Fatima Mello

In political rhetoric, “sustainable development” is often being replaced by the new terms “green economy” and “green markets”. This suggests that new techniques can solve the global crises. But the inherent policy initiative for global development that allows market forces to take over instead of democratically elected governments, carries great risks. Civil society is called upon to develop alternatives in terms of Rio+20.

The Potential of Rio+20

In May, 2012 an event will take place that could represent the end of a cycle and the beginning of another. On the occasion of Rio+20, a deep evaluation is expected to be performed of the United Nations conference series during the 1990s, which began with Rio 92 and that included conferences on population, human rights, women, social development and the urban agenda. Also in 2012, the Kyoto Protocol will arrive at its limit of validity.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development/Rio+20 intends to discuss three issues: evaluation of the fulfilment of the commitments agreed upon in Rio 92, green economy, and institutional architecture for sustainable development. Therefore, Rio+20 has the potential of being, at the same time, a moment to evaluate the achievements and defeats of the last two decades, and also a moment to identify a new agenda of struggles to go ahead with.

The Context of Rio+20 : Fragility of the UN System in a Multiple-crisis Scenario

Human beings and the planet are experiencing multiple crises that put the future of humankind at risk. Neither the United Nations nor the governments, prisoners of the past, are acting in keeping with the seriousness of the quickly deteriorating process in course. Non-profit global organizations that have held meetings in an autonomous way in such spaces as the World Social Forum, and the processes and constant struggles that link local and global interests in events parallel to the UN conferences in the G- 20 meetings and multi-lateral financial institutions meetings, and that will meet in Rio de Janeiro during the Rio+20 Conference, have the challenge of invigorating and contining the struggle for a different world and to press the governments and international system institutions to act in an effective way. The constitution of this global movement has gotten stronger since the Global Forum, particularly since the International Forum of NGOs held at Rio 92 as a parallel event; in 2012, the evaluation of global struggles and achievements will also be included in the agenda.

The Conference held in Johannesburg on the occasion of the 10 th anniversary of Rio 92, the Conferences of the Parties – COPs, the insignificance of the United Nations Environment Programme – UNEP, and the powerlessness of the UN to face humanitarian disasters show the incompetence of the present international system to face the challenges the future imposes, and to ensure that the agreements of the conference series since Rio 92 are upheld.

The Conferences of the Parties in charge of implementing the decisions taken at the Conventions on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are a good example of this. Biological diversity is historically linked to the indigenous communities, the traditional peoples and peasant communities, but although in theory their role is acknowledged, they are being systematically deprived of their rights, to the point that they are expelled from their land. Desertification is getting further and further away from the challenges it represents, and the same is happening in relation to compulsory migrations. At the same time, the market is using the climate crisis to generate profits. The evaluation of the commitments made in the conferences of human rights, women, social development and habitat leaves absolutely no doubt of the distance between those commitments and reality.

From Sustainable Development to Green Economy: the Recycling of a Non-sustainable Model

In an insurmountable contradiction, the Conference of Rio 92 on one side recognized the severe environmental crisis of the planet – particularly with regard to biodiversity and climate – and the responsibility of the industrialized countries, and on the other it confirmed the primacy of economy as the motor for development, then called “sustainable” for the first time. Surreptitiously, the governments that were present, and the UN itself, acknowledged the power of capitalist economy over politics, or better, as leading politics. They coined the term “sustainable development”, which was quickly taken by the dominant economy and thus emptied of its reforming potential.

To replace the term “sustainable development”, Rio+20 agenda seeks to present the “green economy” as a new phase of capitalist economies. Through the green market – a new environmentalism founded on green business – it suggests the association of new technologies with solutions through the market and private appropriation of the common good as a way to solve the planetary crisis. This recycling of the classic ways in which capitalism works, of its ways of accrual and expropriation, constitutes a severe larceny of deep consequences. It gives fresh impetus to an unviable model and offers only technology and privatisation as an utopia. It prevents us from being aware of the crisis we are facing and from the real impasses that humankind is experiencing. Therefore, it prevents the formulation of new utopias and the construction of civilizational alternatives.

We must question the things that sustainable development and Green economy have to contribute to in protecting and ensuring human rights. The market leaves the defence of the latter to the governments and the UN, which maintains the rhetoric of human rights, including the right to water; but with neither the means nor the political will to implement them.

They are moving more and more into humanitarian interventions that tend to substitute the promotion of rights. As they only have certain normative power, those commitments agreed upon at the UN level remain buried under the power of sanction and retaliation of institutions such as WTO, IMF and the World Bank. In view of the inability of the UN, on one side, and the power of the multilateral institutions that serve the interests of the corporations on the other, the result is that governments and public and democratic politics increasingly lose ground to agreements and policies that hand our future over to private initiatives and, in its newest version, to the green economy.

The world is subordinated to the hegemonic force of capital. Capital has no other vision of the future than a promise of an illusory development since it is an environment predator, violator of human rights and it excludes countries and populations. The ideology of development understood as economic growth, feeding the expansion of unsustainable standards of production and consumption, has delved deeply into the culture and imagination of all social classes, North and South, even directing the action of those governments elected in Southern countries with the mandate of unleashing a series of changes. However, even they cannot manage to build a new correlation of forces able to promote changes, nor can they achieve the accumulation of reflections and political force towards new paradigms.

The dominant States, throughout two centuries, and even more intensively during the last decades, have promoted the globalization of economy. Colonial wars, occupation of lands and slavery have been replaced by bilateral agreements and multilateral negotiations that play the same role of subjugating and subordinating Southern countries to their power. This way, they imposed a technical and economic model of production and consumption supported by work exploitation, overexploitation of natural resources, and exploitation of other countries.

