Subtracting from Rio+20: The Continuing Problem

It was a very busy conference, or at the very least, a very crowded one. 100 heads of state and government formed the head of 40,000 delegates which was meant to hammer out a plan for sustainable development in the 21st century at Rio. The UN statement on the meeting called it a “historic opportunity to define pathways to a safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all.”

It is hard not to scoff at some of the suggestions. Beware any program slanted towards mere tree planting – green is all too often a government’s justifying screen for lack of will. One never hears, after all, of the seedlings that are always a mere front. Their fate is conveniently lost in subsequent studies. Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International states it rather well. “The trick here is to look very carefully at the UN-ese language being used. If they use the word ‘voluntary’, it means that it is not going to happen.”

Promises and challenges have been coming thick and fast. Point 12 of the draft text speaks of the “determination to address the themes of the Conference, namely a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development.” The text is bereft of definitions – what sustainable development is remains an open question. In this context, it would surely be vital to come up with an operable definition, given the goals of developing nations as opposed to those of ‘developed’ ones.

One of the various challenges the UN has outlined deals with a “100 percent” access to adequate food all year around, the elimination of malnutrition in pregnancy and early childhood, the creation of sustainable food systems, fostering an increase in food productivity and income on family farms and the elimination of all food waste (CNN, Jun 23).

Such gatherings have a habit of ignoring the enormous instrumental difficulties on the ground. Defending environments, for one, is often a lethal pass time. How appropriate that Rio should be the site for the twentieth anniversary of the first Earth Summit meeting on how world governments might tackle on matters critical to the environment while at the same time offering an improvement in global living standards.

The political organizer Chico Mendes was butchered in 1988 for his all too noisy efforts in preserving the Amazon. Since 1985, the Amazon has been the site for hundreds of professionally orchestrated murders – 1600 activists have paid with their lives (Nation, Jun 14). Governments have been overthrown because of strong mining and natural resource interests. Beware those who dare challenge the mining and logging classes.

Indeed, the battle that has been taking place between increasing profit margins, managing environmental goals and keeping earthly life sustainable is a global one that has proven remorseless. All too often, resources are themselves the subject of commercialization. It is already becoming all too obvious that the wars of the future will be over access to such valuable commodities as water. The Green Economy can be a vicious one.

The interest in Rio+20 from the major powers has been lukewarm. Earlier this month, the State Department issued a statement that President Barack Obama would not attend the summit. Mark Hertsgaard, writing for The Nation (Jun 14) wonders whether it would have even made a difference. When one is facing a state of affairs that is near irreversible – a study in Nature by a team led by Anthony Barnosky at the University of California, Berkeley suggesting just that – it might be best to stay away from a needless, foolish scrap.

The solution, in the bleak end, does not lie in an Al Gore-alarmist picture featuring an imploding world free of romanticized polar bears, but a deconstructed system of governance that targets those select interests who profit from environmental degradation. Gutting environments continues to remain lucrative. The incentive to do so must be removed.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.