Embedded in the human predicament is the notion of a utopia, of a world in which the distinctions between the poor and the rich will be blurred. In the cynical and weary world of the 21st century, the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg embodies such a utopia. The meeting began on Monday with a call to end “global apartheid” between the rich and the poor. The president of South Africa, Mr Thabo Mbeki, declared that a global human society “characterized by islands of wealth surrounded by a sea of poverty is unsustainable’’. Very few would disagree with such a statement. An egalitarian world with no poverty has been part of the human vision since Wat Tyler sang: “When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman'’’ The notion of a more just and equal world is as much a part of civilization as the almost perennial division between the rich and the poor. Thus pessimistic souls will have to be forgiven if they are not convinced by the pious and noble intentions being announced in Johannesburg. The pessimism is not based on any inherent suspicions about utopias. The vision of something better, something nobler is almost a necessary condition for human survival and for human improvement. But the pessimism is grounded on the track record of such summits.
Ten years ago at a meeting in Rio de Janeiro, a programme was chalked out and agreed upon. That programme aimed at fighting poverty, improving global health and protecting the environment and habitats. It remains a programme on paper. Hardly, if any, impact of the programme is visible on the ground realities. Over ten years, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened; habitats have become more endangered because of their ceaseless and irresponsible exploitation; and global warming has taken the world closer to the Apocalypse. Yet world leaders, like women in parties talking of Michelangelo, discuss alternative paths and plans of development. Such paradigms, like paradise, have been lost many times over. Ten years ago, the rich nations of the world promised to pay sums of money to save the ecology and to help the poorer nations. That promise was an empty one. Now the poorer nations have been left to fend for themselves in the world of laissez faire. There is the widespread perception that summits like the one being held in Johannesburg are nothing more than a salve to the conscience of the rich nations. Hence the deliberations are always taken with some salt, a not-too-expensive commodity in the developing world. Alongside the conflict between the rich and the poor has been the battle between utopia and realism. The latter has always won. The former has allowed man to dream.