Posted by: Dr Churchill | June 27, 2012

Earth Summit Notes from RIO+20

The disappointment arising from the failure and the lack of consensus at the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development is giving way to optimism among some some radical environmentalists, because the shortcomings of the summit could point to the emergence of a new notion of Ecological Leadership and Environmental Citizenship.

Economic security and political instability are immediate problems that capture attention and require urgent action.  Unfortunately, as a result, long-term challenges like sustainable development often get dropped from public policy and the public dialogue.  Yet, figuring out how to sustainably meet the needs of the world’s growing population is vital to billions of people and to the future of the planet.

The Rio Declaration as it came out cooked up, literally rips up the basic principles of environmental hope, ecological activism and sustainable development.

And here is how George Monbiot, spells it out for us:  “Back in 1992 world leaders signed up to something called “sustainability”. Few of them were clear about what it meant; I suspect that many of them had no idea. Perhaps as a result, it did not take long for this concept to mutate into something subtly different: “sustainable development”. Then it made a short jump to another term: “sustainable growth”. And now, in “The 2012 Earth Summit text” that world leaders are about to adopt, it has subtly mutated once more: into “sustained growth”.

This term crops up 16 times in the document, where it is used interchangeably with sustainability and sustainable development. But if sustainability means anything, it is surely the opposite of sustained growth. Sustained growth on a finite planet is the essence of unsustainability.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle knew of insatiability a couple of thousand years back, only as a personal vice. He had no inkling of the collective, politically orchestrated insatiability that we now come to call sustained economic growth. The civilization of “always more” would have struck him as moral and political madness. And, beyond a certain point, it is also economic madness. This is not just because we will soon enough run up against the natural limits to growth. It is because we cannot go on for much longer economizing on labour faster than we can find new uses for it.

Several of the more outrageous deletions proposed by the United States – such as any mention of rights or equity or of common but differentiated responsibilities – have been rebuffed. In other respects the Obama government’s purge has succeeded, striking out such concepts as “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” and the proposed decoupling of economic growth from the use of natural resources.

At least the states due to sign this document haven’t ripped up the declarations from the last Earth Summit, 20 years ago. But in terms of progress since then, that’s as far as it goes. Reaffirming the Rio 1992 commitments is perhaps the most radical principle in the entire declaration.

As a result, the draft document, which seems set to become the final document, takes us precisely nowhere. 190 governments have spent 20 years bracing themselves to “acknowledge”, “recognise” and express “deep concern” about the world’s environmental crises, but not to do anything about them.

This paragraph from the declaration sums up the problem for me: “We recognize that the planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home and that Mother Earth is a common expression in a number of countries and regions and we note that some countries recognize the rights of nature in the context of the promotion of sustainable development. We are convinced that in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environment needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature.”

It sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

It could be illustrated with rainbows and psychedelic unicorns and stuck on the door of your toilet. But without any proposed means of implementation, it might just as well be deployed for a different function in the same room.

The declaration is remarkable for its absence of figures, dates and targets. It is as stuffed with meaningless platitudes as an advertisement for payday loans, but without the necessary menace. There is nothing to work with here, no programme, no sense of urgency or call for concrete action beyond the inadequate measures already agreed in previous flaccid declarations. Its tone and contents would be better suited to a retirement homily than a response to a complex of escalating global crises.

The draft and probably final declaration is 283 paragraphs of fluff. It suggests that the 190 governments due to approve it have, in effect, given up on multilateralism, given up on the world, and given up on us.

So what do we do now?”

Still the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, brought together legion heads of state, diplomats, business executives, and civil society activists to share ideas and lessons learned, to promote creativity and cooperation, and to find ways to advance sustainable development.  While tens of thousands of people are in Rio for the conference, you don’t have to be there to understand its importance: the health of the planet and of all its inhabitants depends on our collective ability to create a sustainable future.

