Rio +20 Earth Summit: Is Sustainable Development Still Sexy?

Reason's Science Correspondent previews the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro

This week the United Nations is convening the Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development. It’s called Rio +20 to commemorate the fact that 20 years ago, the United Nations held an “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, then modestly billed as “the most important meeting in human history.” The tone is a little different this time around: It turns out that a good portion of the activists attending this time are not at all happy with the concept of sustainable development anymore and are denouncing the Green Economy as a corporate sham.

Back in 1992, the Conference on Environment and Development (as it was formally known) was attended by more than 100 presidents, prime ministers, and princes, including the first George Bush and Fidel Castro. The Summit was graced by diplomats from 178 countries, some 9,000 journalists, and 17,000 environmentalists who represented more than 1,400 non-governmental organizations. I covered the meeting for Reason as a freelancer and reported back in my article, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” [PDF]

The head of the Earth Summit, Canadian oilman Maurice Strong, warned in 1992 that humanity’s deleterious current path “could lead to the end of civilization” and that “this planet could soon become uninhabitable for people.” Besides the official conference, there was the Global Forum at which activists of various stripes and tendencies gathered at a “world’s fair of environmentalism.” Vice presidential hopeful Al Gore was ubiquitous. 

At the Earth Summit conferees negotiated the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (U.N.FCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity, along with Agenda 21, an economic central plan for the 21st century. Over the past 20 years the United Nations has convened 17 conferences with the aim of trying to impose carbon rationing on the world as a way to combat climate change chiefly caused by greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels. The Biodiversity Convention has chiefly been a vehicle used by activists to slow efforts to get biotech crops to poor farmers in the developing world and to rich farmers in Europe.

Following its decadal cycle, the United Nations’ Earth Summit circus pitched its tents at Johannesburg in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Again, I covered the conference for Reason sending back various dispatches, e.g., “Wilting Greens.” The goal of the Johannesburg conference was to hammer out some kinds of agreements that would revolutionize how the world’s economy operated, especially limiting economic growth and redistributing whatever wealth was left over from rich countries to poor countries. Among the more disturbing comments made by activists were the words of Earth Island Institute’s Gar Smith who declared, “I have seen villages in Africa...that were disrupted and destroyed by the introduction of electricity." Gar explained, “I don't think a lot of electricity is a good thing. It is the fuel that powers a lot of multinational imagery." Worried about water consumption, Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain decried the "pernicious introduction of the flush toilet.” 

The good news was that the World Summit mostly disappointed the reactionary hopes of ideological environmentalists who advocated economic stagnation. Basically, the diplomats signed off on what was mostly an implementation plan that had no teeth. At the end of the Summit, according to Friends of the Earth Chairman Ricardo Navarro, “The leaders of the world have proved that they work as employees for the transnational corporations.” Noxious Indian activist Vandana Shiva added, “This summit has become a trade summit, it has become a trade show.”

It’s been 20 years since the Earth Summit. So this week, more than 50,000 people are gathering in Rio to participate in “largest U.N. conference” ever. More than 130 heads of state and government are supposedly going to show up for the final negotiating sessions at the end of next week. Besides the formal conference, some 20,000 activists will be participating in the People’s Summit at a downtown park in Rio, and corporations are convening a Global Compact conference aimed at figuring out how to sustainably develop their businesses. (Hint: Supply goods and services that consumers want and thus make a profit.)

In any case, economic development is certainly a worthy endeavor since 1.3 billion people still live on less than $1.25 per day and some 900 million people face hunger. The U.N. conference itself is negotiating a document called, The Future We Want, [PDF] which embodies a lot of aspirational language, but also aims to set up a process that will establish a set of Sustainable Development Goals and some kind of institutional framework for sustainable development to oversee the implementation of those goals, i.e., a U.N. bureaucracy. And to implement whatever the goals are the poor countries want the rich countries to give them $100 billion per year in sustainable development aid starting in 2018. Negotiations over this 80-page document have been quite contentious; only 20 percent of the text has been agreed to so far.

According to the U.N., the Future We Want is the Green Economy. However, a sizeable percentage of environmental activists going to the conference believe that the Green Economy is merely more corporate capitalism in green-face. Last week the group La Via Campesina issued a statement opposing the “advance of capitalism” citing an earlier People’s Summit which declared, “Humanity faces a grand dilemma: to continue the path of capitalism, predation, and death, or undertake the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.” The new declaration adds, “Beneath the deceptive and badly intentioned term ‘green economy,' new forms of environmental contamination and destruction are now rolled out along with new waves of privatization, monopolization, and expulsion from our lands and territories.” Unfortunately, La Via Campesina has only an inchoate understanding that a lot of what flies under the banner of the Green Economy is the crony capitalism in which politicians divert tax dollars to support their corporate friends.

