Consuming to sustain?

During the protracted negotiations on the Agenda 21 chapter dealing with changing consumption patterns, a strong bid was made by certain northern delegations to underscore the significance of the link between unsustainable consumption and environment.

In the last prepcom in New York, the US had even wanted to delete the chapter, but could not get much support from any country especially as the original Resolution 4428 of the general assembly, which asked for the Earth Summit, had identified unsustainable consumption as a major cause of environmental degradation. Having failed in that, an attempt was made to modify the language of the chapter in a way that population growth rates in the South would be listed as a cause of equal stress on the environment.

In the final round in Rio, the Saudi delegation which did not participate in the discussion on this chapter in the last prepcom, suddenly woke up to demand, without success, that the entire chapter be bracketed. It did not like any reference to unsustainable consumption patterns. But the committee chairperson, Tommy Koh of Singapore, steamrollered their objection.

The US tried to change the focus of the chapter once again in Rio, this time by insisting on the connection between environmental degradation and the practices of the poor. According to the Austrian delegate, "It is not that one is consuming so the other is poor, but one is consuming to allow the other to produce. This leads to distribution of income and wealth."

One delegation even pointed out that high consumption in the North is good for the economic well-being of the South as it generates a demand for goods, jobs and trading opportunities. But the Norwegians were less defensive, "We are talking here about unsustainable production patterns of affluent races. Desperate ways of producing in the situation of poverty is different."

The G-77 protested strongly against the new text proposed by the US. The delegate from Pakistan reacted, "If we were to hypothetically accept the US proposal, it will give an entirely new dimension to the new chapter. There is no mention of consumption and production. Language cannot rescue one beyond a point."

In the final compromise, the US agreed to withdraw its text subject to a minor amendment in the original one. The chapter now indirectly addresses unsustainable lifestyles in developed countries as well as segments of populations in developing countries.

Efficient use of energy and materials has been given priority to reduce environmental stress. This is to be achieved through research and development in environmentally-sound technologies. Since much harm is done by inappropriate purchasing policies of the governments who have a major influence on corporate decision-making and public perceptions, the environmental content of government procurement policies should be improved, according to Agenda 21. And, of course, continued research on changing consumption patterns is essential.