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Joahannesburg Summit 2002
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Overcoming Obstacles to Sustainable Development Discussed by US Groups

30 October 2001—The obstacles are formidable but the hopes are high that next year's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa will lead to very practical results, according to a group of American NGOs, business representatives and UN officials engaged in a "conversation" on sustainable development.

In the first of a series of events sponsored by the Carriage House Foundation for Globalization and Sustainability in New York, Gabe Pressman of NBC moderated the discussion, which focused on the need for promoting sustainable development and the obstacles that must be overcome.

In a country where the words 'sustainable development' have never been widely used, from any quarter in public discourse, there was general agreement that the Summit would help further the aims of sustainable development, although the term itself was not easily expected to catch the public imagination.

Larry Papay, a Vice-President of the San Diego-based technology concern Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), said "The global economy demands sustainable development." The present model for business, which never paid much attention to where natural or human inputs come from, is outdated according to Papay. He explained that in the past, "resource were used because they were there-now people have come to realize that there are limitations."

People have often said that industry was part of the problem, Papay said, but "it should be seen as part of the solution." According to Papay, the world needs a new economic model where companies must consider the international market-where the real payoff can occur-and to do that, they must consider human and environmental circumstances and considerations.

Globalization, however, is shutting out many people from the process, according to Elena Petkova, Senior Associate of the World Resources Institute. Economic globalization decreases the number of decision makers, she said, and leaves the ones remaining further away from the people they impact. "People are going to be more resentful if they can't influence decisions," she said. Consequently, she argued that more public participation was necessary to make sustainable development work.

But getting public attention to sustainable development is difficult, according to Jeffrey Barber, Executive Director of the Washington-based Integrative Strategies Forum, sustainable development is often ignored because it is not a news story. "Because it is about preventing catastrophes, it defies sound bites. It is seen as boring." Barber said that too many NGOs thought the Summit was just an environmental conference, unaware that the three legs of sustainable development consisted of economic growth, social development, and environmental protection.

The concept of "sustainable development" also seemed forbidding to Pressman, who, as a journalist, said "the term made me wince." He added, "One of the major problems of concept is that the term sustainable development is not very sustainable. It is not what the public wants to hear."

But Nitin Desai, Secretary-General for the Summit, told the NGOs that the process of promoting sustainable development was very much like the fight for civil rights in the United States. "Civil rights was once a very vague term. In the 30's and 40's, many people didn't understand what it was. That was part of the fight for civil rights and that is the way it will be for sustainable development."

Many of the NGOs attending the meeting were still unsure about what the Summit could accomplish. Addressing these concerns, Desai said that Rio was an attempt to link development and the environment. Under that approach, he said, "there is a limit to what you can do. You can do so much to scrub sulfur from a smokestack but you can't do that for carbon. You have to do something else."

What is needed, according to Desai, are specific programmes that integrate-not coordinate-all of the sustainable development concerns. Other things must change as well.

"We have been persistent in looking for solutions that are governmental in nature," he said. "What really matters depends on what the other stakeholders do. Johannesburg will not just be about governments, but it will be about which stakeholders do what, and it will be about affecting the agendas of these groups."

In summing up what he felt the Summit could accomplish, Barber imaged looking back from the vantage point of 2012 and said, "People realized that they had a different choice, and that it was better."

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24 August 2006