by Uwe Hoering, November 2011
When in June 2012 Ministers of the environment, Heads of State and Government will gather in Rio de Janeiro, there will definitely be some nostalgia. Its predecessor, the so called 'Earth Summit' 1992, was a wake-up call, though may be looking back from now it might look brighter than it really was. It was the time when the phrase 'Winds of Change' was in everybody's mouth. The Cold War and the competition of different systems in East and West had come to an end. New perspectives, a change of paradigm seemed possible. The UN Conference on Environment and Development, UNCED, was invoked with the concept of sustainability, which has since been fading into an empty slogan. But at that time it seemed, provided a counter balance to the neoliberal globalisation and to open the door for different “production and consumption patterns” for example.
A weak copy
Can this be repeated today? Hopes and expectations are pushed up; and at numerous conferences various stakeholders mark their claims. Everybody tries to fit his or her own topic into the lead theme of “Green Economy” – like urbanisation, renewable energies, human rights, water, forests and soils, another agriculture as the corner stone of a new green economy, the last chance for climate policy, ...... But can Rio 1992 be repeated? Is it possible to initiate a similar process? To reclaim a bigger piece of discursive hegemony for civil society organizations? I have many doubts. The times, they have changed.
One point is that there are no substantial decisions or setting the course to be expected from Rio. The United Nations has largely been marginalised. Today, in economic and environmental policies it is rather irrelevant, neither in a position to take decisions nor capable or willing. For Global Governance there are other players in charge like the G20 or the World Economic Forum. The preparatory process for Rio+20 has been considered by informed observers as “weak and nontransparent”, there is no rousing optimism but mostly “business as usual”, which is now being trimming to fit into Rio+20. The low priority of the World Summit became clear, when it was postponed because of the jubilee of the British Queen's accession to the throne.
Content wise, with “Green Economy” there is a lead topic, which is already mainstream – greening capitalism to achieve a new push for economic growth. The main agenda in Rio is to give the nod to this notion of green economy, a “blue washing” from the United Nations, a global PR-event hoping to benefit from the aura of Rio 1992.
We have to be there
Still, many civil society, environment and development organisations consider it to be essential to participate in order to raise more attention for their ideas and proposals, or to stop or at least to criticize developments they feel are questionable or even negative. Some are looking forward to the prospects of Indicators for Sustainable Development as an outcome of Rio+20, or to the idea to strengthen the UN system by upgrading the UN Environment Programme UNEP and other institutions. And even if the expectations for any substantial success are low, a lot of energy is channeled into activities to move their own topics on to the agenda, to mobilise for a “critical mass” at the Sugarloaf Mountain and to prepare declarations, demands, new studies and reports. And be it only to embarrass the governments by reminding them of their broken promises, on the Conventions on Biological Diversity, on Desertification, and on Climate Change, with implementation lacking on most accounts.
But, to draw attention to the unfulfilled promises it could be much more effective, if civil society would boycott the summit. Not to play the game any more to give the whole event the touch of global participation or to provide the colourful background for the world leaders. To delegitimise the claim of Rio+20 to talk for the whole world about Green Economy as a future perspective, while the agenda of this concept has already been determined by other, mainly economic interests. While it is true that civil society gathered power and weight in the last decades, this is not enough to influence things in Rio, but could be best used by staying away from Rio+20.
A strong signal
Such a boycott would not only be a strong signal, which could mobilise, even galvanise the media and the public. The substantiation would focus the necessary debates. In an atmosphere of attention created by such a big bang, topics could be discussed which will remain marginal in Rio and which would go under in the conference hustle and bustle – like poverty and persistent hunger, alternative agriculture, the failure of the Millennium Development Goals, accountability for governments and companies, „Peak everything“, .... Which kind of “green economy” do we want? Which future? Which strategies? First of all there is the need to discuss the multiple crisis which for long has turned into a systemic crisis. But in Rio those will celebrate themselves are saviours, who have contributed substantially to those crises in the first instance.
Of course, those topics, crises' and various solutions have to be debated. Question is, whether Rio+20 is the right place for this. Unlike 20 years ago, civil society is strong, well connected and qualified enough to lead these discussions self consciously and independently. In the last years many fora for this emerged to present ideas, expertise and requests. Numerous global and regional networks exist, there is the World Social Forum and regional Social Fora, stakeholder dialogues and round tables to debate with decision makers in governments, institutions and the economy almost at equal footing. And if civil society did not achieve so far to transform its proposals into efficient policies, then this will not be achieved in Rio+20 either.
Summarising, there is not much to celebrate in Rio. Many of the burning issues and questions are not on the official agenda. In Rio there will be no setting the course and no substantial decisions made. And for civil society there is hardly anything that could be achieved in Rio. Yes, Rio+20 can and should be used to promote the own ideas, positions and demands. But this could be achieved better, if Rio+20 is being boycotted.