Will Future Generations Have to “Blame it on Rio?”

The weather in Rio de Janeiro during the three-day UN “Earth Summit II” was warm, gray, indistinct—a soft haze covered the city and muted its world-famous contours. Something like that cloudiness shrouded the concluded summit itself—a generalized feeling of anti-climax and uncertainty. The massive effort was the largest-ever UN gathering: 130 heads of state, 50,000 delegates, 190 countries. And the document produced was supposed to chart a new course to a sustainable future for humanity. But nothing of the kind emerged from the long process of negotiations. Vague, timid, unenforceable, weak—these are all words one hears to describe the final agreement. “A little of everything and a lot of nothing,” one journalist summed it up.

Its title “The Future We Want,” is, for many, only a poor exercise in newspeak.Climate change deniers, who have been on the defensive in recent months after some disastrous PR over-reaches, are celebrating wildly. Lord Monkton’s Climate Depot website splattered a Rio+20 FAIL graphic all over the home page on Sunday. And the business mood is upbeat too: the agreement gives the green light to the idea of “protecting” nature by assigning everything in it a monetary value. And to all kinds of weird experimentation with natural processes: ones we’ve already seen like GMOs, and newer, stranger, even more arcane things like synthetic biology and geo-engineering on the horizon.

It’s a sign of just how far the dominant society has moved from the position of many Indigenous nations, eloquently presented in the Kari Oca II declaration last week. In a statement delivered publicly to the delegates via the UN Secretary General’s office, 400 Indigenous leaders camped near the summit grounds urged recognition of humanity’s absolute dependence upon natural systems. But the new “green” business view appears to be that those systems are not quite good enough, and business can make them better. They need to be improved by scientists, technocrats, entrepreneurs. While “fertilizing the ocean” may have been pushed back temporarily, other Frankenstein-ian experiments like GMO trees and synthetic molecules (for fuel, always for more fuel to burn) are moving ahead.

Thousands of grassroots activists from around the world gathered here for the parallel Peoples’ Summit. Many of them have also been trying for years – or decades – to work within the UN process. They take a different view of the summit results, of course. Organizers from poor and marginalized communities in the US: Indigenous, African American, Latino, immigrant laborers – members of the Grassroots Global Justice coalition, shared their perspectives this weekend as the summits closed. Among them there was little surprise, a good deal of weariness, some gallows humor, but also, above all, an undimmed commitment to persist. In fact, at this stage, the fundamental recognition is that only persistence can make any difference. Everything else has been tried: creativity, militancy, mobilization, marshaling of massive quantities of information—but capital has not ceded much ground for all that. And the global temperature continues to rise.

These activists have of necessity turned themselves into experts in many specialized fields: land, water, and energy policy, financial mechanisms, international law, technology and patents, agribusiness– in order to fight inside the system for the people and ecosystems being destroyed by it. It’s impressive. It’s somehow sad as well: lives they might have had—as teachers, doctors, judges, artists in a better world—on hold. Instead, time is spent tracking the power-brokers, haunting the confusing corridors of a series of temporary locations in far-flung cities (those who manage to make it inside at all). Rio’s a great vacation town, but this is no vacation.

The Earth Summit experience, outside the major plenaries, was mostly like an enormous trade show – one surrounded by a cordon of soldiers with automatic weapons. It was full of bizarre moments: one press conference on preserving the Arctic was in a gelid room where the air conditioning was turned up so high it made you wonder if they were trying to give you first-hand experience of that particular ecosystem. Or else make it impossible for the press to take notes because their hands were shaking so hard. The “paperless” summit made it difficult to circulate press releases in the busy newsrooms, but there was discarded plastic trash everywhere. There were no windows. All connection with the natural world was severed once you were inside, except for the potted palms dotting the cavernous cafeteria. On a big video screen, speeches of the heads of state boomed incoherently in the echoing space. An estimated 5,000 tons of carbon emissions were produced by the event.

The few US representatives who were supposed to address the public mostly turned out to be no-shows. Hilary Clinton, in town for a total of seventeen hours, gave a press conference on a new aid initiative for Africa at which no one but press and delegates was allowed to attend and there were no questions. A board member of a US NGO working in Africa made her way in by getting there early and refusing to leave. “This is my government,” she said. “Are you going to tell me I can’t even look at it?” “The N on these NGO badges really stands for Nobody,” she said with a grim smile.

There were protests – large – in the streets without, and small, in the warren of slapdash rooms within throughout the week. But most activists and NGO representatives knew that their efforts to influence policy were fruitless. The representative of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy remarked ruefully that the best thing about the hour or two-long shuttle bus rides to the remote site from downtown Rio was that sometimes you got to sit next to a delegate and lobby him. She described a conversation with a Liberian delegate about that country’s prospective oil wealth. Major corporations like Chevron had done exploration, and were now getting ready to go in and handle extraction, and, of course, refining and sale. She asked if Liberia had ever considered public control of its oil industry. The delegate to the “sustainability and inclusion” summit was not aware that such an option existed, and she had to explain it to him.

The Peoples Summit, while a much healthier phenomenon than the official one from a physical and a movement perspective, had its own difficulties. The hope that it would be able to present a consensus action plan for a global “movement of movements” appears to have faded, after over a thousand issue-oriented workshops and many plenaries where conclusions were laboriously summarized. Instead, there are ideas for a continued process of international movement building and there is a series of points of struggle to help it cohere. These are not a road map to the “The Future We (Really) Want” but elements of a present that must be both denounced and created daily. Coming out of the loose, multi-tendency World Social Forum process (invented here in Brazil) it has to balance a commitment to openness and independence with the urgency of the situation and the knowledge that global power will concede nothing without a global demand. Yet localities are so far the only places the participant organizations have had any real impact. Action in localities can produce reforms, but only a global response can transform.

On lovely Copacabana beach after the summit, everyone came together to enjoy the sun and sand. A woman from Sri Lanka, a biofuels entrepreneur, argued heatedly with a member of the GGJ delegation. “The UN is irrelevant,” she said. “The NGOs are just obstructive. They are so angry.” (Which you might well be too if you were advocating for subsistence farmers making a minimal living who were losing the land they’d survived on for generations – because of land grabs by biofuel companies.) “But business is switched on. Business is ready to go. Governments just need to get out of the way and let us do it. We are going to show investors 30% profits.” The avidity in her voice was palpable.

Irrelevant. This is what the climate change deniers say too. And perhaps, if the march to privatize, buy and sell everything continues unabated, the UN will just fade away, like the Cheshire cat, leaving behind the smile of the “irrelevant” ideals in its various declarations: universal human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, sovereignty, peace and dignity. Then individual governments can disappear too, constitutions be replaced by corporate charters that speak vaguely of a commitment to sustainability –but there will no one but their shareholders to enforce it.

But persistence is resistance. Earlier, as the GGJ delegation finished its look back at the exhausting week, 61 year old Naeema Muhammed of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network closed the meeting with a circle. Each person was asked to say, in turn: “I am a link in the chain, and the chain will not break here.” They did, and as they did you could feel the fulcrum shift.

See also the text of the original 1992 Earth Summit here for comparison.

Christy Rodgers is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant living in San Francisco. She blogs at What If? Transformations, tales, possibilities Read other articles by Christy, or visit Christy's website.