Starting Sunday, I will be sending back daily dispatches from Rio reporting on the various goings-on at the People’s Summit, the Global Compact, and the actual conference itself.

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).

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  • Alan Vanneman||

    Ron goes to Rio! To report on a conference that he knows will lead to nothing! Fiesta! Siesta! Business expense! No wonder Uncle Sam is broke!

  • Mo' $parky||

    Huh, what? Ron is a government employee taking a taxpayer funded trip to Rio?

  • Paul.||

    Alan unwittingly pointed out that the meeting itself is why Uncle Sam is broke, having nothing to do with Ron Bailey.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    No, Ron is taking a vacation and deducting the cost from his taxable income. If Ron is an employee of Reason, Reason is giving him a vacation, effectively income, on which he does not pay taxes and the cost of which Reason can deduct from its taxable income if, as a non-profit, it pays any in the first place.

  • Paul.||

    So you prefer a simpler tax code without special perks for "non-profits". Or would that be the "non-profits" whose mission you agree with?

  • DJF||

    Have you bought your carbon credit indulgences from Al Gore’s House of Carbon Forgiveness to compensate for all the carbon spewing that you will be doing?

  • DJF||

    Also please provide photographic coverage of the environmental and economic conditions at Rio Beaches. I have heard disturbing reports that woman in Rio can barely afford swim suits that cover them and they have had to cut way back on cloth use.

  • Mike M.||

    "Blame it on Rio" was an awesome movie for a teenage boy in the eighties. Not that I'm talking from experience or anything like that.

  • Suellington||

    Rio is a great place to bring the diplomats, activists, and government officials for a week of laying about in the sun, making lots of bullshit proclamations, and consorting with the local hookers.

  • Xenocles||

    I've heard Rio is the sluttiest city on the planet, so politicians should fit right in.

  • Paul.||

    I'm imagining Whore Island.

  • Whahappan?||

    Don't insult sluts that way.

  • Mike M.||

    It's funny how these summits are never held in places like East St. Louis or Minsk.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    Since the conference is about predation, poverty, death, and the raping of the land, the politicians felt that it wouldn't be appropriate to stay in Cidade de Deus or any other such Rio slum, as it would represent the status quo. Staying at a lush and green resort is more within the positive spirit of the conference. Besides, the prostitutes are more likely to take public transport than the politicians, so it makes more sense for them to travel in than vice versa, environmentally speaking.

  • JeremyR||

    East St. Louis has prostitutes...

  • Lord Humungus||

    please report on Rio, the city, not the conference. That will be far more interesting.

  • NeonCat||

    Because nothing says respect for life like advocating policies that will result in the death of billions of people.

  • Xenocles||

    So we're going to have an environmental summit that requires hundreds of people to fly to South America?

  • ChrisO||

    Nice job, Ron. So glad you can go to Rio for the "environmental conference." Do you think the wife will buy it?

  • ||

    Holy fuck, the Earth Summit in Rio?? PJ O'Rourke went to the first one and wrote about it in All The Trouble In The World.

  • Suellington||

    I spent almost three years in Brazil. The first week in Rio I saw a guy killed by the police across the street from our apartment, almost got robbed by a vicious pack of feral children, and got drugged by women we met on a bar. All in all, a good introduction to the city. I have such fond memories of the place.

  • LTC John||

    So, you have been appointed spokesman for the Rio Tourism Department, yes?

  • R C Dean||

    Rio: Come for the robberies, stay for the roofies!

  • Brett L||

    Good times.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    My big Rio experience was getting into a knockdown, bloody brawl with a bunch of drunk Brits in a brothel a few blocks from the beach. It was me, the bouncers and eventually a half dozen military policemen vs. the Brits. The brothel 'manager' was very thankful and I got a discount.

  • Paul.||

    Fighting the Brits? Did they intimidate you with all those narrow shoulders and rabbitty teeth?

  • Voros McCracken||

    Well look at this way, you took your chance and luck was on your side or something.

  • Paul.||

    and got drugged by women we met on a bar.

    *Squints*

    Not seeing a downside here.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    However, a sizeable percentage of environmental activists going to the conference believe that the Green Economy is merely more corporate capitalism in green-face.


    Can we at least now stop pretnding that the goal of "environmental activists" is a healthy environment? I mean, if that really was their goal, they should be indifferent as to how it is realized. Instead, they make clear that any "solution" that doesn't dismantle the free market (free people) won't work for them.

  • NotSure||

    Those activists fail to grasp that whatever solution they propose, there will always be snake oil businessmen more than willing to sell that stuff on the markets (with fat government subsidies of course).

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Okay. But, so what? I mean, if I got something I wanted and someone made a huge pile of money off of it in the process, I couldn't care less. Good for him. Instead, the money making seems to invalidate the entire claimed agenda for them. That tells me that their actual agenda isn't what they claim it is.

  • ||

    No way. These people are pure heart and have the best interest of gaea's soul as their interest.

