New Internationalist

Rio+20 Earth Summit – time to change the narrative

What we need at the June meeting is action – not voluntary pledges and empty goals. Phil England looks ahead.  

We’re living through a particularly ugly period in world history. As Naomi Klein has lain out very clearly in Shock Doctrine and subsequently, in late stage capitalism deregulated corporations and financers don’t just seek to maximize profit at the expense of both people and the planet, they actively exploit disaster.

We can see it in the way the partial collapse of the financial system has been used to force national economies to march even faster to the neoliberal drum beat – with cuts in public expenditure and public services opening the way for private investors and corporations to profit from previously off-limits services such as healthcare and policing.

And we can see it in the way that Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’ wants to cash in on the environmental crisis. The same market approach – pushed by the likes of BP and the investment banks – that has failed to solve the problem of climate change is now being pushed as the solution to deforestation and the escalating destruction of the natural world. In UN conference-speak, the privatization of the atmosphere is known as carbon trading, the privatization of the world’s forests is known as REDD and the privatization of everything else known as ‘payment for ecosystem services’.

Coming up very quickly on the event horizon is something laden with tremendous symbolism. The Rio+20 Earth Summit in June can’t fail to stand first and foremost as a testimony to the failure of national governments – captured by corporate interests – to address the environmental problems that prompted the first Earth Summit 20 years ago. Climate-changing greenhouse gases are rising at unprecedented, unforeseen rates and so are rates of biodiversity loss.

The draft declaration for the conference itself recognizes this failure. ‘Unsustainable development has increased the stress on earth’s limited natural resources, and on the carrying capacity of ecosystems,’ it says. ‘Food insecurity, climate change and biodiversity loss have adversely affected developmental gains. We are deeply concerned that around 1.4 billion people still live in extreme poverty and one sixth of the world’s population is undernourished, pandemics are omnipresent threats.’

The whole thing is such an embarrassment to the global community that it’s been reduced to a three-day event where heads of government such as our own David Cameron aren’t even expected to turn up.  The draft declaration that world ‘leaders’ are being asked to sign up to is just 20 pages long and has virtually nothing of any substance in it.

This ‘Zero Draft’ as it is called, was summed up as a statement of ‘Zero Ambition’ by the newsletter of the NGOs that are inputting into the Rio+20 process: ‘The whole text breathes only the voluntary approach, which countries can accept or just leave. It is all up to nice and interesting partnerships, good intentions and promoting green consumption. When you read in detail you can find some good ideas, but most are not really new: other indicators, stop harmful subsidies, civil society participation; all said and agreed on a decade or two ago.’

This is the same failed voluntary approach that came out of the original Earth Summit 20 years ago. That Summit produced the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC that has been the basis of the UN climate talks ever since) and the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Rio+20 agenda in its current form has nothing to offer but more of the same failed medicine. The agenda is full of voluntary pledges and empty goals with no means of fulfilling them.

As part of the agenda-drafting process, dozens of civil society groups from around the globe have submitted their ideas and proposals alongside those of national governments. Some of these initiatives have been discussed in the working groups focused on Energy, Equity & Environment and Environment & Economics and we think deserve the serious consideration of Occupy London as a whole.

First is the proposal to recognize planetary boundaries. A heavyweight paper in the scientific journal Nature in 2009 drew together what we know about Earth systems and how far we can push them. The paper identified nine boundaries (more may be identified as our knowledge develops) – three of which we have overshot already (atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, rate of biodiversity loss and nitrogen cycle). A group of public interest lawyers have started a campaign for these to be recognized and respected by international law.

Second is the proposal to make Ecocide the Fifth International Crime Against Peace. This would make CEOs, board members, government ministers and heads of banks personally liable for large-scale damage to ecosystems such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and production of oil from the Canadian tar sands.

Third is the proposal to recognize the rights of nature. This draws on the work of Bolivia – which drafted a proposed Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010 – and also on the philosophical tradition of such thinkers as Thomas Berry and the Wild Law community, who propose that the Earth – rather than humans (and corporations) – should be at the centre of our legal system. This is echoed in the words of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who said ‘the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment’ and progressive thinkers such as Susan George, who has said that inverting our current priorities so that the environment comes first, humans second and the economy third is the great task of our age.

There are other proposals for an International Court for the Environment and an Ombudsman for Future Generations, for example, which we should also consider supporting. And the capture and effective derailment of the UN process by corporate and financial interests is, of course, the other half of the equation that we need to be addressing.

Phil England is a journalist and Occupy London supporter.

Photo: Oxfam’s Kate Raworth gets creative at Occupy London, by Antonio Assis.
This blog post first appeared in The Occupied Times. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Look out for the June 2012 issue of New Internationalist, which will focus on Rio+20 and the 10 Worst Climate Greenwashers.

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  1. #2 Sue Beilby 29 Mar 12

    We need to make this centre-stage and it has dropped out of most people's consciousness, other than those who have been and are committed to ending ecocide. The idea of making ecocide a crime restores hope to those who have abandoned working for climate change.
    In addition it needs to be a priority for those working for the environment and sustainability. By focussing on too many issues we dissipate our energy and we lose this opportunity.
    The phrase 'the big push' from First World War nearly 100 years ago comes to mind.
    Can we not make this something for prime time TV?

  2. #3 Steven Earl Salmony 01 Jun 12

    If we agree to “think globally”, it becomes evident that riveting attention on GROWTH could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the communities in which we live cannot continue as it has until now. Each village's resources are being dissipated, each town's environment degraded and every city's fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened. To proclaim something like, 'the meat of any community plan for the future is, of course, growth' fails to acknowledge that many villages, towns and cities are already ‘built out’, and also ‘filled in’ with people. If the quality of life we enjoy now is to be maintained for the children, then limits on economic and population growth will have to be set. By so doing, we choose to “act locally’ and sustainably.

