Page for diverse actions at the Global Day of Action against a Corporate UN on August 31


Green Capitalism and the New African Imperialists-
Tales on the Road to the Joburg Summit

by Patrick Bond and Michael Dorsey

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) will be held in Johannesburg beginning on August 24, proceeded by various civil society conferences and events. Its purported aim is to find a common international discourse, strategies and tactics that allow governments, business and civil society to eradicate poverty, end unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, and combat environmental degradation. But will it flop?

Host president Thabo Mbeki's New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) is one of the main agenda items, having recently gone through official state endorsement processes at both the June summit of the G-8 leaders in Alberta, Canada, and the July launch of the Africa Union in Durban. Pronounced "knee-pad" by many civil society advocates, the "Partnership" may be a shot-gun wedding forcing the rest of the continent to its knees, bowing to the whims and demands of proto-capitalists, like Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and his Pretoria cronies. The WSSD will also be the site of a mass anti-capitalist march on August 31, although there are two major camps on the South African left claiming the tradition of the World Social Forum. Regardless of whether a labour/church-backed pro-government grouping--the Civil Society Forum--continues to crowd out the independent-left Civil Society Indaba, the WSSD will not be left unscathed. The latter group has the support of urban anti-privatisation and rural landless people's organisations and until February was the official UN host, before being booted out unceremoniously during internecine conflict with larger, more mainstream groups.

In addition, a variety of NGO side-events by groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth International, the International Forum on Globalization, Corpwatch and many sectoral advocacy groups will keep the pressure on. Security is likely to be sufficiently tight as to prevent disruptions. As many as 100 heads of state are expected, with 60,000 other delegates, press and activists. Even aside from civil society protest, bad content and process threaten to delegitimise the official event, as happened at the June Preparatory Committee in Bali, Indonesia. The very name "Johannesburg" may go down in infamy as the global elites' last-gasp attempt--and failure--to address a world careening out of control.

The ghosts-of-Earth-Summit-past configured Johannesburg to compromise the environment. The 1992 Rio event did establish the Rio Principles, Agenda 21, the UN Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Statement of Forest Principles and the Commission on Sustainable Development for implementation. Yet Rio also set in motion third-wayism--championing market solutions for securing environmental protection and promoting free trade as the sole path to sustainability.
Not surprisingly, the German Green party's Heinrich Boell Stiftung recently issued the Jo'burg Memo, which perhaps most eloquently and thoroughly summarises the criticisms of WSSD work to date. Editor Wolfgang Sachs claims that the institutional process has gone forward "without tangible global results. In particular, economic globalisation has largely washed away gains made on the micro level, spreading an exploitative economy across the globe and exposing natural resources in the South and in Russia to the pull of the world market."

Sachs credits elites with only an increase in the global surface area under environmental protection, slowing carbon emissions and declining ozone-depleting CFC production. "Apart from these cases," he continues, "the excessive strain placed by human beings on nature's sources, sites, and sinks has continued to rise. The extinction of species and habitats has increased, the destruction of ancient forests continues unabated, the degradation of fertile soil has worsened, over-fishing of oceans has continued, and the new threat of genetically engineered disruption has emerged."

In theory, the Johannesburg Summit is meant to produce a negotiated leader's statement, a negotiated plan of action and a non-negotiated list of sustainable development initiatives involving states, interstate relations, and business and civil society sectors. But few areas of consensus exist. Several alternative texts, for example, were tabled about the word "globalisation" at the end of the third PrepComm. The US proposed a positive statement, the EU suggested a balanced text, and the
G-77/China insisted on a short paragraph that avoided definitions and instead focused on difficulties experienced by developing countries.

More substantive controversies continue over the role of the profit motive, "public-private partnerships" and market mechanisms in environment and development. The WSSD's main problems are its tendency to allow increasing scope for commodification of nature, its inadequate measures to address poverty and excessive wealth, and its orientation to implementation via TNCs, instead of through strengthened nation-states.

The major background issue is whether the World Trade Organisation will become the default organisation and set of rules governing Multilateral Environmental Agreements.
Elite capacities to restore both the earth and the social wage have been questionable since at least the 1992 Summit. Then billionaire Maurice Strong, the conference Chairman, helped eliminate the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations, hatched the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and mapped a role for corporations
to guide (un)sustainable development. Now WSSD Chairman Nitin Desai has actively blocked negotiations for a side agreement on binding Corporate Accountability, and endorsed the involvement of the newly created Business Action for Sustainable Development Group - which will have a parallel meeting in Joburg in a building adjacent to the government proceedings.

Rio inaugurated the 21st century's eco-social war for the planet, the next battleground will be Johannesburg. But what the framers of corporate environmentalism did not count on then was that where there is government and corporate collusion to plunder the environment and hijack humanity, the radical forces of civil society are never too far behind.


Bond is editor of Fanon's Warning: A Civil Society Reader on the New
Partnership for Africa's Development (Africa World Press, 2002) and
Dorsey is Thurgood Marshall fellow at Dartmouth University, New