To date, much of the attention surrounding Rio+20 has been focused on high-level negotiations, discussions, and documents.  As we have seen time and time again, diplomatic negotiations can be difficult, especially when dealing with complex and far-reaching challenges like sustainable development.  The current Rio+20 outcome document is not as strong or comprehensive as many of us would like it to be.  Yet, the door is not shut on progress.  Change doesn’t come from documents alone – it comes from the actions of governments, businesses, and individuals. This week, many stakeholders have stepped up to the plate and made a down-payment on the change we need to build a better future. For example, as part of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative, governments, businesses, and other groups have made commitments to expand energy access and increase the use of renewable energy.

Committed citizens have also been actively pushing for progress at Rio+20 and beyond.   This week, and in the weeks leading up to Rio+20, individuals from every walk of life and every corner of the world have harnessed social media to share their concerns and hopes for the future. With the click of a button, individuals and groups have made their voices heard and connected with world leaders, with the UN, and with each other.  Thanks to a revolution in technology and social media, the conversation on sustainable development has gone global.

While much more action will be needed, each step brings us closer to a brighter, more vibrant future.  Rio+20 will not solve all of our problems, but it is an opportunity for the global community to rally and make progress.  Each of us – from government to the private sector to civil society – can take action on our own, while building on the foundation that is being laid at Rio+20.  Creating a sustainable, healthy, prosperous future will not be quick or easy, but too much is at stake to give up.   As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Rio+20 is not an end but a beginning.”

It is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth’s living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the US, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue “sustained growth”, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses(1).

The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it. Whenever consumer capitalism becomes snarled up by its own contradictions, governments scramble to mend the machine, to ensure – though it consumes the conditions that sustain our lives – that it runs faster than ever before.

The thought that it might be the wrong machine, pursuing the wrong task, cannot even be voiced in mainstream politics. The machine greatly enriches the economic elite, while insulating the political elite from the mass movements it might otherwise confront. We have our bread; now we are wandering, in spellbound reverie, among the circuses.

We have used our unprecedented freedoms, secured at such cost by our forebears, not to agitate for justice, for redistribution, for the defence of our common interests, but to pursue the dopamine hits triggered by the purchase of products we do not need. The world’s most inventive minds are deployed not to improve the lot of humankind but to devise ever more effective means of stimulation, to counteract the diminishing satisfactions of consumption. The mutual dependencies of consumer capitalism ensure that we all unwittingly conspire in the trashing of what may be the only living planet. The failure at Rio de Janeiro belongs to us all.

It marks, more or less, the end of the multilateral effort to protect the biosphere. The only successful global instrument – the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer – was agreed and implemented years before the first Earth Summit in 1992(2). It was one of the last fruits of a different political era, in which intervention in the market for the sake of the greater good was not considered anathema, even by the Thatcher and Reagan governments. Everything of value discussed since then has led to weak, unenforceable agreements, or to no agreements at all.

This is not to suggest that the global system and its increasingly pointless annual meetings will disappear or even change. The governments which allowed the Earth Summit and all such meetings to fail evince no sense of responsibility for this outcome, and appear untroubled by the thought that if a system hasn’t worked for 20 years there’s something wrong with the system. They walk away, aware that there are no political penalties; that the media is as absorbed in consumerist trivia as the rest of us; that, when future generations have to struggle with the mess they have left behind, their contribution will have been forgotten. (And then they lecture the rest of us on responsibility).

Nor is it to suggest that multilateralism should be abandoned. Agreements on biodiversity, the oceans and the trade in endangered species may achieve some marginal mitigation of the full-spectrum assault on the biosphere that the consumption machine has unleashed. But that’s about it.

The action – if action there is – will mostly be elsewhere. Those governments which retain an interest in planet Earth will have to work alone, or in agreement with like minded nations. There will be no means of restraining free riders, no means of persuading voters that their actions will be matched by those of other countries.

That we have missed the chance of preventing two degrees of global warming now seems obvious. That most of the other planetary boundaries will be crossed, equally so. So what do we do now?

Some people will respond by giving up, or at least withdrawing from political action. Why, they will ask, should we bother, if the inevitable destination is the loss of so much of what we hold dear: the forests, the brooks, the wetlands, the coral reefs, the sea ice, the glaciers, the birdsong and the night chorus, the soft and steady climate which has treated us kindly for so long? It seems to me that there are at least three reasons.