    More economic and population growth are no longer sustainable in many too many places on the surface of Earth because biological constraints and physical limitations are immutably imposed upon ever increasing human consumption, production and population activities of people in many communities where most of us reside. Inasmuch as the Earth is finite with frangible environs, there comes a point at which GROWTH is unsustainable. There is much work to done locally. But that effort cannot reasonably begin without sensibly limiting economic and population growth.

    To quote another source, “We face a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing the town’s business…..” That is a true statement. But the necessary “break with the old ways” of continous economic and population growth is not what is occurring. There is a call for a break with the old ways, but the required changes in behavior are not what is being proposed as we plan for the future. What is being proposed and continues to occur is more of the same, old business-as-usual overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, the very activities that appear to be growing unsustainbly. More business-as-usual could soon become patently unsustainable, both locally and globally. A finite planet with the size, composition and environs of the Earth and a community with the boundaries, limited resources and wondrous climate of villages, towns and cities where we live may not be able to sustain much longer the economic and population growth that is occurring on our watch. Perhaps necessary changes away from UNSUSTAINABLE GROWTH and toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.

    Think globally while there is still time and act locally before it is too late for human action to make any difference in the clear and presently dangerous course of unfolding human-induced ecological events, both in our planetary home and in our villages, towns and cities.

    Steven Earl Salmony

  3. #4 Steven Earl Salmony 05 Jun 12

    More voices, many more voices are needed.

    A comment for review by the Chapel Hill Planning Board and the Sustainability Committee Meeting,
    June 5, 2012

    One of the most widely appreciated definitions of sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. From my point of view, it is about saving environmental resources, setting limits on economic and population growth, providing good quality of life for all and developing a sustainable economy at the local level.

    Local governments can contribute to sustainability in many different ways. Some of the most popular activities villages, towns and cities can undertake are:
    • developing greenways
    • saving energy and using renewable energy sources
    • providing good public transport
    • recycling waste
    • educating citizens about sustainability
    • supporting diversified, small businesses
    • involving local stakeholders in policy and planning and
    • reducing CO2 emissions.
    These are “popular” activities and readily receive support. I would like to turn your attention to requirements for necessary local change that are decidedly unpopular and related to seemingly endless economic growth and unbridled increases in the human population of Chapel Hill.
    Somehow, we have to master the art of thinking globally and acting locally. If we can do this one thing, “think globally”, it becomes evident that riveting attention on more and more growth could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the community in which we live cannot continue as it has until now. Each village’s resources are being dissipated, each town’s environment degraded and every city’s fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened. To proclaim, as the CHN does on 5/20/12, that “the meat of Chapel Hill 2020 is, of course, growth” fails to acknowledge that the Town of Chapel Hill is already ‘built out’, and also ‘filled in’ with people. If the quality of life we enjoy now is to be maintained for the children, then limits on economic and population growth will have to be set. By so doing, we choose to “act locally” and sustainably.
    More economic and population growth are no longer sustainable in many too many places on the surface of Earth because biological constraints and physical limitations are immutably imposed upon ever increasing human consumption, production and population activities of people in many communities where most people reside worldwide. Inasmuch as the Earth is finite with frangible environs, there comes a point at which more growth is unsustainable. There is much work to done locally. But that effort cannot reasonably begin without sensibly limiting economic and population growth.
    To quote the same edition of the CHN again, “We face a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing the town’s business…..” That is a true statement. But the necessary “break with the old ways” of continuous economic and population growth is not what is occurring. There is a call for a break with the old ways, but the required changes in behavior are not what are being proposed as we plan for the future. What is being proposed and continues to occur is more of the same, old business-as-usual overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, the very distinctly human activities that appear to be growing unsustainably. More business-as-usual could soon become patently unsustainable, both locally and globally. A finite planet with the size, composition and environs of the Earth and a community with the boundaries, limited resources and wondrous climate of villages, towns and cities where we live may not be able to sustain much longer the economic and population growth that is occurring on our watch. Perhaps necessary changes away from unsustainable growth and toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.
    Think globally while there is still time and act locally before it is too late for human action to make any difference in the clear and presently dangerous course of unfolding human-induced ecological events, both in our planetary home and in our villages, towns and cities.
    Let me close with a comment from a June 3, 2012 CHN letter by a town neighbor, Nancy Elkins, “If ‘the meat of Chapel Hill 2020 is, of course, growth’ then we have wasted our time working on Chapel Hill 2020 during the past months. Chapel Hill 2020 must not go forward on this premise without the necessary restraints that a long-term plan must have.”
    Thank you.
    Steven Earl Salmony

  4. #5 Steven Earl Salmony 09 Jun 12

    This situation is no longer deniable. Opportunities like the one offered at RIO+20 cannot be missed. During my lifetime, many have understood the Global Predicament we are facing now, but only a few 'voices in the wilderness' were willing to speak out loudly and clearly about what everyone can see. It is not a pretty sight. The human community has precipitated a planetary emergency that only humankind is capable of undoing. The present 'Unsustainable Path' has to be abandoned in favor of a ’road less travelled by’. It is late; there is no time left to waste. Perhaps now we will gather our remarkably abundant, distinctly human resources and respond ably to the daunting, human-induced, global challenges before us, the ones that threaten life as we know it and the integrity of Earth as a fit place for human habitation. Many voices, many more voices are needed for making necessary changes.

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About the author

Phil England a New Internationalist contributor

Phil England is producer of Climate Radio and co-founder of the award-winning community radio station Resonance FM. In 2012 he produced an alternative audio tour for the Tate Modern as part of the campaign to end oil sponsorship of the arts. His freelance writing has appeared in The Independent, The Herald, The Ecologist, Variant and The Wire.

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