Rio+20: An act of cynicism by the world's powers

June 19, 2012

Barry Weisberg

Editor's Note: *Part I appeared on April 25, 2012: Earth Day 2012, Road to Oblivion I. Barry Weisberg is Worldview's Global Cities co-contributor. Weisberg sees the upcoming Rio+20 summit as an exercise in cynicism.

It's a stark contrast: the vitality of Rio de Janiero, Brazil – both its virtues and its vices – and the sterility of national rhetoric that will fill the city's halls this week at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development II (also known as Rio+20). One need only examine the world's record over the last 20 years to glimpse the futility of Rio+20.

In the past two decades, carbon emissions have increased 40 percent and biodiversity loss has increased 30 percent. The tropical biodiversity loss is 60 percent! While the biodiversity loss is hard to grasp worldwide, imagine if every zoo and every garden were to lose 30 percent of its plants and animals. The world community has failed to achieve 86 of its 90 most important environmental goals, with prominent failures on climate change, fish stocks and desertification. 

Three principal interconnected factors insured this failure: First is the capitalist world market economy; second, unrestricted elite growth and the unequal consumption it insures; and third, the resulting population growth.

No large country or city in the world has taken substantive steps to reduce its ecological consumption footprint. On the contrary, growth is the undisputed mantra. This is the essence of what makes the Global City Strategy of many large cities incompatible with either ecological balance or greater equality. That is why the pursuit of unfettered growth precludes genuine equity. That is why the entire rhetoric of sustainability is a myth — concocted to mask unequal growth and development. And that is why the much-touted “green economy” is a myth to hide the diverse ways environmental policy was co-opted by the same corporations that guide the global market economy.

A myriad of local projects by individuals, groups and institutions, and even corporations, curb waste or pollution, work to safeguard particular species or limit carbon output. But together these gain ground arithmetically while planetary hazards grow geometrically. Climate change, species extinction, energy and water shortages and dozens of additional challenges cannot be reversed until the growth of the economic and social footprint is halted and actually reversed in key countries.

Since 1972, at the Stockholm Conference on the Environment, and then again at the first Rio Environment Conference on Sustainability in 1992, the United Nations has merely reflected the wishes of the principal powers — who have no intention of curbing their growth and consumption. The large global corporations have unleashed an unprecedented campaign of propaganda and misinformation to insure that the “Green Economy” succeeds in propelling, not restricting footprint growth. Few important leaders of State will attend Rio+20. They will not adopt important deadlines, nor establish restraints on State growth. The global ecological impact of the United States military will be ignored.

The Rio+20 meeting hopes to start a process so that by 2015 — in just three years — the international community can agree on a set of global sustainable development goals — with targets for consumption and production, a mechanism for periodic follow-up and reports, and specific actions for key areas such as water, food and energy. Anyone who thinks that will happen has ignored the trajectory of the last 20 years.

Most fundamentally, until the U.S. and China adopt ecological footprint reduction imperatives, little that any other country could do will change the trajectory of planetary destruction in the next 20 years. If the present pattern continues and worsens for another 20 years, there is little doubt the lives of our children, their children and all our grandchildren will suffer terribly. The assets necessary to insure serious equality for the coming nine billion people will not exist.   

The challenge now is not what you and I can do individually, but what we must do collectively. We must reverse the course of global market growth — begin to figure out how countries, cities and communities can limit footprint and create new, largely self-sustaining and self reliant regional systems— contrary to the imperatives of the global market. Rio+20 marks the end of positive multinational negotiation. It is now up to cities to chart a new balance between global and planetary requirements.

Barry Weisberg is a visiting lecturer at Hong Kong University and the University of Illinois—Chicago. Beyond Repair: The Ecology of Capitalism was published in 1969.