Postcards from Johannesburg

by Susan Burns

Day 1
Susan Burns Final
After much deliberation, Mathis and I have decided to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa, and to bring our 17-month-old son, Andre, with us. Although people from many quarters have deemed the summit a complete failure, even before it has started, I see attending the summit as an opportunity to learn, and to take the pulse of the world, in order to make my own work more effective. Mathis has been convinced to attend because of the popularity of the Ecological Footprint and the opportunity to reach decision makers with this tool for measuring sustainability progress.

After a grueling 2-day journey, which included an overnight flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam, a day walking around in Amsterdam and another overnight flight, we arrived at Johannesburg Airport. I am enormously grateful to little Andre, for going with the flow, sleeping long stretches each night, and generally being a very agreeable travel partner. While we attend the Summit, we are staying at St. Stithians College, a private boys and girl’s school that has been converted to host “The People’s Earth Summit,” a funkier, funner, smaller version of the Civil Society Forum that is organized here. For those of you new to international meetings, Civil Society Forums are attended by NGOs and occur along side, but terribly separate from, the official government meetings, both distance and ideology. This Civil Society Forum here at WSSD is no different, as it is located a 45 minute drive away from the Government Summit.

On the drive to St. Stithians College, the disparity between rich and poor is immediately apparent. We pass vast Townships, stretching as far as the eye can see, with thousands of small brick houses spaced very close together, with dirt roads and not a tree or blade of grass in sight. Then we see wealthy gated communities with green lawns and large homes. We arrive at St. Stithians, register, play in the sun, shower, and settle in with our hosts, David and Ingred Whyle, the Rector of the college and his wife. Our sleep deprivation and the time change doesnt allow for much more in terms of accomplishments today. During dinner that night at the campus cafeteria, Andre is happily snatched from my arms by a crowd of chattering 10 year old black children who surround him, playing endless versions of peek-a-boo and coochie coo. I am deeply touched by their bright and playful spirits – and so is Andre.

Day 2

We set out, Andre perched on Mathis’s back, to Santon, a wealthy neighborhood of Jo-burg, to register as delegates to the official government forum. It is still very unclear what is happening where and how to get authorization to attend the various events. Everyone seems as confused as we are. What I do know is that much of the action is centered in Santon, except for the Civil Society Forum (40 minute drive away) and the People’s Summit (which is held at St. Stithians, where we are staying). Opportunities to attend the Government Summit are limited. One thousand NGO delegates, like us, per day are allowed into the government summit, to observe and to lobby government officials (if you have inside connections). Ubutu Village, a venue a few miles away, is the site of the public exposition, which is like a glitzy county fair, where a lot of governments and groups like WBCSD (the World Business Council for Sustainable Development) have set up exhibitions. There is also an endless amount of entertainment, food and markets set up at Ubutu Village. The IUCN, the World Conservation Union , is holding a whole week of events here in Santon, and the WBSCD is having a special day on business and sustainability, also in Santon. It’s overwhelming, but I’m sure we’ll catch on in a few days. Programs to any of these events are hard to come by, and seem to be constantly shifting and inaccurate.

Our big accomplishment today is to register for the Government Summit and to meet with Michel Gelobter who is the Executive Director of Redefining Progress and Mathis’s boss. Over dinner, we strategize on how to tackle this monster.

If its true, as many have complained, that business is dominating the summit, it is almost totally invisible except for the sponsorship of BMW, who placed a fuel cell car smack dab in the center of the plaza.

That evening, back at our host’s home, we watch on TV, the opening ceremonies for the conference with a speech by Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa and the architect of the African Union. He has a strong message: “Our common and decisive victory against domestic apartheid (in South Africa) confirms that you, the peoples of the world, have both the responsibility and the possibility to achieve a decisive victory against global apartheid. Out of Johannesburg and out of Africa, must emerge something new that takes the world forward away from the entrenchment of global apartheid, to the realization of the goals of sustainable development.” This message encapsulates the message from the southern countries and the so-called “third world”. Whether the North and friends of globalization can hear it, remains to be seen.

Day 3

We left little Andre with a wonderful nanny named Dagny, unencumbered by diapers and pacifiers. What peace of mind to know that he is happy and safe as we journey toward NASRAC, the site of the Civil Society Forum.

What a different scene than the government forum! Here, attendees are 90% people of color from almost every country on earth. It is a very lively event. Waiting to hear Nelson Mandela open the conference there are thousands in the room, drumming, singing and whistling. Mandela cancelled, but the dialogue was lively and passionate. Here, people are very clear: global capitalism is creating poverty. Someone said that the world has changed from haves and have-nots to live and live-nots.

The conference center is enormous and it is hard to get a sense of the whole. It has 8 huge rooms for exhibitors of all types from WWF to local womens organizations. There are many side rooms where various meetings and events are held. Unfortunately, it is hard to know what is happening at any given time. The printed program we have is outdated and only lists a portion of the events. Someone put together a more accurate program, but ran out of copies.

More than anything, I get a sense of huge diversity, but not much unity. People seem to focus on their own single issues or, when they focus on macro issues, tend to argue among themselves. I also notice that the meetings are held in the typical deadening format with panelists that go on forever and very little time for question and answer. We meet up with Paul Raskin of the Stockholm Environmental Institute, who wonders how we can channel all this passion into a unifying direction. I think about Bill Shiremans Industrial Ecology Retreats and all of the creative ways weve been able to maximize peoples’ involvement there. And Juanita Browns World Cafes, which can shepherd a groups consensus and collective vision. I fantasize about bringing these techniques and tools to these sorts of conferences. What a terrible tragedy it would be if the people of the world, who hold dear a common and simple goal, that all people live well on this one precious planet, couldnt powerfully mobilize, in part because of a lack of skills and tools to set aside fear and channel their energy.

