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The future no one wants?

Rio+20 is expected to come up with a strong actionable plan towards sustainability, but its first official document is more business as usual than a bold vision of the future, and fails to rein in the irresponsibility of private corporations and profligate consumerism by the rich, says Ashish Kothari

Rio Conference on Sustainable Development

Twenty years ago, one of the world’s biggest gatherings of heads of state and citizens came up with bold visions of a sustainable future. The Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, produced Agenda 21, an ambitious action plan to achieve sustainable development as humanity moved into the 21st century. It also gave birth to a number of progressive agreements and processes like the Biological Diversity Convention, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Two decades later, the UN and Brazil are gearing up for a Conference on Sustainable Development, to be held in Rio on June 20-22, 2012. Citizens across the world are expecting, or hoping, that this will come up with a comprehensive assessment of what has and has not been achieved in these 20 years, as also a strong and actionable plan to move humanity towards sustainability. This expectation is understandable, for these decades have shown even more clearly than was visible in 1992, that we are on a collision course with the earth: we are already overstepping the limits of the earth’s resources; ecological collapses are affecting hundreds of millions of people with food and water insecurity, so-called ‘natural’ disasters, and severe livelihood crises; and tens of thousands of species are threatened with or already slipping into extinction.

Unfortunately these 20 years have also shown that governments, by and large, have not been serious about meeting the goals and targets set out in documents like Agenda 21. Has anything changed, for there to be hope that the Rio+20 conference will come up with anything pathbreakingly different?

No and yes. As far as the UN system and governments are concerned, it seems rather unlikely they will come up with anything bold enough to make a difference. This is depressingly clear from the first official document to come out in preparation for the conference: the so-called Zero Draft of a possible joint declaration by countries at Rio (http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/index.php?page=view&type=12&nr=324&menu=23). This document, submitted by the co-chairs of the UN process leading up to the conference, is entitled ‘The Future We Want’. But whose future is it talking of?

Little hope in official process?

The Zero draft has a number of positive elements, including:

  • A frank admission of the failure to achieve sustainable development, and of the continuing crises of environmental degradation, poverty and food insecurity.
  • A renewed commitment to ecological sustainability, poverty eradication and equity.
  • Explicit acknolwedgement of the importance of diversity, culture and harmony with nature. 
  • Stress on various elements of ‘greening’ the economy, including renewable energy, phasing out of perverse subsidies that promote ecologically destructive practices in energy, agriculture and fisheries.

However, it falls far short of pointing to an effective pathway out of the multiple crises the world faces, steering clear of the hard decisions that all countries need to take.

Root causes not identified: While admitting the failure to attain sustainability and other goals, it does not diagnose this failure. It is therefore silent on the root causes of the multiple crises we face: a fundamentally flawed notion of ‘development’, centralised and top-heavy governance systems, alienation from nature, the inability to reign in private corporations and profligate consumerism by the rich, and widening inequities of various kinds.

Economic growth not challenged: While talking of sustainability, it continues to place faith in ‘economic growth’, even though it is patently clear that the earth can simply not sustain a model that advocates continuous growth. It fails to suggest even an exploration of the various alternative macro-economic strategies that have been suggested to achieve human welfare while sustaining the ecological systems of the earth, much less putting countries on a firm path to such alternative futures.

Outdated indicators still relied on: Linked to the above, it continues its faith on GDP as a measure of well-being, even while suggesting that GDP growth be complemented with other indicators; it fails to take into account the various alternative paradigms of assessing well-being which move away from GDP-like measures.

Even sustainable development only a partial strategy: It advocates incorporating sustainable development strategies in national development plans, rather than commiting to the complete conversion of the latter into plans for sustainability; does this mean that national plans can have some or many strategies that are not oriented to sustainability?

Profligate consumerism not challenged: It talks of sustainable production and consumption, but makes no explicit mention of the enormously wasteful consumerism of the industrial countries and of the rich in ‘developing’ countries, and advocates no measures to rein in this profligacy.

