Driving home a point without any solutions
THE BRANDT Commission in 1980 had called for a world "based less on power and status, more on justice and contract; less discretionary, more governed by fair and open rules". Shridath Ramphal renews that appeal, on the road to Rio, but passion is not the sole basis of his plea. His argument is based on his experience of more than two decades as a champion of the developing countries, with ideas honed as the president of the World Conservation Union and secretary-general of the British Commonwealth. With the distinction of being the only person to have served on all the five international commissions set up on global issues, including the Brandt and the Brundtland Commissions, Ramphal correlates scientific research with his definition of the nature and magnitude of human excesses.
Rich and poor countries contribute unequally to the environmental crisis, explains Ramphal. This, and their different economic capacities, prevents them seeking solutions together. Ramphal highlights factors which impeded cooperation in the past to propose solutions for in the future. He argues that global problems need global remedies.
Ramphal does not pull his punches in assailing the guilty. Take for example, the need to stabilise the global output of carbon dioxide. Ramphal says, "Ironically, the notable laggard in 1991 was the US, the worst polluter in this respect. The US accounts for 23 per cent of world carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use. The other Group of Seven nations together account for 18 per cent." The US alone, at preparatory meetings of the Earth Summit, resisted treaties to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
The author drives home the message that poverty and environment are inextricably linked in a chain of cause and effect. To him, the industrialisation of some countries and the consequent underdevelopment of others, endangers the environment the most. As he says, "Environmental problems cannot be tackled in isolation from those national and global economic factors that perpetuate large-scale poverty. International economic problems such as oppressive levels of debt service and depressed commodity prices ultimately force countries to exploit their natural resources in an unsustainable way in order to maintain essential export earnings."
The 10 chapters of the book are divided into four sections. The first, Ramphal's overview of the present crises, sweeping across time and space, shows how humans, or more precisely westerners, ruined the world. In what could be called excellent ecohistory, the author argues that contemporary western injunctions come across as attempts to preserve global inequalities of wealth and power. Western edicts like "Don't do as I do; just do as I say", do not secure willing responses when addressed by haves to have-nots.
In the next section, 'Ravages', Ramphal discusses the degradation of air, water and the earth and the contribution to all these by the consumption of fossil fuels. The analysis shows the West trying to cut down heavily on certain emissions, perhaps in fear of causing holes in the ozone layer. Is this fear because of radiation-induced skin cancer, to which "light-skinned people" are more prone? "Australia has the highest incidence (of skin cancer), and over ten thousand people a year are killed by it in the United States alone," says Ramphal.
In the third section, Ramphal attributes the present impasse to the unequal relationship between the rich and the poor, accentuated by population pressures fostered in a "feudal world". The overconsumption of the rich has endangered human survival. Ramphal does not allow any rich country to escape responsibility by blaming developing countries.
What then are the solutions to all these problems? Throughout the book, Ramphal reiterates the need for the West to mend its ways. He raises an important issue: if the development of a quarter of the earth's people has made the notion of sustainability a serious one, how should the development of the rest of the globe be accommodated?
Ramphal falters in elaborating how to reach sustainability. The last section, "Responses", has an interesting discourse on the ethics of survival, but "muddles through" to an "enlightened change". This extremely readable book, a must for those interested in what led to Rio, leaves one wondering why Ramphal, is not pessimistic about conventions and conferences. Is it because of his Guyanese stoicism, and the realisation that the negotiating table is the only way out for the developing nations?