    You make it sound like they are a bunch of power mongers trying to implement communism by a back door method.

    Geez Bill.

  • NotSure||

    I did mention the big government subsidy part that inevitably is required.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Well, personally, I don't like the activists or the crony capitalists. But, my values are free markets and individual freedom, so that's beside the point. I'm trying to analyze the activists' motives. Their claimed value is a clean and healthy environment. If that's the value, whether some businessman gets rich or not in the process of that being achieved should be irrelevant. But, clearly, the activists don't see it as irrelevant. We should logically assume, then, that there is some unstated value for which businessmen making money is somehow or another an affront.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Their hypothesis is that the environment can't be helped if someone is making money off of it.

    It's tied intrinsically. If someone os making money, that means that the environment is necessarily being polluted. It's one and the same for greenies. Because they're stupid and are only using the environment as an excuse to enact their grander schemes.

  • NotSure||

    How many decades of these meetings will it take for people to realise they are a sham ? If in 20 years yet another one these meetings takes place and then 20 years after that, surely even the most dimwitted citzen will realise that all this talk of impedending environmental doom is bullshit.

  • LTC John||

    That is why they have to keep changing the vector of our doom - when I was a kid, it was THE COMING ICE AGE. Then it was the HOLE IN THE OZONE LAYER. Then we got GLOBAL WARMING...now it has morphed into CLIMATE CHANGE.

    I guess the minute anything changes, they can wave their hands frantically and say "See!! DOOM COMES NIGH (and the only way to fend it off is to give us a big pile of money and power)."

  • ||

    Yeeaahhhh......and no matter how many times they get caught faking data or lying, no matter how many times their predictions turn out to be inaccurate, no matter how many times they propose the same solutions to different impending crisis, no matter how many times they are caught 'secretly' telling their true agenda.....certain people * ahem * will still buy into their basic made-up, fake, premesis. ( global warming )

    No matter how many tropical plants that previously flourished in sub-tropical climes die from cooling, no matter how many animals that like cool weather extend their ranges south, no matter how many times thermometers trend in the opposite direction that the warming narrative dictates, no matter how obvious it is that economic development results in a cleaner, better environment, the fucking green idiots will still recommend world socialism, primitivism and the dismantling of capitalism, with themselves the recipients of any wealth and power that might still be had.

  • NeonCat||

    You forgot how acid rain would destroy all the forests. (Looks out window at trees all around building) Nope, still hasn't.

  • Brett L||

    That's only because of the government enforced regime of sulfate and nitrate removal. You know, except for Shell who keeps shilling their gasoline "with nitrogen". I'm still baffled at how that shit is turning to N2 instead of NOx.

  • stuartl||

    Santa Claus is still a big deal at Christmas. Not that I am comparing anyone's critical reasoning skills to a 4 year old's.

  • ||

    Ron, is there something sciency that you can come up with that involves hookers?

  • NeonCat||

    CO2 sequestration in breast implants!

  • econmagic||

    Reality is that we need global sustainability urgently. It used to be thought that sustainable paths lead to lower growth. As it turns out, the usnsustainable path also leads to lack of growth, as we have seen in the past five years.
    The only way forward is a mechanism meant to encourage global sustainability through encouraging efficiency(get more value out of less). The market is doing the opposite, by encouraging the disposable economy. Our main stumbling block however is precisely the segment of the "global village", which advocates for sustainability. They are too idealistic, and too ideological.
    http://zoltansustainableecon.b.....ut-no.html

  • ant1sthenes||

    "The market is doing the opposite, by encouraging the disposable economy."

    Free markets like nothing more than utilitarian efficiency. It's when political corruption gets involved that things go to shit.

  • econmagic||

    Actually the evidence of the last few decades shows that the market loves nothing more than to produce something as cheap as posible, which means that it wants to produce in places with little regard for environmental and worker protection, and cheap labor, like China. And then it wants to sell to you, and it wants to do it as often as posible.
    For a better understanding of the basic economic principles that push us towards a more disposable economy read this:
    http://zoltansustainableecon.b.....-cars.html

  • ||

    At the Earth Summit conferees negotiated the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (U.N.FCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity, along with Agenda 21, an economic central plan for the 21st century. Over the past 20 years the United Nations has convened 17 conferences with the aim of trying to impose carbon rationing on the world as a way to combat climate change chiefly caused by greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels. The Biodiversity Convention has http://www.maillotfr.com/maill.....22_23.html chiefly been a vehicle used by activists to slow efforts to get biotech crops to poor farmers in the developing world and to rich farmers in Europe.

  • joy||

    turns out that a good portion of the activists attending this time are not at all happy with the concept of sustainable development anymore and are http://www.petwinkel.com/pet-bomb-c-49.html denouncing the Green Economy as a corporate sham.

  • دردشه عراقية||

    Thanks

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