Private sector still wooed: It is exceedingly soft on the private sector, repeatedly talking of its role in achieving sustainable development, not once acknowledging its enormous failure to adhere to principles of sustainability and equity, and not advocating binding regulations on this sector (rather, adopting language like “strongly encourage business and industry”; or “require … private companies to consider sustainability issues” (italics mine).

No central role for indigenous peoples and local communities: Contrarily, it gives no central governance role to indigenous peoples and other ecosystem-dependent local communities, who are the ones who have most shown the ability to live in harmony with nature, and who have a lot to teach those of us who have moved far away from sustainability or oneness with nature (though it does acknowledge the importance of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).

Democratic governance changes half-hearted: Related to this is its weakness in advocating major governance changes towards a deeper, more radical democracy, and political decentralisation, in which all citizens have the right and ability to participate in decision-making; and emanating from this, fundamental changes in governance of global institutions like the UN to include the voices of peoples and communities and not only nation-states.

Toothless monitoring of sustainable development goals: It proposes a set of sustainable development goals and a mechanism to monitor follow-up on these, but does not lay down any mechanism to take corrective action when countries do not meet these goals; in so doing, it continues the current inequity between international environmental agreements (most of which have no effective enforcement mechanism) and trade/economic agreements (which have various enforcement mechanisms including sanctions).

Trade regimes still unsustainable: It continues to place reliance on institutions like the WTO, though such a trade regime has been shown time and again to be against the principles of sustainability and equity; it fails to advocate a regime of trade, local to global, that stands squarely on such principles rather than on the imperatives of profit-making and economic domination.

Ethics of protecting nature missing: Finally, while acknowledging the need to protect our “life support system” and live “in harmony with nature”,  it does not put this as an ethical imperative, by stressing that nature and all species are to be protected in their own right and not only because they are of use to humanity.

Without the above aspects, any global agreement or declaration arrived at in Rio this May is likely to push ‘business as usual’ more than a genuine, effective path to sustainability and equity. If the latter has to be achieved, we need a very different, much bolder, vision and statement.

There are a few governments that are looking at Rio+20 as more than mere greenwash. Bolivia has stressed the need for a basic rethink on development (not accepting unending economic growth, focusing more on nature in its own right, redressing the severe inequities amongst countries and peoples,  
http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/index.php?page=view&type=510&nr=454&menu=115). The Ecuadorian proposal for a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Nature is also worth watching, though it will have significant impact only if actually given the means to actualise such a right. (http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/index.php?page=view&type=510&nr=281&menu=20).

Greater hope in people’s initiatives?

Along with the official Rio+20 process, there will be a spate of civil society initiatives. Some will engage with the official event and push delegates to be bolder and more visionary, while others will be parallel processes.  Many are pushing proposals like those of the Bolivian and Ecuadorian governments, while also stressing the need for people’s own action and cooperation towards genuine, effective solutions to today’s problems. A Permanent Peoples’ Assembly will run as a parallel process to the governmental one, and several civil society organisations are developing Peoples’ Sustainability Treaties to work on various alternatives beyond the conference
(http://rio20.net/en/ejes/ethical-pillars-of-the-new-21st-century-civilizations). A large mobilisation is also taking place around rights-based approaches to environment and development.

Such processes will go far if they build on the tens of thousands of alternative initiatives that are already scattered around the world. Communities, organisations and individuals have shown that it is possible  to sustain human well-being through ecologically sensitive and equitable agriculture, energy, industry, settlements, transportation, trade, water use, and other aspects of human life.  As much as a commitment from governments, we need a confluence of such initiatives, so that they are transformed from a scattered, weak force to one that can actually transform public policy and practice. If the Rio+20 conference can take us a step further in this, it may well be worth the time and expense that are going to be spent on it. If not, if all we are going to get are bland statements like the Zero Draft ‘The Future We Want’, we will face the horrifying prospect of a future no one wants. 

Infochange News & Features, January 2012