Day 4

Today we attended events mainly at IUCN (The World Conservation Union). Sessions throughout the week include conservation, poverty, biotec
hnology, water and sanitation, and of course, the Ecological Footprint. The sessions feel very much like events I could attend in the US, and I vow to spend more time this week at the Civil Society Forum and the official government summit.

Things are already starting to heat up at the government summit regarding the USs position on issues. The goal of this summit is to put together an implementation plan to fulfill the promises of sustainable development over the next 20 years. The Bush Administration has thoroughly coached hundreds of (I think at least 300) official delegates to constantly and persistently repeat the mantra of partnerships, not targets and timetables. This has caused a lot of tension with the European Union which feels that a strong action plan needs targets and timetables to be effective. The stated rationale is that weve already made commitments that we havent fulfilled, so lets just get to work on sustainable development partnerships rather than spending time on the theoretical exercise of setting more targets. A friend from NRDC who is close to the negotiations feels hopeful about the trend toward partnerships, however, I (and many others) have doubts. Apparently, there is no new money allocated toward these partnerships (just existing aid money that is being reclassified) and no specific parameters or outcomes. It feels quite a bit like George Bush seniors 1000 points of light idea, when he pushed volunteerism while cutting finding for social programs.

Another embarrassing thing: The US threatened before the summit, that if Kyoto was discussed at all, it wouldnt send anyone to the summit. So discussions on Kyoto have been limited. And the U.S. is vigorously trying to change language related to access to clean drinking water. The current language commits to cutting in half, by 2015, the number of people without access to clean water. The U.S. wants to change the language to drastically reduce. One good piece of news, the U.S. has committed to lifting agricultural subsidies that could redirect roughly $100 billion to poor countries.

Day 5

Over the last few days Ive spoken with people who have managed to get into the Government Forum. One NGO representative said, I had to get out! It was totally maddening. A lot of babble, no one agreeing on anything. A senior manager at Friends of the Earth jokingly shook me by the shoulders begging me to go to the summit in her place. So today, Mathis and I set out to get our own share of punishment.

It truly appears to be a painstaking process. Negotiators have a draft document with sections of it bracketed where one nation or another disagrees with the text. There is what is called The Vienna Process where delegates sit in a multi-layered semi-circle and a facilitator attempts to find agreement on language. Another process takes place in the plenary sessions where ministers, NGOs and others give speeches and have a dialogue on major issues. We attended one such session where country after country gave general statements on access to clean water. After an hour, we left. There are many closed meetings of various types and I imagine that the real work gets done in these meetings and also informally in the corridors. You can tell the real delegates from the rest of us spectators. They are the ones who have been up until 3 am, 3 nights in a row, heads down in the cafeteria shoveling food into their mouths before theyre off to another meeting.

We go to the cafeteria and look down from the balcony on to a sea of hundreds of computers where delegates are hard at work, rewriting language for the next round of negotiations or writing press releases.

At 1:30 pm each day is a U.S. Government briefing for NGOs, which we attend. Representatives from USAID, The State Department and U.S. EPA attempt to convince us that the United States is the world leader in Sustainable Development. But when questioned, they are trying hard to make the status quo look like amazing new commitments. Their approach to energy issues, for example, is to focus on improving indoor air quality for the millions of people who use wood and dung for cooking fuel. While this issue is definitely important, they focus on this in lieu of setting targets for clean energy in the U.S. and lifting subsidies for oil, coal and nuclear energy sources. When questioned, one representative cried, Targets and timetables wont help that poor African woman who has to walk miles a day for firewood! I feel sorry for these poor people whose jobs require them to play the sorry role of defending US policy.

Steven Rockefeller is trying hard to get the Earth Charter (which is an ethical statement signed by thousands of governments) mentioned in the official statement emerging from the summit. My heart sinks as he tells me that he and others are having numerous conversations with the U.S. delegation about this, not in the hope that the U.S. would support it, but in order to prevent the U.S. from blocking it.

Day 6
Today, a breath of fresh air and a slight escape from the here-and-now. I attend a workshop put on by Paul Raskin of Stockholm Environmental Institute called: Sustainability: The Next Wave. Paul and his team worked with hundreds of environmental experts and activists from all around the world in a process to identify scenarios for the future. He says we are at a choice point, that a number of futures are possible, and we can affect the outcome. One of his scenarios is that we stay on our present course, using policy measures and market forces to influence change. However, this is not likely to result in a sustainable world due to a lack of political will. We need a new paradigm that effects values and culture at a deep level – a shift to an economy that exists as a means to serve people. However, if civil society remains paralyzed, it will not be able to counter market forces and we may end up in a fortress world, falling into a global dark ages. But if civil society can unify around a shared vision, then sustainability is possible. It seems that a huge gap today is the absence of forums and democratic processes where civil society can coalesce into a world peoples movement.


Susan Burns is a principle of the sustainability consulting firm, Natural Strategies. The company helps organizations achieve long-term, “bottom-line” results through the application of sustainability principles in strategic and tactical decision-making. Contact her:

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