11 december 2012

Environmental rhetoric over four decades

Let’s examine the frequency of some key words in the four documents referred to:16: "sustainable", "environment", "development", "growth" and "poverty". (I have compared the 1972 declaration, Rio 1992 and Rio+20 in their entirety. For the much longer Bruntdland Report, I restricted the word analysis to roughly the first quarter of that document; just the first part of Brundtland is 50% greater than Rio+20, six times greater than Rio ’92 and 17 times longer than the 1972 Declaration.)

· “Sustainable”, absent from the 1972 “Declaration”, appears significantly in the Brundtland Report (once in every 287 words), 2.5 times as often in the 1992 Rio declaration plus “Overview” (once in 113 words) and, adjusted for the size of Rio+20, almost twice as frequently in 2012 as in 1992 (once in 64 words).
· “Environment” shrinks. It appears once in 40 words in 1972 and about a third as often (once in 122 words) in the 57 pages analysed of the Brundtland Report of 1987. Its 107 appearances in the 6717 words of Rio 92 (1/62) are comparatively about twice as frequently as in 1987, but a third less than in 1972. And the 125 references to environment in the pages of Rio+20 (1/197) occur less than a quarter as frequently as in 1972, about two thirds as often as in 1987 and about a third as often as in Rio 92.
· “Development” is a key word, its increasing use being the obverse of the decline of “environment.” Its frequency in the 1972 “Declaration” is 1/121 words, it is 1/107 in the 1987 “Our Common Future”, advances to 1/74 in Rio ‘92, and then jumps to 1/53 in the 2012 Rio+20 – more than twice the frequency as in 1972.
· “Growth” and “poverty” are practically absent as concepts in 1972 and 1992. The first time “growth” is mentioned in the ’72 document it is “Intellectual, moral, social and apiritual growth”. The second and third time, it is as population growth, which is to be limited. “Growth” becomes important in 1987, but is frequently surrounded there by warnings about excessive growth, especially in population, and about the danger of quantitative criteria in economic planning.17 While it is used only a third as frequently in 2012, its place has been taken by the always positive “development”. “Poverty” appears as a major challenge in the Brundtland Report of 1987, is rarely mentioned in 1992, but its frequency per thousand words of text is roughly a third greater in Rio+20 than in Brundtland.

Two other things are noteworthy in the rhetoric of Rio+20. One is the way so many references to “environmentally” are preceded by “economically, socially and …” A priority lies in that sequence. The other is the recurrent emphasis in Rio+20 on poverty reduction. Both points are evident in the first three paragraphs of “The future we want” (compare them with the key opening sentences of Rio ’92, given in note 15):

1. We, the Heads of State and Government and high-level representatives, having met at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June 2012, with the full participation of civil society, renew our commitment to sustainable development and to ensuring the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for
our planet and for present and future generations.
2. Eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable Development. In this regard we are committed to freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency.
3. We therefore acknowledge the need to further mainstream sustainable
development at all levels, integrating economic, social and environmental aspects and recognizing their interlinkages, so as to achieve sustainable development in all its dimensions.

"Eradicating poverty”, then, is the global challenge in “The World We Want”, and not global warming’s potential, within a century more of under business as usual, to melt all polar ice, flood coastal cities and raise temperatures by an unbearable 6°C, nor the currently-felt effects of heat waves, droughts, fires, extreme storms and floods. Connection between climate change and global hunger in the light of this summer’s reduction by heat-induced drought of a major part of American grain production is conveniently ignored.18

In the context of Rio+20, “eradicating poverty” thus becomes merely a convenient, pious rationale for “sustainable development”, while “sustainable” is the fig leaf for “development”, the big winner in the terminology contest (twice as frequently per thousand words than in the Brundtland Report that launched the concept). In other words “sustainable development” is greenwash for good old-fashioned GDP growth. It is arguable that much of the persisting poverty in China as well as in the U.S. comes not from an absence of “development”, which in the two decades since Rio ’92 has been massive and completely unsustainable, but from a grotesque inequality in the distribution of that increased wealth - a notion that was as taboo in Rio as a realistic approach to the climate crisis. In any case, notwithstanding “development”, the climate change ignored by Rio has already started to intensify the misery of the world’s poor.

“Poverty reduction” used to be the liberal, humanitarian justification for the expansion of global capitalism – the Washington Consensus. Just let capital flow through global free markets and sooner or later democracy will be everywhere and poverty will disappear, as the trickle-down effects of capitalist wealth raises everyone’s consumption level.

