Today's Special: Fillet of Springbok

Fun at the World Summit on Sustainable Development


Johannesburg—United Nations meetings are an acquired taste. You have to love things like "nonpapers," "the Vienna Process," and press conferences by the "Group of Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries," not to mention a whole lot of speeches as high-minded as they are long-winded. But once you're hooked. your're hooked. I had my first experience at the Earth Summit in Rio ten years ago, and now you just can't keep me away from UN confabs. My last fix before this one was the Millennium Summit in New York two years ago. So why the obsession?

First, it's the locations. UN bureaucrats certainly know their travel destinations. Who wouldn't want to go to Rio or New York? Take Johannesburg. Naturally, the first thing I did after I got off the plane was to catch a cab to my hotel. It's true the cab was a Mercedes, but it was vintage 1980s with a cracked windshield. Before we took off the driver locked all the doors and assured me that there hadn't been too many carjackings lately. As it turns out, two out of three cabs I've ridden in have had a cracked windshield. In fact, one was so badly spidered I was afraid it would blow out if the driver stepped on the gas suddenly.

Taxis aside, Johannesburg is a treat—or at least the Sandton area where the Summit is taking place is a treat—filled with glittering hotels, Rodeo Drive-quality shopping and superb restaurants (never mind that I'm staying at a Holiday Inn two miles away). With regard to restaurants, the prices are amazingly moderate. I recently had a 3 course meal at a superb restaurant in Sandton featuring a springbok filet and a bottle of local Shiraz, total cost $14.00. By the way, springbok may be the tastiest meat I've ever eaten.

Of course, UN bureaucrats and national leaders slavishly cater to the press's self-importance. Our green badges allow us hacks access through the one entrance to the Sandton Convention Center reserved especially for journalists—a loading dock in the back which opens into a basement which has been converted into the Media Center for the Summit. Like all converted basements, it leaves something to be desired, but where else would you put nearly 3,000 nosey reporters?

At the Media Center one encounters yet another great thing about UN summits—heaps and heaps of data. If you are a data addict like I am, the data supply at a UN Summit is like supplying a kilo of heroin to a junkie. It's not all good data, but it's data. The tables and cubbies in the Media Center are loaded with reports, press releases, speech transcripts, books, folders, pamphlets, corporate propaganda, cards, magazines, and at least 3 daily newspapers devoted solely to reporting the Summit's goings-on. I've been here five days so far and I have collected more than fifty pounds of Summit literature which is now littering nearly every flat surface in my hotel room. Glancing around I see riveting titles like The Islamic World and Sustainable Development, a volume which collects the "Documents from the First Islamic Conference of Environment Ministers" and The Global Environment Facility: The First Ten Years—Growing Pains or Inherent Flaws. My room is also littered with press releases like "WWF/Oxfam/Greenpeace comments on the Chairman's text on Trade and Finance Means of Implementation," and "Johannesburg Summit Calls for Restoration of Fisheries by 2015."

Besides data, there are the "civil society members." These whacky dogooders are the truly addicted UN conference groupies. Civil society members kind of crashed the party in Rio ten years ago, but since then self-selected non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been blessed with the UN imprimatur and are allowed to participate in summit meetings as the representatives of all the peoples of the world. However, in Johannesburg, "fire regulations" have limited the number of civil society members who can get inside the chain link fences and police perimeters that surround the Convention Center. Naturally, this upset people and they were considering becoming downright uncivil about it. Some were even threatening to hold a "sleep in" inside the Convention center as a protest. Fortunately, the fire marshal blinked and more civil society members are being admitted so that they can do their lobbying on behalf of us all.

And one cannot overlook cultural experiences. In Rio, there was Copacabana Beach and string bikinis. In New York, well, New York is New York. Johannesburg, like all world-class cities, has music, plays, and art galleries. But few cities have troupes of traditional African dancers on their streets. One such group was performing just outside the Summit venues today. Their performance was accompanied by drums and whistles and was very athletic. The all-male troupe was attired in breechclouts made of leopard and eland skins. Curiously, the leader of the group wore a tiger pelt over his shoulders. This is strange because tigers are not native to Africa. The dancers made two concessions to modernity—under their breech clouts they wore what looked like the type of blue bikini underwear one might see featured in a Calvin Klein ad. The second concession was that they were shod in white athletic shoes.

Of course, there is the challenge of trying to report an event in which more than 40,000 diplomats, politicians, activists, and business leaders are participating. For example, the Journal of the United Nations, which publishes a daily roster of events, listed 42 today. And these are only the ones occuring under the auspices of the UN—scores more seminars, press conferences, demonstrations, and speeches are occuring every day at other venues scattered around the city. Reporters are constantly asking one another about which events they attended and what they heard, hoping that they haven't missed the story.

Finally, what was the story today? Probably the lead is that environmental activists are increasingly glum about the final results of the negotiations. The precautionary principle (never do anything for the first time) may be nixed, as well as any mention of the Kyoto Protocol, and a global timetable for phasing in renewable energy supplies. Still, with a week to go, there is time for the world's political leaders to succumb to the unjustified fears being fanned by the cadre of political ecologists gathered here in Johannesburg. I'll keep you posted.