Rio +20 Earth Summit: Wandering Through the People's Summit

Reason's Science Correspondent sends his fourth dispatch from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.


Rio de Janeiro—The People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice at the Rio +20 Earth Summit sprawls through the beautiful Flamengo Park that curves along the lovely beach at Guanabara Bay. Giant tents in the park house five chief plenary discussions and scores of smaller tents shelter a wide variety of earnest discussions about the perfidy of corporations in this age of late capitalism. As it happens, I just caught the tail-end of a speech at the Energy Plenary by an American black woman who urged the audience to fight for "economic, social, gender, and erotic justice." Evidently fearing that she had overlooked an oppressed group, she hastily made sure to acknowledge that the fight for justice included "transpeople too."

Scattered among the tents are perhaps a couple hundred booths from which interest groups from around the world peddle their nostrums for whatever discontents with the modern world particularly irk them. For example, the Global Ecovilllage Network was there to urge people to practice "luxurious simplicity." An Ecovillage brochure specifically cited a Senegalese program to transition 14,000 traditional villages into ecovillages. The program is being supported by a $16 million grant from the Global Environment Facility. By the way, per capita GDP in Senegal is just over $1,000. Luxury indeed.

The People's Summit site also featured stalls and tables at which locals were selling various handmade trinkets, t-shirts, and scads of tomes devoted to Marxist-Leninist thought. I stopped by the table for the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Brazil where we talked briefly with an attractive young woman about the party's beliefs. She wanted to make it very clear that she and her group were real Marxist-Leninists, not like the heretics that populate the Communist Party of Brazil. Besides a plethora of books on hardcore communist theory and copies of the Cuban communist newspaper Granma International, their table featured portraits of Marx and Lenin that were very similar in tone and taste to devotional images of Christian saints.

My companion, the Reason Foundation's Julian Morris, asked the young communist if she and her party members were "traditional" Marxist-Leninists or had they modernized. She assured him that they were traditionalists who support every past and current effort to establish communism including the Soviet Union and Cuba. Do you support North Korea? Yes, we do, although she did ruefully note that they had not engaged in much "solidarity work" with that regime. Do you support the actions that Lenin took when establishing the Soviet Union? Yes, she said without batting an eyelid. My eyebrow, however, was raised; after all, Lenin's Bolshevik regime killed an estimated 4 million people.

Many readers may well believe that I am cherry-picking items from the People's Summit and not really representing the full range of sensible opinions about economic and ecological policy to be found there. That's simply not true. The tenor of the whole People's Summit is hardcore left-wing. For example, a brochure from the group transform! the European network for alternative thinking and political dialogue argues that the Green Economy is really just a stalking horse for corporate capitalism. "We are … facing a new era in terms of commodifying and financializing nature and life," explains the transform! newsletter. "The aim of its promoters is to fully integrate nature into the cycle of capital accumulation, to open up new spheres of profit inside the realm of capitalism by means of subjugating the totality of life cycles to the rule of the market, and to the illusion of unlimited growth." I wish I could say that "you can't make this stuff up" but someone evidently did make this up and then printed it in a full color pamphlet!

Walking around the Summit site, I came across a tent filled with folks earnestly listening to the activist charlatan Vandana Shiva. Shiva has been at the forefront of promulgating and spreading dishonest propaganda against biotech crops and she was up to her usual tricks in Rio. For example, she accused agribusiness giant Monsanto of selling seeds that "do not reproduce themselves." This is not true.

What is true is that more than a decade ago the seed company Delta and Pine Land Company worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a Technology Protection System (TPS) for biotech crops. Basically, TPS involved a gene that prevented seeds from reproducing. Delta and Pine Land's idea was that this meant that farmers would not be able to replant biotech seeds and would buy year after year—much as farmers using traditional hybrid seeds do now, by the way. Anti-biotech activists dubbed TPS the "terminator gene" and opposed its introduction. (Never mind that terminator technology would have addressed one the chief concerns often cited by activists, that engineered genes might "contaminate" other crops.)

During this controversy, Shiva declared in her 2000 book Stolen Harvest, "The possibility that [TPS] may spread to surrounding food crops or to the natural environment is a serious one." Why? She continued, "The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet." As I pointed out, this dire scenario is not just implausible but biologically impossible: TPS is a gene technology that causes sterility; that means, by definition, that it can't spread. And here she was, still peddling a version of that story at the People's Summit. More generally, if biotech crops were as bad as Shiva claims they are, farmers would not be smuggling biotech seeds to plant illegally.

Tomorrow I will go to find out if the Rio +20 Earth Summit has really collapsed as Greenpeace laments.

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