06/19/2012 12:43 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

The Tyranny of Big Meetings

Conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, who died earlier this year, created an empire of websites that attack big, fat liberal targets. There’s Big Government, Big Hollywood, and Big Journalism. In 2010, he intervened into foreign policy with his final effort, Big Peace. Not surprisingly, he never got around to launching websites that attacked Big Money or Big Military. Nor did Big Mouth ever appear, for that would have been a wholly uncharacteristic foray into self-criticism.

Strangely absent from Breitbart’s catalog of hated bigs, however, was Big Meetings. Conservatives who belong to Breitbart’s phylum have never much liked the United Nations, the sponsor of most global summits — the giant gatherings that establish international standards on trade, human rights, and the environment. They cheered when President George W. Bush bypassed the Senate to send John Bolton to the UN in 2005 through a recess appointment, and Bolton went on to say that “the (UN) Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” A couple years later, former presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee went further: “It’s time to get a jackhammer and to simply chip that part of New York City. Let it float into the East River, never to be seen again.”

More recently, Avi Davis, president of the American Freedom Alliance, presided over a UN-bashing exercise in Los Angeles with Bolton as the keynote. “We expose the true motivations...of those pushing international standards in human rights, environmental regulation and the laws of war upon us,” Davis told Breitbart News. “It is not to better our lives — or anybody else's lives. It is to control us.” 

Control us? The United States has consistently refused to be housebroken. We over-pollute and over-consume. We over-export military armaments to such an extent that last year we broke our own record. We are, like Breitbart’s websites themselves, over the top in so many categories. And the latest Big Meeting, due to take place shortly in Rio de Janeiro, will not change this dismal reality.

I’m not a big fan of conferences. The bigger they are, the less excited I get. But for some folks, such conferences are like going to Disney World. There are a gazillion choices. You meet tons of new people and occasionally run into old friends. The food is bland, and the hotel rooms expensive. You spend most of your time waiting around for something to happen. Sometimes you feel like throwing up, and, in the end, you go home exhausted.

Not only does the United Nations expend considerable resources on such Big Meetings, it reconvenes participants on a regular basis to evaluate the progress made toward achieving the rather vague goals outlined in the final resolution of a prior meeting. We have seen Big Meetings devoted to racism, population growth, non-proliferation, development, and the environment.

Twenty years ago, in Rio de Janeiro, the UN sponsored a twofer conference: environment and development. The Earth Summit's final resolution was a laundry list of nice aspirations that lacked enforcement mechanisms. For two decades, there's been no way to make sure that someone did the laundry. Nature magazine issued a report card this month that gave the world three Fs for failing to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the rate of biodiversity loss, or reverse desertification and land degradation. This time around, UN experts are worried about a similar outcome. “A real risk exists that commitments made in Rio will remain empty promises without effective monitoring and accountability,” reads one statement that the UN felt compelled to publish on its own website.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a UN-basher. I would much rather that representatives of the world’s nations gather on a regular basis to bore themselves to death in a conference rather than beat themselves to death in a war. Make resolutions, not war is the bumper sticker of the future.

However boring such exercises might be — and journalists are always desperate for countries to boycott Big Meetings to render them newsworthy — they've produced progress of a certain sort in reconciling economic development and environmental protection. Even before the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the Brundtland Commission outlined the various challenges of “sustainable development.” By 2000, 189 countries had made a pledge to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

These aren't easy goals, though there is some wiggle room in interpreting how to improve maternal health, promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development. The other three goals are rather uncharacteristically specific for a Big Meeting: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, and reduce child mortality. Moreover, these eight big goals break down into 21 quantifiable targets measured by 60 indicators. They are designed to satisfy both the big picture people and the bean-counters.

There’s been some progress toward these goals, though the progress has been uneven. The UN keeps a scorecard on where countries and regions are on the indicators and whether they’ve seen improvements. East Asia, not surprisingly, comes out pretty well, Oceania not so well. A 2011 UNDP report developed a more nuanced way than simply comparing progress at two points in time. Instead, the report looks at rate of progress, which puts the emphasis on effort as much as achievement. By this yardstick, the authors discovered that countries in sub-Saharan Africa have done quite well in trying to meet the goals. However, the three goals that most resisted progress have been female employment, maternal health, and environmental sustainability.

The MDGs are not all about economic growth. They attempt to capture such factors as the representation of women in politics. But there is still a tendency to equate an increase in gross domestic product (GDP) with an overall improvement in a country’s evolution from least developed to highly industrialized. If a country exports all its trees, digs up all its coal, burns through all its oil and gas, and encourages the construction of enormous energy-inefficient buildings, it would all register as GDP growth and elicit applause from the international community. But it would neither be sustainable nor good for the planet as a whole.

Participants in the Rio+20 summit will angle to create another set of benchmarks: the Sustainable Development Goals. “There are a number of rival GDP+ metrics that have been developed, with individual nations as well as international organizations all trying their hand,” writes George Riddell at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development. “Reflecting this, NCST Zero Draft recognizes, ‘the limitations of GDP as a measure of well-being and sustainable development,’ but offers little in the way of viable alternatives.”

One alternative is being explored right outside Washington, DC. There are 27 Maryland Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI) that range from economic inequality and the cost of air pollution to the value of housework and the cost of crime. “The GPI illuminates how income inequality pulls down the overall value of personal consumption, thus decreasing Maryland's progress even as the national and state economies expand,” explains my colleague Karen Dolan in a Baltimore Sun op-ed. “To measure our economic progress in a way that explains how GDP can grow while our standard of living deteriorates is the first step in figuring out how to address the widespread problems of income inequality in Maryland and across the nation.”

There are two major problems with what is shaping up as the Rio+20 approach. The first involves the effort to measure such resources as water, food, trees, and so on not to preserve them but to monetize them. As my colleague Janet Redman points out in an Other Words op-ed, this model of economic growth is “based on massive private investment in clean energy, climate-resistant agriculture, and ecosystem services — like the ability of a wetland to filter water. Under this new concept, Wall Street gets to reap profits from a whole new line of business, and governments get to spend less protecting the environment.”

The other major problem involves military spending. Our friends at the International Peace Bureau have helped to create an enormous tank out of bread that will stand guard over the Rio meeting. As participants eat the bread, the tank will disappear to reveal a garden inside. This will be a graphic illustration of the money we waste on the military.

We can’t just talk about disarmament for development. We have to establish goals, targets, and indicators. Here’s a proposal. One of the sustainable development goals should be to reduce military spending. The target would establish a ceiling for the amount of GDP spent on the military at, let’s say, 1 percent — Japan’s informal limit on military expenditures. This percentage hasn’t prevented Japan from becoming one of the best-outfitted militaries in the world. Still, key countries like the United States (4.7 percent), Russia (3.9 percent), Israel (6.3 percent), and Saudi Arabia (8.7 percent) would have to cut back rather significantly. By following up on former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias’ suggestion to tie developing assistance to cuts in military spending, the link between disarmament and development would be much more than just rhetorical.

Will the UN confront powerful interests in Wall Street and the military-industrial complex? Its record, of late, is not encouraging, notwithstanding all the off-gassing of Big Conservatives. Still, if the UN were to muster some gumption, its latest Big Meeting would qualify as a big deal. Until then, when I hear about gatherings like Rio+20, I just sigh and mutter, “big deal.”

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