I am sitting on a bus to Rio de Janeiro. It is twenty years after the first time at the UN Conference on Environment and Development and forty years after the first UN Conference in Stockholm. I was active at both occasions now on my way to another mobilization of popular participation and a UN Conference.
The Brazilian president Dilma has just announced policies to support the selling of cars in Brazil. The timing is quite illustrative. The reason for giving incentives to buy more cars is to boost growth. The economic growth is increasing but not fast enough. Selling more cars is than seen as the ideal solution.
The ideal solution for the planet is also growth according to the ideas from rich countries as well as the UN environmental organization UNEP presented to the UN conference by the concept ”green economy.” This is according to those that promote the concept equivalent to ”green growth.” Like any concept that is in need of additional words to make it convincable outside its normal use growth is utterly flexible for simultanous use in opposite directions. After all is not Dilma in here domestic role as promoter of selling cars to promote growth the same Dilma hosting Rio+20? Growth is the ideal goal for almost any decision postponing actual solutions into the future. Inclusive, equitable and green growth makes it possible for all of us and the planet to become sustainable in a brave new world, at least if you do not put any questions.
This clearly stated objective to use the UN to legitmize growth and the existing economic system is making the support of the present world order weaker. Contrary to earlier conferences were the ideas behind the conferences called upon many more actors to do something and had a lot wider support. In 1972 popular movements stated Don’t trust the UN conference and confronted the dominating Western world view both among governments and NGOs. But the ideology behind the official conference in 1972 was not as narrow and outspoken as forty years later. As now the main message was then to trust those in power and stating a good individual moral as a main solution together with governmental action. And the governments did deliver. Within a year or two a hundred countries had started environmental agencies and put environmental laws into practice compared to some twenty before the Stockholm conference.
Photo: UN. Heads of state, photo opportunity Rio 1992.
The first Rio conference was more bold in its ideological ambitions. The concept sustainable development was launched in two different interpretations, partly self contradictory to each other. One version was presented by the Brundtland report as sustainable development being the same as sustainable growth, thus the same as the idea twenty years later but now called green growth. The other version was also presented by the Brundtland report as development that is not negatively effecting the environment and possibilites for comming generations.The last version was the popular one as it was interpretable into very many directions including supporting a stronger role for corporations and free trade as main avenues to build sustainable societies. This was also core content of the official Rio declaration. But also wider concerns were acknowledged. Important principles as declaring the historic responsibility of industrialized countries to contribute more than others to solve the global environmental problems were included in conventions made at the Rio conference. The concept sustainable development included the idea that all concerns should be addressed, not only in economic terms but also ecological, social, cultural and others. Its weakness was to not acknowledge conflictual interests and thus tend to avoid any serious questioning of the present world order and main economic and political powers. But at least there was some respect for the existence also of other perspectives than that of the main power system in the present world order, capitalism akcnowledging only not other values than exchange value.. This acknowledgement of other perspectives and some of the principles decided at the Rio conference gave rise to hope among quite a few at that time for the willingnes to take envrionmental and social concerns seriously.
This time we see almost no such more widely spread hope to not speak about enthusiasm for the ideas behind this second Rio conference. In size it is as big as the first conference in 1992 with tens of thousand more participants and slightly less heads of state. But green economy and green growth has not been able to catch even something close to what was achieved with the concept sustainable development in 1992.
Contrary to 1992 but similarly to 1972 popular movements with coordinated demonstration, action and a Peoples summit with some 30 000 participants are determined to question the whole idea of green economy with its promotion of turning nature and common welfare into goods sellable on a global market. Who will succeed is an open question. Those in power with all their might in their hands and promises of support and succes for eveyone following their agenda or the popular movements saying no to commodify nature and yes to a just transition to a sustainable society by a combination of means putting democracy above economy.
The bus is now approaching Rio. A closed railway line has been just outside the window. Everywhere are trucks, buses and cars to be seen. The present development model seems impossible to counteract. But is it not necessary and why not start at the Peoples summit in Rio? Here one can find the relationship with communities all over the world and ability to challenge power instead of putting hopes in the official UN conference which more and more look like a political theatre with a manuscript written by corporations.
Friends of the Earth Sweden