Skip to content

The Rio+20 Earth Summit on Sustainable Development, which starts in two weeks, will be a farce, even if everybody keeps a straight face. The grand UN-based system conceived to co-ordinate the activities of all mankind has proved utterly unsustainable, a dysfunctional mess that generates nothing but endless meetings, agendas and reports.

That sustainable development would inevitably collapse under its own contradictions was inevitable. What is fascinating is why every country on Earth — including Canada — would earnestly have committed to a concept hatched by a cabal of ardent socialists. Equally fascinating is the almost universal reluctance to acknowledge the organizational disaster that has ensued.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade declared that the “composition of the Canadian delegation” was “still under consideration,” although apparently Environment Minister Peter Kent will be going, as will Quebec Premier Jean Charest. When I asked the spokeswoman for background information on Canada’s approach to Rio+20, she suggested that I file an access to information request. Doesn’t sound very transparent (a key tenet of sustainability), but then the federal government’s position does appear a little conflicted.

Since one of sustainable development’s key objectives is to kill the fossil fuel industry, it hardly seems to fit the Conservatives’ promotion of Canada as an oil and gas superpower. Equally, Ottawa’s decision to streamline environmental regulation goes entirely against sustainability’s thrust of increasingly comprehensive consultation. As for the even more controversial move to tighten up — that is, apply the existing tax rules to — the political activities of foreign-funded environmental “charities,” how does that fit with the Harper government’s solemn commitment, in its submission to Rio+20 summit, to promote the involvement of the very same non-governmental organizations? Welcome to sustainable development’s world of devious ideological purpose, ridiculous bureaucratic pretension, bogus “civil society” and political hypocrisy.

The phrase “sustainable development” first achieved wide currency as the result of the 1987 report of the United Nations’ Brundtland commission, a body of self-styled “eminent persons” who appointed themselves to prepare “a global agenda for change” in the face of the alleged “interlocking crises” of failing economic development and deteriorating environment.

Behind Brundtland’s seemingly reasonable definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” lay the implication that free markets were unsustainable.

Sustainable development was rooted in projections of environmental apocalypse due to catastrophic man-made global warming, species extinction, resource depletion, and any number of other apocalyptic scenarios that would be brought about by unfettered capitalism.

What was needed to fix this (projected) mess was greater political oversight and control, which would delicately balance the triple bottom line of the economy, the environment and social issues. As Brundtland commissioner Maurice Strong, who orchestrated the 1992 Rio conference, declared: “[W]e must devise a new approach to co-operative management of the entire system of issues.” As for the impossibility of either gauging or fulfilling “needs,” that wasn’t a problem for the Brundtland gang. They would simply tell us what our needs should be.

So how is the dream looking after 20 years?

Rio+20’s “themes” are “Green economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development” and “The institutional framework for sustainable development governance.” Green economies, which are everywhere based on unsustainable subsidy and dead-end technologies, are stumbling throughout the world, but the more intriguing theme is that “institutional framework.”

The descent of UN master plans into abject confusion was acknowledged in a widely unread 2008 report from the UN’s Joint Inspection Unit. The report noted that the ramshackle sustainable governance “framework” had at least three interrelated masters, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which had been set up after the UN’s 1972 conference in Stockholm, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which had been created after Rio in 1992, and the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to which the CSD theoretically reported.

The report found these bureaucracies to be disconnected from ever-proliferating UN secretariats formed to deal with ever-multiplying multinational environmental agreements. Indeed, nobody had a handle on just how many programs, projects and organizations there were within the UN’s exploding universe. It ran into the hundreds. The Joint Inspection Unit suggested that a basic inventory might be a good idea.

The report also found that this unwieldy system, which was meant to impose a godlike “balance,” contained no mechanism for assessing whether the environmental benefits of agreements were actually greater than the costs of their implementation. What this unco-ordinated hydra-headed UN/NGO monster was good at, however, was producing an endless stream of voluminous reports and studies. Unlike the organizational mess, these reports stressed a number of relatively consistent, albeit unworkable, themes, all of which pointed — once you penetrated the Orwellian verbiage — to a comprehensive power grab under the guise of averting environmental disaster.

One key theme was that national governments had to sacrifice sovereignty and give more power to radical NGOs (who had been eagerly promoted — and allowed into the UN process — as the voice of “civil society” by the Brundtland gang and their fellow travellers at nodes such as the World Economic Forum). Another was that the UN needed an independent source of income, perhaps via a Tobin tax on financial transactions.

Yet another was that the International Financial Institutions, primarily the World Bank, should be pressured both to withhold funds from fossil fuel development, even though fossil fuel development was essential to poverty alleviation, which was meant to be one of sustainability’s twin objectives.

Another constant was calls for more money and bigger bureaucracy. The latest is a World Environmental Organization. Fortunately, some countries are resisting, among them Canada. Nevertheless, Canada is firmly embedded in the sustainability charade.

Starting in 1997, all federal departments had to table sustainable-development strategies every three years. A Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development was created within the Office of the Auditor-General. It was inevitable that the commissioner’s reports would be sharply critical of the government’s move toward sustainability, because nobody was quite sure in which direction it lay.

Year after year, commissioners’ reports were critical of governments’ planning and reporting for sustainability (which, ironically, was all about planning and reporting). They cited a lack of clearly defined priorities, metrics, targets, accountability and leadership, as well as failure to achieve other bureaucratic buzz concepts such as “horizontal integration across departments” and strategies that would be “drivers of change.” The thorniest issue was climate change.

A 2006 report by commissioner Johanne Gélinas was useful to the Harper Conservatives because it exposed that the previous Liberal government had spent billions to achieve zero impact on climate. Not that the Harper government wanted to “achieve” too much either, since sustainable “achievement” tended to be both climatically pointless and economically destructive. Earlier this year, the commissioner again castigated the Conservatives for having no clear plans to meet their modified carbon dioxide reduction targets by 2020.

Meanwhile, in 2008, after 11 years of sustainably treading water, a Federal Sustainable Development Act was passed (with all-party support), calling for a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS). You know, the thing that was meant to have been introduced in 1997, and which had since produced nothing but a digital mountain of departmental reports.

The first FSDS was tabled in October 2010. The impossible dream would be carried forth on yet another wave of good intention and verbiage, “An integrated, whole-of-government picture of actions and results.” Priority themes included addressing climate change, “Protecting Nature,” and “Shrinking the Environmental Footprint — Beginning with Government.”

The first objective was impossible except within a multinational framework (which had collapsed. The Harper government has also now withdrawn from Kyoto). The second theme was ridiculously vague: What is “Nature?” The third embraced one of the key concepts of green socialism, the environmental or ecological “footprint,” whose star performer is, according to the WWF, Communist Cuba.

Canada’s “national submission” to the Rio conference is yet another model of bureaucratic pretension and political hypocrisy, in which an ostensibly right-wing government calls for more comprehensive and effective progress toward the socialist dreams of Brundtland and Rio ’92.

Although it opposes the creation of a World Environmental Organization, the submission — which one doubts any government minister has ever skimmed — appears infinitely amenable to sprucing up dysfunctional UN organizations such as UNEP and ECOSOC to pursue “more focused” agendas within “more streamlined” and “integrated” formats. It suggests institutional reforms to embed sustainable development even more deeply into UN processes, programs and partnerships, although only in a co-ordinated, coherent, whole-of-government sort of way.

It’s time for that little boy in the crowd to state the obvious. The sustainable Emperor has no clothes.

Financial Post, 8 June 2012