In two days time, The 2012 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Jeneiro opens its doors to over one hundred heads of state, ostensibly all there to discuss the future of global environmental action. But, clamouring for their attention, will be an estimated 50,000 representatives from business, NGOs, local governments and others. News reports, filled with emotive buzz phrases like ‘green economy’ and ‘sustainable development,’ will flash around the globe, telling us all that great things are being achieved in Rio, but what they won’t tell us is that the conference will be ruthlessly exploited by the usual business bully boys and corporate lobbyists, seeking to subvert everything to their own agenda.
Amongst the delegates will be those, such as the environmental lawyer, Polly Higgins, for whom I have the greatest respect, but I wonder what they can realistically achieve in the face of the dominant corporate powers. It is imperative that Polly Higgins and others like her make their presence felt and do their utmost to plead their cases. The rest of us have to believe that change is possible and it is crucial that we stay positive and support all champions of change. Yet our human struggle continues unrelentingly, and Rio might serve only to highlight once again the clear difference between Old Thinking and new.
Twenty years on from the 1992 Earth Summit, often cited as a key moment in environmental politics, we seem to be no further forward. Out of that conference came the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. These fragile and mainly voluntary policy ideals have effectively been eroded over two decades of free-market fundamentalism, rabid financial speculation, greedy banks and ever-increasing corporate power. All the ills of the world that we sought to address have increased dramatically, fuelled by a now global economic system obsessed with growth in GDP.
GDP economics means that everything must have a value. Thus a road accident or an oil spill will add to GDP, because of the costs involved in the aftermath. Yet a group of guerrilla gardeners quietly growing their own vegetables for their own pleasure, or to share with their friends, will not even register on the GDP radar. This is precisely the reason why our government never encourages us to become more thrifty, more innovative, abstemious, self-sufficient or careful – it would be a disaster for their book-keeping.
The ogre of Gross Domestic Product will be strutting its stuff at Rio in front of its sycophantic fan club of world leaders. As much as we think the Earth Summit is about coming up with solutions to our environmental challenges, these will only work for the corporate lobby if there is something in it for them, and will be sanctioned by governments only if it is good for GDP. No new ideas will be put forward unless they involve lucrative new technologies such as synthetic biology, genetic tinkering or other ‘green’ technofixes. Environmental disaster is meaningless in a corporate context unless it creates opportunities for profitable investments.
On a more sinister level, a key theme of the UN Environment Programme, in its Green Economy Report launched in 2011, is the placing of financial value on natural systems, cycles and habitats. This of course allows the market to ‘price them properly,’ i.e. to ascertain whether the action of saving them is more profitable than allowing them to be exploited and degraded. Thus clean air, biodiverse ecosystems and unpolluted rivers come with a price tag that includes corporate profit. This kind of insanity will pervade the thinking at Rio+20 like a rolling sea fog, and will inevitably influence the outcome.
So what can we hope for? We can hope that hitherto disparate groups and NGOs, such as the Indigenous Environmental Network, La Via Campesina or Friends of the Earth, recognise this as an opportunity to join forces, build new alliances, work together and present a new united front. There are more people involved globally in these burgeoning groups than there are corporate lobbyists. The issues they deal with are essentially the same – creating a world that is good for all the species that inhabit it, including humans. It seems to me that the solution to our problems is right there in front of us. We are the people we have been waiting for – and the greed, self-interest and wilful exploitation that has defined us up until now is all so twentieth-century.
The global empire is dead on its feet. That’s no bad thing, so let’s leave it to die. Let us no longer look to the architects and proponents of that empire for guidance in the future. They can’t help us. We can only help ourselves, and we can start by focusing on Rio+20 and making individual pledges for change at a personal level: “What can I do that will positively influence someone else and thus contribute to making the world a better place?” Go on, ask yourself. And then do it.