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TWENTY years after the remarkable Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, governments and environmental organisations will once again gather in the Brazilian city this week to see what can be done to save the world from the catastrophic impacts our exploding human population is having on it.
That first conference was a joyous affair. The Berlin Wall was down and the Cold War with its human horrors and threat of nuclear conflagration was over. Even we South Africans found ourselves off the UN agenda. Reason had triumphed and we were on our way back as an honoured member of the international community, so much so that Johannesburg was chosen to host Rio’s successor, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development.
All over, hope was in the air back in 1992.
Never before had the nations of the world been filled with such a sense of common destiny. In their exuberance the governments agreed to a remarkable list of priorities called Agenda 21 that covered just about everything from socio-economic issues like poverty alleviation to biodiversity protection and greenhouse-gas reduction.
The mood this time is more sober, indeed sombre.
Yes, there have been advances. There are now better controls of pesticides and other dangerous substances. The global prohibition of gases that were punching holes in the ozone layer remains an outstanding example of global co-operation. The UN has set up a mighty bureaucracy to look after the environment globally, and most governments have set up environmental departments and passed wide-ranging environmental legislation.
But still the seas are being depleted, forests are shrinking, biodiversity is retreating, fresh water is running out, and the human population with its frightful division between rich and poor keeps growing. The greenhouse gases threatening our very existence keep getting pumped into the atmosphere in ever-increasing volumes.
It will require acts of extraordinary courage to revive the Rio spirit.
These are hard economic times, but how much longer can global society keep finding reasons for putting off meaningful action?