The first is to draw out the losses over as long a period as possible, in order to allow our children and grandchildren to experience something of the wonder and delight in the natural world and of the peaceful, unhurried lives with which we have been blessed. Is that not a worthy aim, even if there were no other?

The second is to preserve what we can in the hope that conditions might change. I do not believe that the planet-eating machine, maintained by an army of corporate worker mechanics, oiled by constant injections of public money, will collapse before the living systems on which it feeds.

But I might be wrong.

After all, would it not be a terrible waste to allow the polar bear, the lion, the tiger, the rhinoceros, the elephant, the sparrows, the bear, the bluefin tuna, the bees, the Coala bear, the spotted owl, and the sea corals and the anenomes to disappear without a fight?

For they surely will go, along with more than half of all life forms on this Earth. More than half of all the seen and unseen species of life with whom we cohabit this planet. They will go within this Lifetime and they are already disappearing at the fastest rate ever since the great despeciation period. That was in the climactic time that also brought with it, the end of the dinosaurs some 125 Million years ago, give or take a few millennia…

Yet if this current period of intense despeciation continues, we are also surely doomed… because as other species go — humans go.

Much like during the time of the rise of Fascism, we must rise up and speak against.

Because if there is one thing that we learned during the time of the rise of Fascism — is that we appeased them for far too long. And that now teaches us that we must stand up, act up and shout aloud.

Because as the old servant of God and Humanity Fr Martin Niemöller, cautioned us, we ought to remain vigilant, activist and very very vocal:

“Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, 

habe ich geschwiegen; 

ich war ja kein Kommunist. 

Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten, 

habe ich geschwiegen; 

ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat. 

Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten, 

habe ich nicht protestiert; 

ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter. 

Als sie die Juden holten, 

habe ich geschwiegen; 

ich war ja kein Jude. 

Als sie mich holten,  

gab es keinen mehr, der protestierte.”

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”

When the Nazis came in Germany,   same as now the Corporate Fascism descends upon our Earth to devour it’s resources, kill it’s species of Life, and exploit them all for profit — we need to speak out.

Otherwise the dangers of our continued “environmental apathy” are complete subjugation of all nature, loss of Species and general Life forms, and eventual loss of the Human species too. Because as it often happens, it all begins with great hope and fanfare and yet specific and targeted exploitation. e Economic boom and productivity that follows lifts everybody’s boat. This results in constant fear of economic loss and more exploitation, This turns to hatred for other species occupying our Earth, and it all soon escalates out of control and results in massive loss of Life.

Therefore we need to SPEAK.

Urgently and Loudly.

We are no more able to keep silent at man’s behest.

Not when God commands us to speak …

And speak we shall.

It is now time to rise up, speak up and act up, as the new era of “Human Rights”  also descends upon us in order to counterbalance this Corporate Evil usurping our Earth. Because the issues of species loss, resource depletion and our defense of this Earth, promises yet to be another Great Fight between Good and Evil. And it will be fought in your home land, in your heart and in your mind. And its gonna be just as luric as any of the great battles of the past — those you read in the mythologies of years gone by and in the Illiad and in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in the Bagavad Gita.

It’s a World War and fight we shall…

Cause we have no choice.

It is the ultimate War for the World. Our World. Live or Die. No less…

Still, while we may possess no influence over the ultimate decision making of this fight, and since all “calls” are made elsewhere, there is plenty that can be done within our own borders.

Observe Local – Act local – Serve Local

That is the solution.

Ah and by the way:

Love Local.




Giving up on UN sponsored global agreements or, more accurately, on the prospect that they will substantially alter our relationship with the natural world, is almost a relief.

Because it means walking away from decades of anger and frustration.

It means turning away from a place in which we have no agency to one in which we have, at least, a chance of being heard.

But it also invokes a great sadness, as it means giving up on so much else.

Was it too much to have asked of the world’s governments, which performed such miracles in developing stealth bombers and drone warfare, global markets and trillion dollar bail-outs, that they might spend a tenth of the energy and resources they devoted to these projects on defending our living planet?

Sadly it seems, that it was.

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