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Stuck Inside of Rio with the Climate Blues Again

Summit Tests the Idea of Whether Green Capitalism Can Save the Environment

Among veteran environmental advocates, the word “Rio” calls to mind the promise of global cooperation and the peril of broken promises. The historic 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit, brought together the nations, corporations, and peoples of the world to forge a “Common Future” under the banner of sustainable development. Now, twenty years later, the governments and peoples of the world are meeting in Rio again, not to evaluate the success of that plan, but, in essence, to assess the damage, and, in principle, to plot a new way forward.

Photo by FIESPDuring the past two decades government have clearly prioritized economic growth over the environment
and emphasized business interests in their elaborations of sustainable development.

In 1992 the Rio Earth Summit gave us Agenda 21, the United Nations Framework Convention in Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and other global instruments for environmental preservation. Of equal significance, it also gave us the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the notion that the best way to protect the planet’s resources was to give the private sector a lead role in resource stewardship.

Since the publication of “Our Common Future,” the UN Brundtland Report that set the tone for the 1992 Rio Summit, policy makers have subscribed to the idea that a healthy environment and economic growth should be mutually reinforcing.  In practice, however, governments during the past two decades have clearly prioritized economic growth over the environment and emphasized business interests in their elaborations of sustainable development. This approach has led to vast species die-off, ocean acidification, deforestation, and runaway climate change.

The official definition of sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But it can easily be rephrased as, “how much can we get out of Mother Earth without damaging her beyond repair?”

At Rio in 2012 we know that, for all intents and purposes, we have damaged her beyond our ability to make repairs. One of the most powerful spectacles I’ve seen since arriving in Rio a few days ago is a grand photo display at the Cineapolis Plaza in the heart of city documenting the species, languages, glaciers, waterways, crops, cultures, and ecosystems lost or decimated in the past two decades. The gap between the aspirations of 1992 and our situation today, along with the divide between what is promised by the boosters of the “green economy” and what they can actually deliver, has set up a profound tension that is at the center of the experience here in Rio.

At the Rio Centro, an enormous business park on one end of the city, government negotiators hope to develop a legal framework that will guide nation states toward more, ahem, sustainable development. Meanwhile, an alternative summit, the Peoples Summit for Social and Environmental Justice, is unfolding on the other side of the city and a world away. And, in a ramshackle neighborhood ten miles from Rio Centro, Indigenous Peoples from around the world are camped out at Kari-Oca II, the sequel to an Indigenous gathering that occurred at the first Rio meetings.

Photo by Jorge AndradeAt the Kari-Oca encampment, in a ramshackle neighborhood ten miles from Rio Centro, 500 Indigenous
representatives began drafting a declaration to condemn the green economy in the name of rights,
sovereignty, and future generations.

The process at the Earth Summit is for nation-state delegations to negotiate a document that will stand as a global mandate. At the Peoples Summit, the goal is to develop a consensus plan among the social movements in a week of daylong workshops that are inclusive, horizontal, and transparent. Out at Kari-Oca, the consensus process involves ceremony, dance, ritual dress, and song.

In the few days I’ve been here, two events have revealed the different worldviews at work.

The first was a debate on Sunday, June 16th at the Peoples Summit between Achim Steiner, Director of the UN Environment Program, and a number of spokespeople allied with smallholder farmers, women’s groups, and the rest of the bottom billions who are largely excluded from the UN negotiations.

Before hundreds of people gathered under a huge white tent, social movement leaders enunciated a list of profound grievances about the long disaster of capitalist-led development, with special emphasis on “the green economy” — the paradigm of environmental investments being promoted by the UN.

Steiner responded with diplomacy. “Twenty years after Rio I share the frustration that sustainable development has not been the great breakthrough. As we sit here together, and as the UN speaks to the world, we are not saying that everything is fine. The contrary is the message, and we in the United Nations Environment Program are deeply troubled by the way the world is moving at the moment.”

Steiner then proceeded to point out that, while we may be collectively frustrated with the state of the world, “whether we like it or not, economic thinking is dominating all our nations,” and, in essence, we must come to terms with that.

The UNEP Director made a plea to leave behind critiques of rampant capital, and to accept the call to replace the old fossil fuel economy with a new green economy based on technological innovation and pricing of ecosystem services like carbon cycles and biodiversity. Under the big tent, however, his plea left the social movements cold.

Pat Mooney of the ETC Group, a Canada-based think tank closely allied with global South groups, led the response. Mooney thanked the UNEP director for making the trek across town to be with the frustrated masses, and pointed out charitably, “How the green economy was dreamed up at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, and how it plays out in Rio, are two different things.”

“We are talking about this green economy in a time of, let’s say, two crises which very much affect how the negotiations go,” Mooney said.

“One is the financial crisis, where we find ourselves in a horrific mess constructed by the financial institutions, who couldn’t even manage mortgages. The second crisis, much more important, is the crisis of the collapse of our environment, created by technologies that have destroyed our environment and created climate change. And now we’re being told that we need to bring together the financial institutions to figure out how we can place an economic value on Mother Nature, with technologies that will solve the problem for us. We should go to the same financiers who trashed our houses, and ask them to now please go out and manage the rest of nature. That may not be what UNEP wants to happen, but that is what’s being played out now in Rio Centro.”

Speaker upon speaker then rose up to denounce the green economy framework as the commodification of life, the final enclosure of the commons, and the largest land grab ever dreamed up by the corporate sector, all with the UN seal of approval.

Pablo Solon, former Bolivian Minister to the United Nations, nearly screamed at Steiner, “If the green economy is a new approach, why then, do you repeatedly refer to Nature as capital?”

After a well-reasoned but relentless onslaught, Steiner lost patience and hollered, “Sorry guys, wake up. There is no nirvana. We are hurtling toward a world where we have to sustain nine billion people. Please do not throw out a whole model of innovation and experimentation!”

The second impressive event came the next day, out at the Kari-Oca encampment, where 500 Indigenous representatives began drafting a declaration to condemn the green economy in the name of rights, sovereignty, and future generations. Anyone with the slightest awareness of the history of conquest and colonization should understand why Steiner’s green-tinted innovation might not find sympathy there. With friends from the Indigenous Environmental Network, I attended the signing ceremony of the Kari-Oca declaration. It was a jubilant ceremony, thick with the smoke of sage and copal, feathers, beads, chants and songs.

For better or worse, Steiner is right: we are hurtling toward disaster on many levels. But I stand with the social movements in arguing that the innovation and experimentation that brought us to the cliff’s edge — the global tinkerings of capital and of technology — cannot be counted on to save us, and are much more likely to push us over the edge. And I stand with the peoples camped out at Kari-Oca in believing that, if we’re going to save anything at all at this late date, we better pray.

Jeff Conant, writer and social justice activist
Jeff Conant is author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health and is Communications Director at Global Justice Ecology Project.

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