Who Was the “We” at Rio+20?

Businesses Took Center Stage While Civil Society Became a Sideshow

Flying into the Rio Earth Summit last week, I sat next to a Brazilian man who makes a weekly commute from Washington, DC to Rio de Janeiro to oversee his multi-million dollar construction company. When I asked him the obvious question — “What do you think about Rio+20?” — his response was sheer delight.

Photo by Fora do Eixo The official Rio +20 document is titled "The Future We Want” but the residents of impoverished and
polluted places of the world might be better served by focusing on, "The Future We Need.” Pictured
above, a painting by the Indigenous people of Boa Vista, in Brazil's Roraima state depicting the world
as they knew it.

“I like it all,” he said. “Rio+20, The World Cup, the Olympics. Bring people together, make them happy, I like it.”

His statement said as much about the relevance of the summit as anything I heard all week.

Brazil is one of the world’s fastest growing countries. President Dilma Rousseff has been quoted as saying: “Europe is the past. They have no resources left, they’re not having children, and they’re undergoing a structural adjustment crisis like we had in the eighties. But Brazil, we are the future. We have resources, youth, and a growing economy.”

The discussions at the Rio+20 Summit, which ended Friday, were, in principle, supposed to be about lifting the bottom billion out of poverty while envisioning the way forward for a planetary biosphere on the verge of collapse. But the tagline of the summit — and now the name of the official, 49-page document that was signed, sealed and delivered on the last day of the summit — was telling: "The Future We Want."

The residents of the favelas and the slums and the impoverished and polluted places of the world, who rarely have the luxury of determining the future they want, might be better served by focusing on, say,"The Future We Need."

Or, I don’t know, in this age of austerity, bursting bubbles, and collapsing ice-shelves, how about the even simpler, "The Future We Can Afford?"

No matter how you word it, the title begs the question: who is the ‘we’ of the future?

The “we” in Rio last week included UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who assuaged the youth at a civil society meeting with the facile pronouncement that “United Nations starts with ‘U’ because you are our future.”

The “we” included daredevil actress Lucy Lawless, (Xena, Warrior Princess) warning, rightly, that: “Holding hands with big oil will deliver calamity on our children.”

“We” included Bianca Jagger warning, "We are reaching the tipping point and the tipping point according to most scientists will be in less than 10 years. We don't have much time" 

Prominent among us in Rio, too, was Sir Richard Branson, billionaire entrepreneur, biofuel booster and pioneer in commercial space-flight, announcing that “The private sector needs to put people and the planet at the center of all we do,” and leading the charge on the art-of-war-model of environmental management.  “One way to look at climate protection is to regard it as a business model,” Branson said, “because our only option to stop climate change is for industry to make money from it.” 

Britain’s Lord Monckton, among the most loud-mouthed climate-change denialists, was here among us as well, obstructing the distasteful proceedings and declaring, “Failure in Rio is good for the world's poor people. We need to redefine sustainable development as oil, gas, and coal.”

Strange bedfellows these summits make.

Or perhaps the “we” was not intended to refer to the oddball collection of celebrities who trumpeted grandiose pronouncements all week to the fawning press.

Maybe the “we” is a token of the public-private partnership model that marked the business end of the Earth Summit at dozens, if not hundreds, of industry-sponsored side events.

During one such event, Donald Steinberg, Director of the US Agency for International Development, highlighted the importance of the industry meetings here. “These events are not side events, these are the main events,” Steinberg said.

Among the most notable partnerships here was the Consumer Goods Forum, a global industry group of 650 corporations with combined sales of more than US$3 trillion, which, in partnership with the US, pledged to achieve zero net deforestation in its supply chains by 2020.

Another prominent partnership that emerged in Rio is the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SEFA), co-chaired by Chad Holliday of the Bank of America. Approaching $50 billion in commitments, with 50 countries having signed on, Holliday called SEFA “the greatest public-private partnership of all.”

The big NGOs are feverishly partnering up as well. Julia Martin-LeFevre, Director General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), explained that the way to protect nature is to “harness the capacity of the markets through [strategies like] payment for biodiversity and ecosystem services,” and noted that “we conservation organizations sit very well together with corporations”.

Another partnership prominent in Rio was Avoided Deforestation Partners, an international network of “leaders in forest carbon policy and project implementation, science, finance, and conservation,” which held numerous events to promote market-based efforts to halt tropical deforestation.
With all these business partnerships holding center stage, it is no wonder that, as British journalist George Monbiot pointed out, the term “sustainable development,” has morphed into the term “sustained growth,” referred to no less than 16 times in the final Future We Want document.

“If sustainability means anything,” Monbiot reminds us, “it is surely the opposite of sustained growth.”

So, while the anti-social social movements and angry civil society groups (myself among them) wring our hands in grief over deepening poverty and collapsing planetary ecosystems, business is content. The captains of industry might all echo the Brazilian businessman who commutes across the equator every week.

“We like it all,” they might be saying as they look forward to their next global junket. “Rio+20, The World Cup, the Olympics. Bring people together, make them happy. We like it.”

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