable development, which seeks to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Semantically, the term fused two words derived from verbs with contradictory connotations. The word "sustain" connotes perpetuation and balance, while "develop" is a dynamic word that connotes expansion and transformation. If the two words together cannot accommodate their paradoxical meanings, then the term's relevance is subverted.

The Brundtland Commission, chaired by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first woman prime minister of Norway, coined the term by grafting capitalist terminology onto environmental concepts. Johannesburg Summit organizers have adopted a market vernacular to express the social and environmental goals of the Summit.

"I would describe [sustainable development] as taking an asset management perspective to development directly," said Summit Secretary-General Nitin Desai, who sat on the Brudtland Commission, in a recent edition of the UN Chronicle. "As in a household or an enterprise, you would basically hope that it is possible for you to sustain your consumption without eroding your capital. You live in a house, you don't want that house to deteriorate. You have a garden, you don't want that garden to deteriorate."

It can be argued that the duality of sustainable development extends the breadth of possible interpretations to the breaking point. Environmentalists and social activists accentuate the "sustainable" component of the term, emphasizing ecological conservation and equitable resource distribution. The corporate community tends to focus on how free market growth can encourage "development," though it often elides the environmental and social costs of such expansion.

Critics of sustainable development charge that this duality allows corporations to promote their practices as being sustainable without demonstrating so quantifiably. The United Nations' "Building Partnerships" initiative, which is supposed to create synergies between the public and private sectors to help solve environmental and social problems, is also criticized as the corporate infiltration of the UN. Extending this line of reasoning, critics argue that business has hijacked the Summit's agenda.

Ironically, the term sustainable development implicitly assumes that development is unsustainable by definition, and must be altered or tempered to perpetuate growth. Real progress at the Summit will require clearer definitions of sustainable development, specific plans of action, and provision of a means for verifying performance. Only then can the breadth of sustainable development be reigned in, removing the cloak of sustainability from those whose actions do not match their words.


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