Most of the UNCED participants who understand that solving social problems requires attention to their root causes argued that environmental degradation was a consequence of three main factors: poverty, overpopulation in the South and overconsumption in the North. "The concentration of population growth in developing countries and economic growth in industrialized countries has deepened," said UNCED Secretary-General Maurice Strong at his opening speech in Rio, "creating imbalances which are unsustainable, either in environmental or economic terms."
The mass of non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives who converged on Rio for Earth Summit-related events, especially those from the Third World, placed a far greater emphasis on Northern responsibility for environmental degradation and Southern poverty.
The North, with somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the world's population, consumes between 75 and 80 percent of the world's resources, the Southern NGOs pointed out. It is the industrialized countries' use of fossil fuels which has contributed most significantly to global warming; Northern nations' reliance on chlorofluorocarbons which is primarily to blame for ozone depletion; and discharges from Northern industries which have polluted ocean waters.
As importantly, the industrialized countries are largely responsible for the poverty of the Third World. The dominant economic position of industrialized countries enables them to drain vast amounts of resources out of the Third World, in the form of debt repayments, royalties, underpriced commodities and other means. This exploitative relationship locks Third World countries into poverty, the Southern NGOs charged.
In too many cases, however, Northern and Southern NGOs focused narrowly on the consumption levels of individuals in the North, shifting attention away from the main despoilers of the environment - multinational companies. The discussion of individual behavior in Northern countries diverted attention from methods of production and ignored the reality that corporations, more than individuals, establish consumption patterns.
Northern-based corporations are primarily responsible for the world's biggest environmental problems - among them global warming, ozone depletion, pesticide proliferation and toxic waste - not Northern consumers. Big business also shapes consumer choices, both through advertising and by limiting available technological and consumer alternatives.
Similarly, government and NGO representatives both shied away from denouncing the true power brokers in Third World countries, where wealth disparities are as great as those between nations. A declaration circulated at UNCED by the Brazilian Rural Workers Union stood out for its focus on economic inequality. "Without true agrarian reform, no environmental or democratic policy is possible," the rural workers' declaration stated. It noted that, in Brazil, 1 percent of landholders control 45 percent of all Brazilian land, and that 13 million rural workers are landless. The battle over access to land has led to 645 killings of rural workers and popular leaders in the last few years, the declaration said.
By comparison, the section on poverty in Agenda 21, UNCED's blueprint for the future, contains a lot of NGO-like rhetoric about "focusing on the empowerment of local and community groups," but it does not address the issues which currently ensure community residents' powerlessness, such as unequal land distribution patterns. Accordingly, the section includes no suggestions for how to translate the rhetorical appeals into real-life programs.
As NGOs focus more on global issues, they will have to discuss actors and issues in some general terms. But activists must be careful to specify who is responsible for problems. It is not enough to speak only of North and South, although Northern exploitation is a real and significant source of Third World impoverishment. It is misleading to attack the behavior of individuals in the North, though individuals in industrialized countries do have a responsibility to moderate their consumption. And it is insufficient to lay out poverty alleviation plans, although such plans are sorely needed. Non-governmental activists must recognize that underlying the environmental and development crises are not just North-South inequalities but huge power disparities within countries as well. They must attack those disparities and work to challenge the deadly and destructive practices of corporate and elite interests.