From the archives: Reflections on the original Rio Earth Summit 1992

"The route is now marked out," Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said in a blunt farewell to an audience that included several of the 118 heads of state and government who had journeyed here. "Today we have agreed to hold to present levels the pollution we are guilty of. One day we will have to do better -- clean up the planet."
"The function of the United Nations is not to mask general inaction with verbiage, speeches, reports and programs," he said.
I initially came across the quote in a book I recently re-discovered in the library. As more and more snapshots from this year’s Rio+20 Summit arrived I did what any researcher/geek likes to do: I went to my nearest trusted academic library and browsed through some old books that were written shortly after the 1992 Rio Summit.

Global attention for sustainable development and networked governance
The general tone was not surprising and is captured well by Ranee K.L. Panjabi:

If Rio was largely an event to bring global attention to the tragedy of environmental degradation, then it can be deemed an unqualified success (1997:16).
There is always a ‘first’ and Rio can probably called the first successful global post-Cold War Summit where a lot of the enthusiasm about new forms of transnational governance was still very much alive. It wasn’t simply ‘business as usual’ as Lanchberry concludes:
The Earth Summit was unusual amongst summits, where the aim is primarily to enable discussions between heads of government (1996:240).
The Rio process actually involved a considerable amount of preparatory work and in a world with basically no Internet, Email and Skype (yet) it was a considerable logistical achievement:
Getting to this stage [presenting the two conventions for signature] represented the completion of a massive organizational task and involved many thousands of working hours (1996:231)
In short, the new decade promised a new dawn with regards to diplomacy, world politics and national interests as Panjabi concludes in his introduction:
Nations like the US, gifted with inventive genius and a tradition of individualism and innovative entrepreneurship, could stand to gain considerable by becoming active participants in this real “new world order” which has already arrived. By clinging to an outdated perception of self-interest, the world’s one remaining superpower risks isolating itself and being unable to compete in a rapidly changing economic and environmental attitude now seeping the planet (1997:20)
The rise and rise of global conference rituals? 

However, as enthusiastic as some political scientists may have been, early anthropological insights from Rio also indicate that some of the proceedings may not have been as revolutionary as they may seem today. Anthropologist Paul Little who attended the Summit points out some of discursive developments around the spectacular rise of the concept of ‘sustainable development’:

The Rio Conference is unique in that it occurred at a moment of history when one of the key cosmological concepts of international development - constant economic growth - is being called into question. To perform a political ritual in this milieu makes the establishment of conventions all the more important and Bush’s breach of that convention more telling. Now we can see why so many leaders focused upon the term “sustainable development” at the conference. This term was meant to provide a foundation for the construction of a new political cosmology that would resolve the contradictions and anomalies that have emerged within the old one. The fact that this term had no precise definition made this task all the more difficult given the ongoing redefinition of world power relations and the uncertain future consequences of environmental degradation (1995:278)
But Little also points out that the Earth Summit of 1992 was merely the potential beginning of a new era and it is interesting to compare his conclusions with the current state of affair 20 years later – especially with regard to traditional governance concepts:

Transnational mega-events are an increasingly important part of the modern world and have diverse meanings and impacts. They exemplify the growing contradictions of a world confronted with global flows and problems yet still trapped in a political order based on territorially based nation-states. They simultaneously serve as forums for the creation of a new political cosmology and the mystification of crude power politics. They highlight the need for dialogue and cooperation between an emerging international civil society and transnational government bureaucracies, while noting its still tenuous existence (1995:286-287).
‘Working Natural Wonders in the Energy World’ – Enron ads, sustainable mining and ‘harmony forever’

Martin Khor, the Director of the Third World Network wrote shortly after the Summit:

The most glaring weakness at Rio was the failure to include the regulation of business, financial institutions and TNCs in Agenda 21 and other decisions.
One of the more surprising finds during my research was a hardcopy of the official Summit report. The text itself is pretty underwhelming, but there are full-page ads on almost every other page and I wish I brought my camera with me! They are an interesting snapshot of corporate engagement, but I also think they are an excellent indicator of some of the bigger issues around ‘sustainable development’ and how slow progress has been in many areas.

The one-page Enron ad (‘Working Natural Wonders in the Energy World’) had heads turning in my direction in the library. Yes, seeing a bald Eagle fly over pristine green American forests and a clean power plant tucked neatly away in the background of the ad is pretty funny. Clearly, the CSR discourse was in its infancy in the early 1990s. There is a full range of automakers, energy and telecoms companies and many seemed to be state-owned, national entities. And somehow, they were and are all dedicated to 'sustainable development'. Indonesia’s Pertamina for example is confident:

The parallel growth Indonesia enjoys in the industrial and agricultural sectors is the strength that shall bring the country steadily toward the fulfilment of the country’s development objectives.
Twenty years later the company is doing well and recently started to build a partnership with the oil industry in East Timor. Development and progress...

Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, one of the world’s largest mining companies praises its ‘example of sustainable development’ in its ad about the iron-ore mine Carajas. Twenty years later a range of civil society organisations is battling with the company over various social justice issues.

And Philippine’s National Oil Company’s slogan ‘Harmony Forever’ looks...interesting when one considers the countries’ ‘radical’ pursuing of natural resources in the South China Sea these days.

I don’t want to single out individual companies, but after browsing through the Earth Summit document I was really left wondering whether some of the socio-economical foundations for unsustainable development are still firmly in place – whether or not the current Rio+ Summit is labelled a ‘success’ and 'victory for multilateralism' like UN's Ban does or as an ‘epic failure’.

John Lanchberry in: David H. Dunn, Diplomacy at the Highest Level. The Evolution of International Summitry, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996.

Paul Little, Ritual, power and ethnography at the Rio Earth Summit, Critique of Anthropology 15(3), 1995.

Ranee K.L. Panjabi, The Earth Summit at Rio. Politics, Economics and the Environment, Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Joyce Quarrie, Earth Summit ’92, London: Regency Press, 1992.


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