Reflections from Rio

Written by  //  September 5, 2012  //  Economic & Social Policy  //  Comments Off

[ A guest post by Aashish Khullar. Aashish is a resident fellow at Community Caring Institute (CCI) and a Startingbloc fellow  and a research associate at Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy with an interest in New Economics. He has been involved in the Rio+20 process as a facilitation team member of the MGCY( Major Group for Children and Youth)]

Rio +20 has come and gone, and it is, at best, a failure as per its stated purpose, if not a regression from the 1992 summit. There is minimal disagreement about this notion within the civil society groups that have been active in the run up to the gathering (or to anyone who works in the area of sustainability). The text titled “The Future We Want” is sadly paradoxical, claiming to deliver a plan of action to rescue our biosphere and preserve the life-bearing capacity of the planet, while refusing to acknowledge the existence of planetary boundaries. How can we take it seriously? Without addressing these inherent issues, how do we prevent ourselves from tipping over the edge, getting trapped in an exponentially worsening downward spiral, and finally being lost deep in to the abyss?

Such is the fate we are faced with. Staring helplessly at what is considered increasingly inevitable. There is no denying the failure of world leaders to have not seized an opportunity when greatness was being thrust upon them. Openly acknowledging certain biophysical realities and incorporating these in policy making (deciding to act on that basis) to ensure a decent and sustainable life for all does not seem that controversial or monumental a task. But, it apparently is, when it rubs against, exposes, and contradicts the incumbent interests of powerful players.

In a more specific context, the Rio+20 process was suppose to include civil society in new ways and open the negotiation space for their scrutiny. It was supposed to offer a new direction to the global manifesto and action on environmental sustainability.  It was supposed to be a radical fundamental shift in the way we view our relation with the living systems of the planet. It was supposed to be a concrete plan of action ready to implement. This was the lowest bar for success.

I am genuinely surprised if anyone already involved in the process thought this would happen. Then what is it that we are really protesting against and angry about? We knew Rio+20 would not deliver. We seem to be at a point where our species is coming to the collective realization that our one planet is finite. We are also realizing the limits of our economic, political, institutional and societal structures to confront this fact and deliver solutions. We are beginning to move from denial to anger about the reality that, what we commonly associate with a civilized life is not a possibility for all without permanently eroding the prerequisites of civilization itself. There is simply not enough planet for everyone. The game will implode before we can all be winners.

I am not surprised at Rio+20 for not delivering what was desired. The intergovernmental process cannot and should not be more ambitious than the aspirations of the global civil society and progressive movements. This is the nature of our relation with power structures as they exist today.

What I was actually surprised about was governments arguing against policies they have been implementing domestically. Sitting in the negotiation room almost seemed like witnessing a race to the bottom, a pledging competition for who can more effectively dilute the language and bracket away any progress. It felt like states did not want an ambitious outcome even by the standards and context of their home turf. All this embarrassing action to force a weak outcome for which they cannot be legally held accountable anyway. As far as public scrutiny goes, that would happen either way as there is always a reason to hate powerful top down government colluding with the interests of the few, even if they appear to be doing their best.

Another glaring theme I witnessed was the resistance to civil society participation on designing and implementing targets for sustainability. Some countries priding themselves in being democracies were a party to such convoluted actions and in-dignifying language. Instead of taking the opportunity to lead, these countries chose to follow the spoilers.

Both themes bring one’s attention to larger patterns that are emerging on the global scale. The changing nature of and importance of platforms such as the UN and internationalism in general, along with the global explosion of people aspiring for and desiring a greater say in policies that determine the trajectories of their life (a.k.a., a deeper implementation of democracy).

Are these developments evidence of the fact that governments and power structures are paralyzed in the face of their role and relevance being questioned, not just as armchair activism, but also as popular action based rhetoric? Are these natural responses to the realization of the proximity of the end? The tightening of the fist as the rope slips away. Swimming against the under current never helped anyone; governments and power structures are no different. Or is this just another step towards seizing total control and squashing anything that questions their waning powers?

On a more specific note, what we witnessed at Rio was the UN and the international stage becoming a floor rather than the ceiling. The question remains if this is a sign of an increasing or decreasing relevance of this international high-level stage. Either argument can be made with an equal intensity of thought. An amateur attempt is as follows: The reasoning for the irrelevance being that states are not bothering to engage and invest political capital. The inverse of this is that governments are not willing to be overambitious, but more conservative and realistic, as not to find themselves short on committed actions. These are incomplete analogies at best, but ideas echoing these very notions are being talked about in all the concerned circles.

Other driving forces are the changing landscape of the global arena as we move towards a multi polar world. States are becoming less relevant at the hands of international actors; most noticeably, the increasing size and power of transnational corporations with no strong countervailing force evolving. In addition, or partially as a symptom, regionalism seems to be gaining more acceptance and comfort with governments. “Likeminded” alliances seem like the easier way forward.

These questions being raised, I believe narratives are evolving and need to continue to do so. The emerging social, political, and economic architecture will need to accommodate these paradoxical characteristics that are revealing themselves simultaneously. My guess is that a framework that delivers within a very strict deadline in the context of environmental sustainability will include all these elements. It will have to. Again, a no brainer, the trick is to house the appropriate issues within the most relevant and efficient modes of execution. Sustainable supply chains for food, for example, tend to more efficient if organized locally; water distribution and management along a river running through different national territories will be best solved regionally, and finally, something like carbon, oceans and the ozone layer needs global mechanisms.

That being said, it does not take way from the fact that a lot of work needs to be done, and it only starts with honestly confronting these grim realities. The ingredients are all around us; the challenge is political, structural, local and personal. I believe we are beginning to apply a new paradigm… and so are some governments. I just hope it is not too little, too late.

About the Author

Arghya is currently doing the doctorate in law at the University of Oxford. Dithering between academia and litigation for a future career but sanguine in Oxford with his current researcher status.

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