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Dispatches from the 2002 U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development

Part One: Berkeley senior Yogi Hendlin tells why he decided to put his beliefs into action at the conference

26 August 2002

Editor's Note: Yogi Hendlin, a fourth-year political science student at UC Berkeley, is attending the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, from August 26 to September 4. One of several members of the Berkeley campus community at the event, Hendlin will attend the summit as a representative of the Adbusters Media Foundation, a not-for-profit group. In this, the first of several dispatches Hendlin will write from Johannesburg, he explains why he felt compelled to participate.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The archetypal clash between human beings and nature has arrived at a juncture where there will be no victor. With half of the world's rivers polluted, 4 billion people living on less than $2 per day and 2 billion going hungry, most of us just want to swallow the uncomfortable reality and get on with our lives.

  Yogi Hendlin
Berkeley student Yogi Hendlin

The reality swirling around us as we continue our quotidian everyday life seems not to affect us. After all, we didn't create this problem, so we shouldn't have to clean it up, right? Sure, we recycle, try to ride bikes and vote our conscience, but when it comes down to it, we simply don't have the time or the resources to take a day or a few hours to plant a garden, write our congressperson or act. And even if we did have the time, what can we do?

In Johannesburg right now, the world's leaders are asking the same questions. Our collective future will be debated by 100 of the world's presidents and top leaders, alongside Ministers of Environment from every country in the world, who have converged at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (also called the Earth Summit and the Rio+10, after the first landmark summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992). Other attendees include more than 70,000 representatives from non-government organizations (NGOs) and transnational business conglomerates as well as government officials, scientists and of course, environmentalist protesters.


Will recycling a can, or reusing a water bottle truly benefit the sustainability of this planet, and the life and health of all the beings that roam it?


The central issue these representatives intend to confront is spelled out in the United Nations Environmental Program's vision statement: "At the dawn of this new century, we have at our disposal the human and material resources to achieve sustainable development, not as an abstract concept but as a concrete reality." Though achievable, this "concrete possibility" deviates drastically from the current world trajectory. Human "progress" is catapulting us in the direction of increased consumption, increased disparity in wealth, increased environmental degradation, and catastrophes resulting from overconfidence in technology and wild expansionism.

I decided to forgo the sweet slothfulness of summer — and the Burning Man festival — and to instead do everything in my power to attend this landmark event. I feel that my participation is vital, both for transferring the abstractions I've learned in my years of study into reality and for the contributions (however small) I can make to create a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.

Born green

UN Conference
The United Nations and South African flags fly over Johannesburg's conference center. U.N. photo

My parents have always inspired me to take an assertive role in the future of the world. Growing up in a politically active family, environmentalism has always seemed just a natural part of human self-preservation if we can't take care of our environment, we die.

I have always felt an ecological calling, believing there is a fundamental problem with the way that business is run on planet Earth. Yet I have always thought in abstractions because I felt helpless to act, paralyzed to make any decisions that could contribute to a paradigm shift.

Studying abroad in Spain and Chile last year, I began to see a wider panorama of the world's reality namely, that there are 6 billion people outside the bubble of North America. The intelligentsia in these countries have a more global and accurate perspective, attentive to the current world events while viewing the United States as the world's leader, for better or worse.


Only through critical thinking can one begin to form an educated opinion, and from this develop convictions.

Last semester I took a course on Environmental Politics in Chile, learning about the Rio de Janeiro conference, the largest-ever environmental gathering on climate change, biological diversity, and the delicate relationship between humans and nature. My teachers Carlos Martin and Emmanuelle Barozet focused us on international environmental measures, and in my investigations it dawned on me how apathetic and undaunted the world powers were acting when faced with real and chilling facts.

I was ready to drop out of school to take action. As the sobering effects of the environmental crisis sank in, I felt that as long as I was in school I would be unable to make a full-time commitment to solid action and, as I saw it, assume responsibility for the Earth and the future of human life.

Critical thinking

But I also realized that without the foundation laid by my academic life and intellectual curiosity, my actions would be ignorant and perhaps hurt the very movement I aspire to help. Deliberative thinking is basic to constructive action. Reactionism and destruction, while taking little effort, focus on the problem instead of the solution. Only through critical thinking can one begin to form an educated opinion, and from this develop convictions.

At UC Berkeley, the avant-garde atmosphere ranges from the tradition of environmental activism dating back to the creation of People's Park to the development of 'smart' power strips that turn off after the user leaves the room. Here, I have found the support of driven intellectuals and activists true students of the university in the historic sense and a place of contemplation, dialectic, deliberation and ultimately, evolution of our conception of truth.


More info:

Official Web site for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development

Adbusters Media Foundation, a not-for-profit magazine publisher and advocacy group

Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales

Measure your own ecological footprint 


Berkeley mentors such as Wendy Brown, professor of political science and women's studies, have inspired me to challenge my own suppositions while retaining the important clusters of light that I have gathered from the occurrence called life. Without the skills that I have learned from rhetoric lecturer Felipe Gutterriez and associate professor Frederick Dolan, I would have never been able to decode the rhetoric of mass media and corporate culture that is so omnipresent yet so oblique.

The Berkeley Experience

Through living at the vegetarian co-op house Lothlorien, majoring in Political Science and Rhetoric, and working for the student environmental activism group Calpirg, I have had a brush with "the Berkeley Experience." You know, the realization that this experiment called Berkeley has shaken up my ideas and assumptions and compelled me to re-examine my priorities and goals and work for a cause I believe in. I have made small commitments to my beliefs by protesting Citibank on Shattuck with fellow students, interning for the Chilean think tank and school Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), and giving leftovers to the homeless through my job at Intermezzo Café.

Why am I attending Rio+10? Because a long time ago, I realized that I had no choice but to dedicate myself to continuing human life and creating a new meaning by re-establishing the balance between an anthrocentric society and a finite nature.

—Yogi Hendlin