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The Earth Brokers:
Carving Up the Planet

The Earth Brokers:
Power, Politics and World Development

By Pratap Chatterjee and Matthias Finger
New York: Routledge, 1995
191 pp., $16.95

Reviewed by Robert Weissman

For most people on the planet, the 1992 Earth Summit has had no discernible effect. The United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED), as the Earth Summit was officially known, was one of the greatest gatherings ever of world leaders. It produced the Rio Declaration, a set of aspirational principles to which almost every nation committed itself, and a detailed Agenda 21, a very long set of environmental policy proposals which signatory nations endorsed, but did not pledge to implement. Little meaningful work has since been done to implement either the Rio Declaration principles or Agenda 21.

The Summit also witnessed: the upgrading of the World Bank-run General Environmental Facility (GEF), a mechanism to fund environmental projects in the Third World; pledges of increased aid to the Third World from industrialized countries; and the creation of a UN Commission on Sustainable Development. But the GEF upgrading probably would have occurred in the absence of the Summit; the new aid flowing as a result of the Summit is minimal; and the Commission on Sustainable Development has shown few signs of life.

Despite these shortcomings, Pratap Chatterjee and Matthias Finger convincingly argue that the Earth Summit should not be forgotten or ignored, dismissed as a lost opportunity or as nothing more than a grand spectacle. Their central claim in The Earth Brokers is that the Earth Summit marked a major achievement for big business. It consolidated multinational corporations' role as purported agents of ecological change and promoted, rather than challenged, current unsustainable patterns of development in both the industrialized North and the poor South. Non-governmental organizations, they contend, allowed themselves to be coopted into the UNCED preparatory process, and ultimately into the UNCED vision of global management.

For Chatterjee and Finger, UNCED was not an isolated event, but the culmination of the decades-long evolution of development ideology. During the last 25 years, developmental theorists have struggled to adapt their equation of growth and industrialization with progress to the challenge posed by environmentalism. The Earth Summit resolved the manner in which developmental ideology would respond to the environmental challenge.

The Earth Summit conclusions, Chatterjee and Finger contend, were foreshadowed in two important reports, which were both produced by international commissions. The first was the 1983 Our Common Future by the UN-created World Commission on Environment and Development (known as the Brundtland report). The second report was The Challenge to the South by the South Commission, a group of leading Third World academics and government officials, published in 1993.

The key conclusion of the Brundtland Commission was that environmental and development goals could be pursued simultaneously, and it coined the term "sustainable development" to signify its understanding of the compatibility of the goals. The Commission elaborated the idea of a global commons - that is, the shared natural resources of the planet - and called for their rational management to further both environmental ends and Third World industrialization and growth.

The South Commission focused on achieving growth and development in the Third World almost to the complete exclusion of environmental concerns. Where the Brundtland Commission focused on the shared interests of all people, the South Commission emphasized the disparate and sometimes conflicting interests between the industrialized North and the Third World. But the South Commission shared with the Brundtland Commission a vision of the Third World developing according to essentially the same industrial model as the North, and that is the crucial fact for Chatterjee and Finger's story.

The Earth Summit documents combined the approaches of these two predecessor commissions. UNCED participants and the UNCED documents opted not to call for any regulation of multinationals, limits on free trade, a cut in Northern resource consumption, a phase out of nuclear power or a transition away from international chemical dependency. Instead, Chatterjee and Finger write, they proposed as solutions "Western science, Western technology, Western information, Western training, Western money [aid] and Western institutions." But these proposals, they say, "could not possibly have addressed the causes of the crisis, which happen to be Western as well."

For the authors, the fatal flaw of the Earth Summit was that it did not foreswear industrial development. The only way out of the global development and environmental crisis, they contend, is to abandon the Western model of industrialization and growth altogether. In fashioning a plan for the future, "we must accept that further industrial development will only lead to further destruction. Instead, we must think and collectively behave in terms of the sustainability of a closed and finite system of local and regional resources, as well as of socially and culturally rooted users."

While Chatterjee and Finger do not merely assert this claim nakedly, they do not fully develop it in this short book. Those already sympathetic to an anti-industrialization position will readily accept it as a legitimate vantage point from which to critique UNCED, but the book won't convince skeptical readers that industrial development must be abandoned in the name of a sustainable future.

But this limitation of The Earth Brokers does not mean that only those who share its anti-industrialization orientation will find it useful. Its account of the etiology of the Earth Summit's ideology is excellent, and its critique of the politics and institutional outcome of the Earth Summit is insightful.

As for the politics of the event, no one - not even the environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to which they are plainly sympathetic - escapes the authors' damning criticisms. They complain that NGOs wasted enormous amounts of money, time and energy preparing for the Summit and that NGOs failed to project a unified message in the preparation for UNCED or at the Summit itself. They conclude "that the UNCED documents were hardly affected by the various NGOs. This is with the exception of some mainstream environmental NGOs, whose positions were so close to the positions of the governments that their distinctive impact can hardly be detected in the texts."

Even the Third World Network, an umbrella grouping of progressive environmental and development organizations, comes in for criticism. Although Third World Network leaders offered the most cogent criticisms of UNCED at the Summit itself, Chatterjee and Finger assert that their emphasis on North-South inequalities and Southern poverty "played into the hands of the development establishment." That is because the implicit and sometimes explicit solution to the problems raised was more development and more aid - both of which are part of the global crisis.

The authors conclude, "It is, of course, unfair to blame these NGOs for the failure of the UNCED process. But it is legitimate to question their buying into the UNCED process without prior critical reflection."

It would not, however, be unfair to place substantial blame for the Earth Summit's failure on multinational corporations - although it is a "failure" that business views as a great success. Chatterjee and Finger show how multinational corporate interests lobbied UNCED negotiators, became respectable participants in the UNCED process, helped fund the event and ultimately came to be seen as part of the UNCED solution rather than part of the problem.

The business view - put forward by the Business Council for Sustainable Development, an international coalition of multinationals - called for self-regulation rather than government regulation of industrial activity. The pitfalls of this approach are obvious; and Chatterjee and Finger report that even a Business Council survey of corporations found that it is government regulation which most often prompts environmental-friendly moves by corporations.

With the Earth Summit process captured by big business and government negotiators failing to question the economic paradigm which has poisoned the environment and impoverished the Third World, it is no surprise that the new institutions created at the Earth Summit offer no prospect of remedying the problems they were designed to address. In one of the Earth Summit's great ironies, the Global Environmental Facility is now operated by the World Bank, one of the planet's great environmental destroyers, and early GEF projects already show signs of replicating the failures of past Bank-funded efforts. And the other major UNCED institutional creation, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, "is bogged down in the UN bureaucracy, has no money and therefore no power."

The authors' balance sheet for the Earth Summit is decidedly negative. They conclude, "Overall, the shift to the global approach, as it has occurred through UNCED, seems only to have reproduced the old approaches and solutions, this time on a planetary scale." Their case for this contention is strong. Whether they are right, given the genuinely global nature of so many pressing environmental problems, to argue on the basis of the UNCED experience that global approaches should be abandoned entirely, is less clear.

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