What a disappointment..but there’s hope

23 Jun

Well what a disappointment Rio+20 was, or at least the official UN conference. Once again, like previous environmental conferences politicians keep kicking the real decisions to be made into the long-grass. In the final text there are vague assertions about the direction to be taken, but if any organisation had spent a year and huge amounts of resources developing a plan such as this they’d think it had all been a waste of time if there were no specific targets, no deadlines and no resources committed. I’m particularly concerned about how sustainability appears to be defined in the document (see also George Monbiot’s discussion). The three traditional pillars are highlighted – economic, environmental and social – but the economic aspect has mutated into the requirement of sustained economic growth. Some areas of the world definitely do need economic growth to lift their populations out of poverty but sustained economic growth for the whole world is not a recipe for solving the major environmental challenges we face but to accentuate them. One paragraph is truly troubling:

“We recognize that urgent action on unsustainable patterns of production and consumption where they occur remains fundamental in addressing environmental sustainability and promoting conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems, regeneration of natural resources and the promotion of sustained, inclusive and equitable global growth.”

If anyone can explain to me how sustainable patterns of consumption and production are compatible with sustained global growth please let me know. Unless they mean they aim to promote the continued expansion of the globe itself?

And what were the leaders doing for 3 days in Rio? With the text agreed before they arrived and the Brazilians trying to prevent chaos by refusing to reopen the text they made set speeches (how dull and fruitless, couldn’t they have just emailed them to each other), had pretty pictures taken and visited the sights (I definitely spotted the Venezulans heading up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer).

Venezuala's ministers enjoy a trip up Corcovado

Venezuala’s ministers enjoy a trip up Corcovado

But elsewhere in the city there was a little bit more hope. At the people’s summit there were some excellent workshops, talks, theatre, music and so much passion and warmth and lots of connections being made between groups from across the world. I went to a fantastic talk about ecovillages and the challenges and benefits of living in communities from Macaco Tamerice from Damanhur in Italy. I was particularly interested in the new currency that they are planning on setting up between ecovillages in Europe with the potential to open it up to other people with similar interests as a means to create a more localised economy separate from the current system.

The Rural Women’s Assembly was full of inspiring, strong women standing up for their communities and livelihoods. Particularly striking was a young woman from South Africa who talked about how they had challenged a pharmaceutical company that had patented their traditional medicinal knowledge as a weight loss solution, claiming that the community had died out. A woman form Lesotho described how they had formed co-operatives in order to have a stronger voice and that the government is now meeting and listening to them and how they were sharing and multiplying their seeds to have more resilience. A women from Paraguay also told how the different indigenous groups were meeting to share their experiences to make their opposition stronger.

The Rural Women's Assembly

The Rural Women’s Assembly

Another discussion focused on the campaign for climate jobs (jobs that help reduce CO2 emissions)  in the current economic climate around the world with so many people are unemployed. Issues were raised about the challenge of linking the environmentalists and people focused on poverty or jobs whilst a guy from Zimbabwe raised concerns about becoming dependent on technology from developed countries without the technical skills to maintain it. He told how Zimbabwe had had solar energy since the 1990s, but that the loss of scientists and engineers meant that when anything broke it could not be fixed.

The final workshop I went to was about biomimicry – taking inspiration from nature. There were some fascinating examples, including adding bobbles on the edges of wind turbines based on hump-backed whales which improves they efficiency by 30%, basing the shape of cars on the boxfish which actually makes them more aerodynamic and uses less material, harvesting dew in the desert based on a beatle’s shell with the aim to create a forest in the Sahara. On a larger scale people are also working to create production systems that work like an ecosystem. Its all really interesting work but we also need to make sure that these systems are definitely beneficial and more sustainable products and systems.

So the people’s summit was great. I met some people who are working on environmental projects here in Rio so I hope I can get more involved in those. However, I was disappointed with a few things, the lack of information about what was going on and where, the lack of real examples at the summit about how we can live more sustainably (there was virtually no renewable energy generated onsite despite the sunshine!) and the masses of consumerism. Not corporate consumerism but half the people present seemed to be selling something, in particular from the indigenous groups. Their way of life has been trampled, they often have little space to grow food and survive, this was a great opportunity to sell a few things, but I felt sad to see so many feathered ornaments, belts and necklaces set out for sale and people spending time selling things instead of building campaigns and connections.

So Rio+20 is over. Once again there were many disappointments, it has not been a transformative moment, and it seems that we do not have the leaders with the vision and courage to truly face up to the challenge. So instead it is up to us as individuals and communities to build the future we want.

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