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).