Dialogue of the deaf

(Filed: 09/08/2002) What a relief! Michael Meacher will go to the ball after all. Cruelly, the environment minister was taken off the list of British delegates going to the Earth Summit because the Prime Minister's office was trying to get numbers down.

Number 10 thought it might look bad if a fortune was spent on sending the equivalent of nine football teams to what might be regarded as a "junket". Fortunately Meacherella's fairy godmother, an unknown civil servant, leaked his omission from the delegation to a newspaper. There was an outcry of indignation - even incredulity - that the environment minister was not going to a conference largely about, er, the environment. So Meacherella was given a ticket after all. Phew! It was a close thing, but it all ended happily. Or did it?

When Mr Meacher arrives in Johannesburg, he will join another 60,000 delegates. The idea that his participation will make a big difference, or any difference at all, is far-fetched.

He will have to jostle for attention with 100 heads of state. There will be 20 delegations from different parts of the United Nations alone. A total of 174 nations will be represented. And there will simultaneously be a second, parallel conference for environment and development groups. There will be legions of press officers and private secretaries. The South Africans will provide 27,000 police to protect the delegates. But that won't stop them bringing their own bodyguards anyway.

It is a kind of performance-art satire on world government, or something out of Gulliver's Travels. The man-giant arrives in Earthsummitland and finds 60,000 people talking and nobody listening. Many business cards will be exchanged, but little will probably be agreed, let alone done. Tony Blair will arrive and give a 10-minute speech - just like all the other heads of state. How many of the other 99 will be listening? He may then go to an African village to be photographed with a pump producing clean water and some grateful inhabitants beaming with happiness. Then he will fly home.

There are lower hopes for this conference than there were for that in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. But even Rio failed in its own terms. Development aid from rich countries, for example, instead of rising as promised, has since fallen from 0.35 per cent of national income to 0.22 per cent. Many of the ambitions of those involved - whether right or misguided - are many miles from being met. The area covered by tropical forests, for example, is said to be declining by four Switzerlands a year.

The new conference is going to cover many diverse subjects, from bird conservation to globalisation. The very diversity, as well as the number of delegates, gives every reason to doubt that anything very concrete will result. Before the Gulf war, President Bush Snr made some telephone calls to key people around the world. As a result, dramatic action took place.

If the leaders of the world genuinely thought that something vital was at stake with the environment and that something must urgently be done, a similar series of calls would be made. They would not have a conference. And nobody would pretend that the presence of Mr Meacher will make a scrap of difference.