New Internationalist

Rio minus the principles

Friday marked the end of the Rio+20 Summit and instead of reflecting on the last week I find myself reflecting on the Rio of twenty years ago. What were middle-of-the-road ideas at the Rio Summit in 1992 are now considered radical. Governments last week did all they could to retreat from what they agreed on then.

In 1992 they wanted certain principles to be adopted by the whole world – principles so important they were given the name of the city in which they were born: the Rio principles. But now industrialized governments no longer want to mention the principles explicitly. For example, they don’t want to explicitly reaffirm one of the key Rio principles, that of common but differentiated responsibility. They no longer want to admit that Northern countries have been most responsible for the climate crisis and they definitely don’t want to commit to the responsibility of taking the lead in addressing it.

The same is true of the precautionary principle, a perfectly sensible idea twenty years ago. They don’t want to reaffirm such a principle – and if they don’t reaffirm it they will take the opportunity to jump into irresponsible ventures and push for risky technologies to be introduced worldwide without any regulation. The gains of 1992 are slipping through our fingers. This is the danger of Rio+20. We don’t see any progress. Twenty years have passed and we’re standing still.

Beyond the colour green

Green forests, green grass, green is the colour of a healthy environment. But today, when you look around you everything is painted green – the oil corporations, the mining corporations, even the chemical corporations!

Friends of the Earth International has rejected the concept of the Green Economy which is in the Rio+20 text, albeit without much clarity. We have looked beyond the colour green, just as we looked beyond the concept of sustainability when it was conceived 20 years ago.

At the time, sustainability had three legs: economic prosperity, social equity and of course environmental protection. But a solid table needs four legs. There is a leg missing: it is the leg of democratic participation, the voice of the people. Rio+20 has an elongated economic leg that makes the sustainability table a rather wobbly affair.

The economic leg as offered in the Green Economy opens up the path for the commodification of nature and poses the silent but critical problem of the proposal. The United Nations Environmental Programme’s (UNEP) analysis of the Green Economy agenda suggests that the only way to ensure sustainability is by getting the economy right. It claims that when you don’t place a monetary value on something, you are not going to value it. In my view this is fundamentally wrong.

Butterflies don’t send out invoices

Monetary value does not tell us how valuable something is or can be. In the UNEP analysis, there are some case studies that I have read with interest. One is about the ‘environmental services’ provided by pollinators: insects and birds that pollinate flowers and plants. Apparently worker bees are worth 190 billion dollars a year! Now we all know that when a bee or a butterfly pollinates a flower, it does not send you an invoice or issue a receipt.

What this teaches us is that the Green Economy concept is artificial. It opens the earth up for speculation, financial speculation. Investors can gamble in every aspect of nature – the air, the water, the soil. The Green Economy is a green gamble and the world and its people are at stake.

Nnimmo Bassey is Chair of Friends of the Earth International.

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About the author

Nnimmo Bassey a New Internationalist contributor

Nnimmo Bassey is a published poet, head of Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria and Chair of Friends of the Earth International. He also runs Oilwatch International.
Bassey’s poetry collections include We Thought It Was Oil But It Was Blood (2002) and I will Not Dance to Your Beat (Kraft Books, 2011). His latest book, To Cook a Continent (Pambazuka Press, 2012) deals with destructive fossil fuel industries and the climate crisis in Africa.
He was listed as one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2009 and won the 2010-Right Livelihood Award also known as the ‘Alternative Noble Prize.’

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