World Sustainability Hearing special report

Earth Island News

World Sustainability Hearing’s Project

World Summit to the movement: “Do you have a pulse?”

The UN’s World Summit on Sustainable Development was held at the end of August 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The outcome was bad news for anyone who might still think that our governments are countering ecological catastrophes-in-progress and bringing about a green sustainable future world on our behalf.

The Summit was intended to re-energize and implement the commitments made at the UNCED “Earth Summit” in Rio 10 years ago. Even the UN’s official website on the Summit ( acknowledged “it was hardly a secret - or even a point in dispute - that progress in implementing sustainable development has been extremely disappointing since the 1992 Earth Summit, with poverty deepening and environmental degradation worsening.”

But progress at the official Summit was minimal. While governments did sign a sparse set of face-saving agreements on fisheries, clean water, sanitation, and other issues, world civil society generally considered the Summit to be a disaster. The few agreements made at the official session lacked strong, well-funded implementation plans, and inaction reigned supreme across the gamut of crucial global problems.

So while the formal meeting inside the Sandton Convention Center went nowhere, ordinary people, activists, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) held their own summits. As an alternative to the Summit, a number of Earth Island projects organized and participated in the World Sustainability Hearing in Johannesburg. The Hearing was part of the People’s Earth Summit, a parallel meeting located at St. Stithian’s College, a school campus 10 minutes from the official Sandton Summit site. The Hearing and the People’s Earth Summit were grassroots forums designed to take the place of governments unable to address the critical global questions of our time: How do we stop the ecological devastations currently underway? How do we plan and take joint action to create a green, unsullied, just, and sustainable world that provides sustenance, health, prosperity, and happiness for everyone on it?

At the Hearing, it was clear the views and experiences of civil society members from around the globe have become surprisingly similar on many issues. Witnesses and panelists at the Hearing told stories of their battles for ecological protection and social equity at home. Speaker after speaker talked about how governments are failing their people nationally and internationally on these issues, about the damage done by globalization to the environment and human rights, and about the need for corporate accountability.

Civil society’s view was unified at the Summit, but why, for decades, has this unity not yielded progress on such crucial issues? The general perspective at the Summit seemed to be that it’s the fault of the usual suspects: special interests, powerful corporations, corruption in high places, and corporate-controlled media.

While that’s surely an important part of the explanation, it’s not the whole story. The Summit’s disastrous outcome is not just a triumph by corporations and anti-democratic forces, but also a failure by thousands of foundations and NGOs, and millions of world citizens over the past decades. Acknowledging this collective failure is important. It implies that we might reorganize to wield far more power than we realize. It implies that if we’re open and creative enough, we may yet have a major impact in the future. Showing up in our cubicles may be 90 percent of life, but the formal tally of 30 years of effort at the end of the WSSD shows that as valuable as activists’ work may be, current methods are not doing the job.

The real question coming out of Johannesburg is this: Can we in civil society seize the opportunity to consolidate and wield the latent power we already have, rather than merely assigning all blame (and therefore all power) to corporations, corporate media, and corrupt government? Can foundations, non-profits, unions, and social change organizations worldwide move beyond their fragmented campaigns and business-as-usual approaches that have failed for years, and instead synchronize to create an inclusive, positive movement that can overwhelm the global macro trends that threaten us all?

It’s time to reassess. We need to examine what we could be doing better instead of what “they” are doing wrong, and to re-examine approaches that may be outmoded. It’s time to look for creative new approaches that might successfully convert the united perspective demonstrated by civil society at the Summit into a force that can overcome the roadblocks to progress.

Here are some of the problems, and a few thoughts on new approaches to movement building:

Beyond fragmented action: Non-profits often work independently on incremental, locally-focused campaigns, in part because they must “market their brand” for fundraising purposes. While these activities remain critical to global change, they are often done to the exclusion of dedicating a continuing portion of each group’s work to larger-scale efforts that can yield a level of change far outstripping the isolated effort. For example, if all US civil society NGOs had united to take a strong stand on campaign-related issues, thereby mobilizing the grassroots to tip the vote in one state, how much time and money now spent trying to limit the local or specific issue damage of the new US administration could have been saved?

An inclusive, positive framework relating to ordinary people: The environmental and social justice movements need to present a more inclusive, positive vision of the world they’re working toward (rather than just being opposed to negative social forces) and must relate their vision directly to ordinary people’s everyday lives. There is currently a dynamic in the activist community in which the more opposed to the “mainstream” (or corporations, or the media), a group is, the more pure they are considered to be. This contributes to an outsider/underdog mindset that can keep organizations from tapping real power available in the broader community, thus leaving significant numbers of progressive voters “off the grid” as alienated non-participants.

Well articulated, binding principles: Activist groups around the world that seem to share compatible goals have not articulated and agreed upon binding principles. This makes networking and action more difficult, both because common ground has not been identified between differing groups, and because such agreement could help overcome some of the existing intolerance of overlapping but differing perspectives.

Effective coordination: While foundations and non-profits do network to share information and support each other’s development of strategies and actions, this networking is generally ad hoc. Existing methods aren’t efficient as the sole solution for widespread networked communication or for organizing powerful coordination that extends beyond a brief duration. The result tends to be reactive, event-driven coordination with a limited impact. There’s a need for a well-planned and organized, ongoing network for communication and action. Groups must recognize that their connection to and unique role in the larger civil society context is a key part of their mission.

An international survey released by Gallup and Environics in Geneva on November 8th revealed two-thirds of those surveyed disagreed that their country is “governed by the will of the people.” Respondents ranked large corporations and national legislatures among the least trustworthy of 17 societal institutions, with the IMF and World Bank also near the bottom. NGOs were among the most trusted institutions in the world, seen as truly working for the public good.

Foundations and NGOs must connect with this sentiment, to realize a larger portion of their work is meta-organizing - building conscious agreements, inclusive networks, long term strategies and divisions of labor that consolidate living connections with that enormous constituency and with each other. Perhaps then they can begin to effectively represent the united voice and will of people around the world: people with essentially the same goals and dreams. Maybe then we will discover our powerlessness is an illusion. In reality, we have allies everywhere, and a remarkable strength to create change in our support for each other.

Kelly Jones and Dr. Astrid Scholz are co-founders of the World Sustainability Hearing project. The Hearing is now exploring ways that civil society can efficiently network and act with impact. For more information or to help, contact Kelly at, fax 415-927-6636 or visit

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