If the exploitation of human beings and other countries that result in exclusion can be perpetrated, in spite of extremely serious conflicts, the exploitation of nature shows its limits and begins to affect capital reproduction, directly or indirectly, when diseases, decrease in quality of life and natural disasters begin to raise suspicions and undermine the base on which the model is supported.

The crisis that emerged in 2008, initially in the financial system, did not raise any doubts about the deep nature of its roots, thus revealing the breakdown of legitimacy and economic, social, environmental and political support of reproduction of the model in force. The current crisis clearly reflects the loss of hegemony of power coordination that has been perpetuated since the end of the Second World War, and the international institutions that support it both economically and politically. Therefore, this crisis opens certain breaches in the dispute for the democratization of the international system. The new and unstable coalitions between countries, not crystallized in North-South divisions, are symptoms of a changing global political scenario. Rio+20 can be an important moment for promoting a new correlation of forces and a new global agenda, offering to social movements, popular organizations, movements of indigenous and traditional populations, trade-unions, civil society organizations reflecting or seeking to express the concerns of wide sectors of the world population, the opportunity of renewing their protests and questioning the direction the future of the world is taking, led by corporations, institutions and dominant countries accompanied by the great majority of the economic and political elites. It represents as well an opportunity to design their utopias and formulate the alternatives they envision.

Rio+20 and the Construction of Alternatives

Rio+20 as a worldwide event allows us to go beyond our boundaries; to open up to universal solidarity, beyond the particularities; to seek common points from many places in the world that can move us and make us meet. But on the condition that our reference is in the peoples and populations who are marginalized and excluded, with whom we share the wish for a society based on rights and social and environmental justice.

We do not have all the answers, but we have the responsibility of looking for them among what is desirable and possible. However, even what is possible will not materialize without utopias that renew the bonds between human beings and nature, in rural areas and in cities. It therefore demands a complete shift of the paradigms that define Western civilization. To wish for ways of social organization other than those of States-Nations, ways of democracy other than parliamentary democracy, ways of economy other than capitalist economy, ways of globalization other than that of the market ,ways of culture other than that imposed by the US. To listen carefully to them could help us find the ways to the future and formulate new utopias that can inspire humanity and in particular, youth.

All across the planet, thousand of alternatives are developed that may be the seed for the construction of new utopias:

  • Millions of peasants, landless people, indigenous peoples and other traditional groups are resisting and fighting for agrarian reform, agro-ecology, and the permanent control of their ancestral land. Supported by adequate technology, they can ensure the planet’s nutritional and food sovereignty and security and contribute decisively to maintaining biodiversity and the waters, while playing a role in the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. They offer an alternative to the dominant model of agriculture and livestock farming that causes the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, and that strongly contributes to the greenhouse effect and poisoning of waters, soil and people.
  • Experiences of solidarity economy and strengthening of local markets contribute to cut down energy consumption, reducing the circuits between production, distribution and consumption, and being on the side of micro, small and medium-size enterprises that offer jobs; in opposition to the flow of goods throughout the world and the permanent company relocation and technological progress that do not reduce the consumption of energy and raw materials, and that generate unemployment.
  • The logic of economy must not be that of profits, but to assure decent living conditions for populations. That way, a solidarity economy can be strengthened, which can fight against the economy that excludes people. In the city, in the country and in the forests of the South, a great number of workers (men and women) live under a system of informal economy, forgotten by the macroeconomy; and they invent a micro-economy, partly substituting and competing with the formal economy, partly innovative.
  • Reconstitution of an urban fabric, decentralized and interiorized, new housing and urban policies of sewage and public transportation. These proposals aim at facing the balance within cities that became export platforms surrounded by a huge crowding of poverty and misery which, added to the unbalance in human occupation of national and regional spaces, make those cities and their lower social strata the first victims of climate change.

Construction of Alternatives and Institutional Architecture

The global scale of powers blocks the progress of human emancipation in the ideal terms stipulated in international pacts and conventions. Therefore, to advance such alternatives and others implies to dispute and question the paradigms of the international institutions and stakeholders that support the present model. This does not mean that we believe in a drastic and radical change in the world economy. We must necessarily think in coexistence, in transition in the medium-and long-term. This transition will take place not much due to the internal reform of the present spaces for economy intervention, which would pretend to reorient its strategies, methods and priorities, but more due to the construction of new spaces, new institutions not flawed by their past but open to a new correlation of forces and new agendas. The present spaces will continue to be urged to act and even reform, but it is expected that they will progressively lose their importance with the creation of a totally new alternative, which will grow economically and politically as a counterweight.

For this to happen, it is necessary to consider the process towards Rio+20 as an opportunity to invest in an accumulation of forces at the base of society, which would be able to dispute a new hegemony. After the ascension cycle of the counterhegemonic movements that began in Seattle and was expanded with the World Social Forum, and the relative decrease of mass mobilizations over the last few years, Rio+20 means a possibility of rearticulation and promotion of a political initiative in the global plan.

This vision guides and defines our will to participate in the process that will lead us to Rio+20. Based on this, we join the call made by the Brazilian facilitator group created by several organizations, summarized in this sentence:

“It is the duty of the organized civil society to get the world’s attention on the seriousness of the impasse experienced by humankind, and on the impossibility of the economic, political and cultural dominant system to point out and lead a way out of the crisis. But it is also its responsibility to reaffirm and show other possible ways.”