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Sustaining the environment or greenwashing economic growth?

By Deb Foskey - posted Friday, 15 March 2002

In 1992, ‘environment’ was the word on everyone’s lips. Prime Minister Hawke’s consultations on ecologically sustainable development had involved thousands of Australians, even though Paul Keating tried to scuttle the process when he took over. Even journalists were interested; articles about impending environmental doom - deforestation, desertification, climate change, biodiversity - were front-page stuff. The politics of the environment on the way to Agenda 21 was the stuff of more than one academic career, and courses on the topic were flavour of the month at universities.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in June in Rio de Janeiro, was the stage on which this global battle was fought. Non-government organisations converged on the city in unprecedented numbers and our own Minister for the Environment, Ros Kelly attended and signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, promising to reduce CO2 emissions. Our pale green reputation of the early 1990s is now extinct. And the US approach to the Kyoto Protocol is the logical sequiteur to the first George Bush’s refusal to sign this and other environmental agreements on the grounds that ‘the US lifestyle is non-negotiable’.

Looking back, 1992 was not the watershed that environmentalists hoped it would be; instead, there has been a steady decline in commitment from governments and interest from the media since. The green backlash, financed by some of the world’s most expensive public relations companies, is almost complete. This is reflected in the lack of public interest that this year, in August in Johannesburg, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development or Rio + 10, there will be a review of governments’ progress towards meeting the commitments they made in 1992. However, while public relations experts can promote corporations as saviours through their ‘green washing’, they cannot hide environmental problems which have grown steadily worse over the decade.


It is argued by many commentators that the failure of UNCED is reflected in the concept which it enshrined. ‘Sustainable development’ is a vague term, with the ability to mean anything, depending on its user. As coined by the Brundtland Commission in the report which provided the basis of UNCED discussions, ‘sustainable development’ is defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, 43). This is an anthropocentric approach, and implies equity between generations, although it doesn’t call for it in the present. The Australian environment movement put the world ‘ecologically’ in front of the term, making the environment the entity which needed to be sustained. Neither approach challenged the concept of ‘development’ itself, which even by the early 1990s had become synonymous with ‘economic growth’. This was exemplified in the approach of corporations and governments which supported them: in ‘sustainable development’, it was economic growth which had to be sustained.

In 2002, it is clear which definition of ‘sustainable development’ has triumphed. It is not a term in favour with ecologists any more, since it has been well and truly co-opted by corporations, who have used the term to build an unfounded reputation as responsible ‘global citizens’. Once touted as part of the problem, corporations now claim that they are the solution. International financial institutions like the World Bank and World Trade organisation (WTO) say that the answer to environmental problems is more economic growth, and the way to achieve more economic growth is through trade and investment liberalisation. Never mind that the production and consumption patterns which produce the kind of growth in question are the prime cause of the problems.

Since 1992, the power of the United Nations has been eclipsed by the joint impact of under-funding (with the United States withholding its contributions over most of the decade), its own unwieldiness and the powerful triumvirate of WTO, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which police the global economy. The environmental and human rights conventions which were arduously created and promoted by the UN are over-ridden by WTO agreements and regulations. At the recent Doha ministerial meeting of the WTO, it was agreed that multilateral environment agreements would over-ride WTO regulations - but only where they have been signed and ratified by member governments. The US has been playing it safe, and avoiding this situation.

‘Sustained growth’ is clearly not delivering environmental protection. Nor is it satisfying human needs and aspirations, which the World Commission on Environment and Development stated to be the objective of development. Since 1992, indebted governments of low income countries have had less to spend on health, education, housing, food subsidies and other social services which provide the basis for well-being. The World Bank and IMF have been pushing structural adjustment packages which enforce privatisation and user-pays approaches, remove subsidies from fuel and basic foodstuffs for the poor and push people already at the margins into abject poverty. It is hard to prevent countries like Papua New Guinea and Indonesia from selling their rainforests when this is one of the few profitable resources they can sell against their indebtedness.

The run-up period to Rio + 10 provides a good opportunity to evaluate our progress towards sustainable development. Foreign aid from OECD countries is at a dismally low ebb; corporate players like Bill Gates, the Packard Foundation and Ted Turner are providing funding to the UN, but they dictate the terms. Poor countries are told to trade themselves out of poverty, but without the protective measures which fostered the economic growth of the ‘tigers’ of south-east Asia. Sadly, there is little critique of the current state of affairs from the main players in the environment movement. In 2002, too many NGOs, think-tanks and researchers rely upon corporate finance to push for the global regulation of transnational corporations which was a theme in 1992.

Environmentalists are opposed to much of the trade liberalisation agenda - remember the giant turtles who turned out on the streets of Seattle in December 1999 - but the gap between Northern environmentalists and Southern developmentalists which became evident in Rio remains. Southern activists want deeper changes to the political and economic structures which create the conditions for environmental degradation, resource misuse and poverty; many Northern environmentalists still focus on conventions which the most powerful governments disdain. Both groups must work together to challenge the juggernaut of corporate globalisation which over-rides those gains hard-won at Stockholm in 1972 and at Rio in 1992, and which will have to be defended at Johannesberg in 2002. Turning ‘sustained growth’ back into ‘ecologically sustainable development’ is hardly worth the effort; this battle needs to be fought on a larger canvas.

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About the Author

Dr Deb Foskey is writing her PhD thesis on the global politics of population in the School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.

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