But this argument of poverty-reduction in the alleged framework of sustainable development is in fact often merely an excuse for carbon-fuelled growth and is a common denominator of conservative growth- and carbon-oriented policies in China as well as the U.S. Judith Shapiro, an expert on Chinese environmental problems, raises the question of whether Beijing’s “poverty-alleviation programs [may] end up masking and contributing to a dynamic of environmental and political exploitation?”19 The unmasked Western counterpart of this carbon-motivated evasion of global warming emerged during ExxonMobil’s campaign against the Kyoto treaty, five years after Rio ’92. Lee Raymond, CEO of ExxonMobil in a speech of 1997 to the Fifteenth World Petroleum Congress, ridiculed the notion of anthropogenic climate change, saying the world was getting cooler, not warmer. He then asserted:

"The most pressing environmental problems of the developing nations are related to poverty, not global climate change. Addressing these problems will require economic growth, and that will necessitate increasing, not curtailing, the use of fossil fuels".20

The site of that 1997 Petroleum Congress was Beijing, and according to Steve Coll’s massive study of ExxonMobil, the purpose of Raymond’s speech was to persuade “poor, rapidly industrializing countries such as China to defy the United States and Europe by blocking any agreement in Kyoto that would result in ‘slower economic growth, lost jobs, and a profound and unpleasant impact on the way we live.’” 21 (Thanks to the lavish contributions of the carbon-producers to Congressional campaign funds, the Senate voted to reject the treaty by 95-0 despite support by the President22 .)

ExxonMobil, after decades of climate denial, has reluctantly admitted to the reality of global warming, but with the addendum that it’s too late to mitigate its effects, so we had better focus on adapting to it 23. Their original effort to block a climate treaty by arguing for poverty reduction über alles may still be found in the first words of the second paragraph of “The World We Want”: Eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today

Given that since Deng Xiaoping, the People’s Republic of China follows the same economic nostrum as the West and that Washington and Beijing now depend on one another’s cynicism about climate change and democracy, it should be called the Washington/Beijing consensus. All the rhetoric of Rio+20 – including its title, which has shifted from the “Environment and Development” of 1992 to “Sustainable Development” – betrays this new version of the old consensus. In fact, Rio+20 could more accurately be referred to as”Beijing+15”.



1. Significance of neoliberal ideology in the US response to Rio is explored in Timothy W. Luke, “A Rough Road Out of Rio: The Right-Wing Reaction in the United States Against Global Environmentalism” (±1998) []
2. Extreme weather, extreme prices: The costs of feeding a warming world, Oxfam, September 2012. []
3. Walden Bello, “Weapons for the Weak in the Climate Struggle”, Foreign Policy in Perspective, []
4. “Oil Industry Presses Obama on Regulation”, Financial Times, August 2, 2012.
5. Anna Brékine, “A Stern look at the 2°C target”, Urban Times, August 24 2012 . The press, as Brékine notes, [] “barely reported” Stern’s speech, but the environmental movement was outraged..
6. Greenpeace:; Friends of the Earth:; Oxfam:; Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists:; WWF: Monbiot:
7. CAN website:
8. According to the “overview” of Agenda 21 published by Unesco online together with the Rio ’92 “Declaration”: “The report placed the concept of sustainable development as an urgent imperative on the global agenda, and led directly to the decision by the United Nations to convene the 1992 Earth Summit”. [, p.6.] Also: Judith Shapiro in China’s Environmental Challenges, Polity 2012, p.11.
9. Our Common Future: Formally titled “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development”, the UN commission responsible for its preparation worked, with the assistance of “thousands of people from all over the world” (p.5), for two and a half years (p.12) before formally submitting its report in October 1987.
10. In the 1992 Rio document, the “Agenda 21” material that starts on p.6 and runs to p.14 can be read separately from the initial declaration, and in 2012, the comparable sections IV, V and VI occupy pages 13-53.
11. Our Common Future, pp.122-125.
12. Shapiro, loc.cit.
14. Of these 25 other thematic subjects (listed above in the paragraph beginning “As a significant thematic issue…”), only “Gender equality and the empowerment of women” appears to lack a palpable tie to climate change.
15. On the first page of Rio ’92, the last sentence of the five sentence preamble to the 27 principles is “Recognizing the integral and interdependent nature of the Earth, our home”, and the first principle proclaimed is “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.”
16 For comparable studies of environmental terminology, see Graciela Kincaid, “Running from Climate Change: The Obama Administration’s Changing Rhetoric” December 22, 2011. Climate and Development Lab.; and “A Dangerous Shift in Obama’s Climate Change Rhetoric”, Maxwell T. Boykoff, Washington Post, January 27, 2012.
17. As in Brundtland par. 36. “The mandates of the central economic and sectoral ministries are also often too narrow, too concerned with quantities of production or growth. The mandates of ministries of industry include production targets, while the accompanying pollution is left to ministries of environment.”
18. On the connection between such droughts and climate change, see the American Meteorological Association’s “Explaining extreme events of 2012 from a climate perspective”, by Thomas C. Peterson, Peter A. Stottand Stephanie Herring, Editors. [] For impact on world food prices: note 2 supra.
19. Judith Shapiro, China’s Environmental Challenges, Polity 2012, p. 147.
20. Steve Coll, Private Empire. ExxonMobil and American Power. Allen Lane 2012, p.81f..
21. Coll, op.cit., p.82.
22. For text of the bill and report of the 95-0 vote, see Five senators did not vote. []
23. “Global Warming ‘Manageable’ says Exxon chief”, Ed Crooks in Financial Times, June 27, 2012.

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