LONDON — Are summits worthwhile? Do they add to the sum of human wisdom and achieve beneficial results?

The immediate question is prompted by the imminent Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa — where 60,000 delegates will discuss “sustainable development.” But for many people this is just one more event in a seemingly unending succession of summits that the age of globalization now generates.

The most familiar are the global heads-of-government summits. Communiques full of virtuous undertakings by the world’s leaders emerge from these occasions, although one would be hard pressed to list any benefits that have resulted. Meanwhile, the European countries have developed their own summit “rhythm,” with regular biannual gatherings of all EU leaders, which again produce long communiques and ambitious targets, many of which are soon forgotten.

The bankers and the money-men also their summits; the annual International Monetary Fund meeting, for example, attracts thousands. Asia has its Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Arabia has its Pan-Arab gatherings and its Gulf Council, Africa has its African Union — everyone is getting into the summit business.

But to repeat the question — does it all carry us forward? After all, the summit procedure is an old one. History is full of lofty summits at which the fates and futures of nations have been tossed around. In Vienna in 1815, the Concert of Europe kept the Continent’s statesmen busy for months on end reshaping Europe’s nations at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In Paris, after World War I, the victors met for many months to redraw the boundaries of numerous states as well as to impose peace terms on a humiliated Germany and to set up the League of Nations, which was going to prevent wars for evermore. Unfortunately, these well-meant summit plans had the opposite effect.

It might be thought that in the age of information technology and instant total communication these gatherings could be replaced by something less cumbersome and remote, and more effective. But it seems not. The Johannesburg Earth Summit is demonstrating that faith in summits as the pathway to global progress is stronger than ever.

There is sharp criticism in the air as well, however. U.S. President George W. Bush has offered his apologies for his absence from the summit while British Prime Minister Tony Blair has agreed to drop in only briefly. The media have also been critical, contrasting the cost of the Johannesburg summit with the appalling drought and famine now gripping southern Africa. Other critics have asked what this particular summit is actually for. What kind of development is it trying to sustain?

If the aim is environmental, then the answers may contradict sustainable economic development. The higher environmental standards that richer countries now seek to impose may be utterly unsuitable for poorer societies trying desperately to feed and house themselves.

If the aim is to bring multinational corporations to heel, as many antibusiness activists and nongovernmental organizations will be demanding at Johannesburg, that, too, may be in flat contradiction to the call for private corporations to assume more power and responsibility in relation to the environment and other social objectives, rather than leaving these public concerns to governments.

If the wish is to preserve nature and traditional cultures, that may conflict head on with the fervent wish to industrialize and accelerate growth. If the dream is of alternative energy, with renewable wind-power replacing coal and oil-burning, that will result in hideous wind-farms desecrating the rural landscape.

Or to take another development dilemma now unfolding in Zambia, not far from where the Johannesburg delegates will be sitting and talking, where children are currently dying of hunger. Plentiful food is available from the United States, but it is genetically modified, and the Zambian government is rejecting it on grounds of the possible risk. It seems that GM foods are not part of the “sustainable development” agenda even though they would sustain those who will otherwise starve.

The Earth Summit will no doubt debate these agonizing issues, just as it will debate other obvious obstacles to development, such as bad government, corruption and dictatorship, examples of which will be all around them.

The one certainty is that they will never agree on such broad, contentious and delicate matters. They will probably not even agree on what drives development and what hinders it, or on what kind of “development” the world really wants and needs.

All of which carries an important lesson about summits — they work best when they have a single purpose that can be firmly hammered out and agreed among statesmen and officials. The current mini-summit to tackle the recent floods in central Europe is one good example.

When vast summits are convened just for the sake of having a meeting, to discuss vague and high-sounding concepts, or to offer generalized solutions to a world of great diversity, and to nations facing totally different circumstances, they are wasting time, raising false hopes and reassuring nobody.

Perhaps Johannesburg will defy this experience and produce genuine benefits for all out of its endless panels, committees, talk-ins and communiques. But the prospects do not look good.

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