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Walking Away from Rio

The International Summits Are Broken. Time to Put Bodies onto the Streets

If you find it difficult to believe the history of how Easter Islanders in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries deforested their island to the point where they drove themselves to extinction, take a look at the dithering and fiddling that took place during last week’s Rio+20 conference. The Easter Island experience is a helpful allegory for understanding our own predicament here at the start of the twenty-first century.

Photo by Andrew GillRio +20 had lots of talking heads but little by way of concrete action. The Easter Island experience is a
helpful allegory for understanding our own predicament here at the start of the twenty-first century.

Just three weeks ago, a group of leading scientists published a study in Nature showing that the planet could be at the brink of going through a major “state shift” with devastating consequences. “In a sane world,” wrote David Roberts over at Grist, “it would be front page news.”

The study didn’t make the front pages, of course, and, judging by the actions by world “leaders” here in Rio, we don’t live in a sane world. Instead of making any serious commitments, president after prime minister took the stage and gave boilerplate speeches full of empty buzzwords.

If you were playing a drinking game that involved taking a shot each time a head of state said “sustainable” you would have been dead on the floor after the first few remarks. But a drink for each meaningful commitment? You could have played that round and still been stone-cold sober.

To be fair, the summit did re-arrange some chairs on the deck of this sinking planet. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $20 million to mobilize private sector investment in clean energy in Africa. The world’s largest development banks committed $175 billion to clean transportation over the next ten years. These figures might sound like a lot — until you remember that governments worldwide give nearly $1 trillion a year in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

Despite an incredible outpouring of public support for proposals to cut fossil fuel subsidies at the Rio Summit (more than a million people signed petitions calling for action and a “Twitterstorm” made #endfossilfuelsubsidies the top trend on Twitter worldwide) the final agreement had just a few weak lines about “inviting” countries to maybe, someday, if they want, think about cutting some, ok, maybe just a few, subsidies.

Now, after a few cathartic caiparinhas, the challenge for us climate organizers — and everyone else who cares about a livable planet — is to figure out our strategy for the road ahead. Waiting around for a United Nations conference to save the world will be about as effective as the few Easter Islanders who held out for a committee to finally convince the lumberjacks to put down their axes. With trees falling around us, we need to double down on the strategies that are working and boldly experiment with some new ones.

First, we need to keep getting our bodies in the way of the axes. The bold acts of civil disobedience and smart campaigns against coal, fracking, and deforestation that brave people around the world are committing each day must continue.

Second, we should continue to explain the benefits of an island with trees. People are right to emphasize the need to offer up positive climate solutions and point out the benefits of an equitable and sustainable world.

Third, we need to make hugging trees sexier than cutting them down. The most exciting part of Rio for me was getting to see our movement for environmental sanity and social justice in all its diversity, color, and creativity over at the People’s Summit. Far outside the official negotiations, I heard heroes like Marina Silva rally thousands of people and thought,  “This is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing.”

But we also need to start doing something different: We need to begin taking head on the very idea of cutting down trees. We need to find ways to show people that the entire concept of cutting down a tree on an island of limited resources is a suicidal act. And as we begin to undermine the logic behind the entire industry, we need to find ways to challenge the tree cutters directly, time and again.

Our task will be even tougher than the Easter Islanders’. Even though the fossil fuel industry is an omnipresent force in our lives, it’s difficult to pinpoint the equivalent of a lunch counter sit-in for our movement. At 350.org, we’ve zeroed in on abolishing fossil fuel subsidies as a way to sharpen our attacks on the industry and build public support for renewable energy and climate justice. In the months ahead, we’ll have to find ways to expand that work so that it has an even bigger impact on the industry’s bottom line.

Failures like Rio provide brief moments of clarity. They reveal what works — and what doesn’t. Someday, these international meetings and climate summits may deliver results, but only after we’ve broken the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry has over our democracy. Until then, our work isn’t inside the negotiating halls. It’s out stopping the axes. 

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