The global community has thrown limestone dust on the grave of sustainability, but will it keep the stink away?
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
As the curtain lowered on Rio+20, the United Nations conference on sustainable development held in Rio this month, one bothersome question floated over the crowd of diplomats, delegates, journalists, ngos’ representatives, ecowarriors, indigenous tribes, landless movements and the thousands who followed the summit from a safe distance.
If the world is sitting on a ticking environmental bomb why did Rio+20 and its green political nabobs put off a strict and ambitious plan of sustainable development?
That a greener future was taken off the global agenda at Rio+20 is unquestionable: the era of a grand global vision of environmental sustainability now seems buried.
What remains doubtful are the justifications for inaction. Rich and polluting countries argued that the economic crisis made it impossible to deal with issues of global sustainability at a time when their own national economies were in dire straits.
At the same time they suggested that the complexity of the issue, seen from a global level, meant national and more individual solutions were more appropriate. Ironically, that seems to be a point that environmental groups now seem willing to embrace after Rio+20, which is that we all must think globally and act locally.
As a result of this stonewalling on one of the great issues of the day, we now have come to terms with the fact that little progress has been made in the twenty years since the last UN conference on sustainable development. We still measure development by productivity but sustainability is a distant and confused thought.
Yet for at least four decades, we have known that the greenhouse effect is not a natural heating system, nor sunscreen a beauty product, nor mercury an exotic tuna flavor. We have long been conscious of irreversible environmental outcomes to our actions and of the enormity of making changes to people’s lifestyle choices.
At the last event of its kind, twenty years ago in Rio (called ECO 92), 116 heads of state appeared at the event from 172 of the world’s wealthiest countries and promised to invest 0.7 per cent of their GDP towards the green economy.
In 2012, only two presidents from the G8 came – Hollande and Putin – and the most the forum could agree on was the unpromising document The Future We Want. The 52 page document took days of religious retreat for all parties to reach common ground by reducing the text from 200 pages and, in the process, depriving it of all of its strength.
“It tosses limestone powder on Rio+20,” as former Brazilian Presidential Candidate and ardent environmentalist, Marina Silva, said this week referring to the practice of the Brazilian poor to sprinkle limestone over the graves of people whom they couldn’t afford to bury in a coffin, to keep the bad smell away.
Eco-consciousness came at the wrong time, or so it seems; the worries of the world are others, and politicians cannot compromise their votes to save the planet and emerging economies are not willing to pay the higher price of a green economy.
Even the environmental movement say that the crisis itself is a tangible expression of a structure that has come to its end, which needs to be rethought and re-invented, within the borders of sustainability.
“Think globally and act locally” seems to be the only approachable solution, as indicated by the successful meetings of the C40, a group of mayors from 58 of the world’s biggest cities who come together to solve environmental problems.
Those cities produce 21 per cent of world GDP and the C40 agreements could result in the reduction of emissions of 1 billion tonnes by 2030 and the creation of a network of cooperation between cities to deal with urban solid waste. This outcome clearly suggests the era of a grand global sustainability vision might be over; the vision was seen as financially too demanding and politically too complex.
Two powerful symbols of this outcome were evident at Rio+20, one physical the other intellectual.
The social and the political crowd were kept apart at a safe distance, in two opposite parts of the city. What at first seemed a purely logistical decision, transpired through the event to be a meditated act, reproducing a cruel cosmology of the modern world, where feelings cannot influence thought.
And as the Secretary General of Rio+20, Sha Zukang, correctly stated in closing, “This is an outcome which makes nobody happy. My job was to make everyone equally unhappy”.
It certainly doesn’t instill faith to hear the Secretary-General of United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, who at first was clearly unsatisfied with the result of the summit, turn around on the last day to heap praise on the event and the country which hosted it.
That’s one grave that will need a ton of limestone to keep the stink away.
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