Green Christians     Issue 50: Winter 2002/2003

Green Christians is the main publication of Christian Ecology Link and exists to debate environmental matters in a Christian context. Please feel free to contribute articles, opinions and letters to the Editor .
    To obtain a copy of this winter's issue see the end of this page.


The Johannesburg Summit: is sustainable development still a pipe dream?

'We know the problems, and we know the answers - sustainable development. The issue is the political will' (Tony Blair, Johannesburg, September 2002).

A major international summit taking place on the other side of the world can be very bewildering to those trying to understand what went on there, and how it relates to us back home. It is harder still when much of the resulting paperwork appears to be couched in an impenetrable language of acronyms, numbered principles and outcomes.

With this special issue of Green Christians, we have set ourselves the task of bringing you the Summit that took place in Johannesburg last September in a readable form. We also aim to highlight the Christian involvement in both the participation in the Summit and its take-home messages. If this magazine reaches you a couple of months after the Summit itself when it is no longer hot news, we make no apology for that: the Summit's repercussions should continue to be felt for many years to come, and we need to take time to ponder them carefully.

What happened at Johannesburg has profound implications for all of us. The World Summit on Sustainable Development or WSSD, organised by the United Nations (I am just calling it 'the Summit'), was the ten-year successor to the UN Conference on Environment and Development which took place in Rio in 1992. The Rio Summit had as its aim an ambitious but vital programme: the saving of the environment from further degradation and the narrowing of the gap between the rich and the poor of the world. These twin goals have been expressed by the term 'sustainable development', which is commonly defined as 'development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.

Rio launched an era or optimism which was dashed all to soon as it became clear that the problems it was set up to solve were getting worse rather than better. Though many important commitments were undertaken at Rio, too many were reneged on even though rich nations got richer. The process of change became mired in political denial and self interest, and thus the Johannesburg Summit was planned in an atmosphere of increasing concern. If expectations were at all high, this was because of the acute need rather than any real hope for change.

Predictably, therefore, not enough was achieved at Johannesburg in the opinions of most observers. One could say much about what was left out (climate change, peace, alternative economic indicators...) and about the struggle to agree meaningful targets against a background of increasing US isolationism. Some solid agreements were negociated, however. An added bonus was the opportunity for networking among delegates, particularly from NGOs. Very satisfying also was the affirmation, beyond the objections of detractors, of the link between poverty and environmental degradation.

All summits, however high-powered, are made up of people meeting each other, and you can read the impressions of some of them in these pages. All the contributors attended in person, all represented Christian groups; all had to struggle to find their way around the venues in Johannesburg with sometimes a minimum of guidance. The churches, as you will see, made a unique contribution to the Summit itself and it is to be hoped that the experience of Summit will, in return, feed theological and practical thinking about sustainable development in the churches for some time to come.

One has to take heart from the fact that the Summit took place at all: where there is international discussion on these important global concerns, there must be hope. Yet where we still fail to make links, it is between our individual actions and the global problems we face. Let us not allow the Summit process slip from our minds just because it is out of the daily news. We need to hold our Government to account for what Tony Blair expressed so well in the quote: if we know what we need to do, then we are, collectively, the greater sinners if we fail to do it.

Collecting water

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