Published: Aug 07, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Aug 05, 2012 01:11 PM
I was in Rio from June 13-22 for the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). The prevailing view is that Rio+20 was a failure. The New York Times quoted representatives of CARE saying it was “nothing more than a political charade,” and Greenpeace declaring it “a failure of epic proportions.”
Evaluating Rio+20 as a failure has consequences. For some, its “failure” underscores the weakness of the U.N. processes as a whole. Because blame was placed on “governments,” faith in government action has fallen. In the United States, where the event was seldom reported, reports of failure would underscore the event’s “lack of importance.”
My view is different. In educating myself, I learned the U.N.’s sustainable development process is not primarily about the environment. It is about how people can improve their lives and the most appropriate forms of development for doing so.
Environment comes in because it must: after all Earth is the living planet and resource base on which humans physically and culturally depend. Economics enters because our current understanding of development is dominated by it and by conventions such as GDP, neo-liberalism, globalization, and industrialization, all of which were questioned in the Rio+20 debates, especially in relation to the conference’s other theme, “The Green Economy.”
I learned that equity and security are at the heart of every sustainable development debate. Small island states ask if it is equitable that they should be flooded due to global warming and rising seas attributable to the actions of others. The president of Ecuador raises the question how much should his country be paid to leave rainforests intact to produce oxygen for the world. The “Green Economy” is viewed by many in the South as a further expansion of capitalism, commodification of nature and threat to indigenous people.
With this growing knowledge, I have come to understand Rio+20 as not a failure.
The language of outcome documents in U.N. conferences is arrived at by consensus. Thus, Rio+20 reflected where there was and was not consensus on future commitments. While progress on new commitments would have been preferable, the central issue became whether governments would preserve the basic principles of sustainable development adopted at Rio in 1992, principles such as social equity, gender equality, common but differentiated responsibilities, human rights, the polluter pays, the precautionary principle and the right to development. The reaffirmation of these principles became the limited success of the governmental portion of Rio+20.
The greater achievements came in the civil society portion. More than 30,000 civil society representatives participated in the official Rio+20 conference and 100,000 more in the concurrent People’s Summit, protest marches, and business and professional gatherings. Knowing the limitations of the official outcome document, activists released 14 People’s Sustainability Treaties and a Manifesto. Brazil’s President Rousseff called Rio+20 “a global expression of democracy.”
People who gathered in Rio knew the official results of the conference would be limited. We came to network and set the stage for the next phase of the UN sustainable development process, the shaping of the post 2015-development agenda in which the present Millennium Development Goals will be integrated into more ambitious sustainable development goals. We left to form a global citizens’ movement to take sustainable development action now and to develop the political will for global policy change.
Rio+20 was not an end, it was a new beginning.
Herman Greene is the president of the Center for Ecozoic Societies. He lives in Chapel Hill.