Rio +20 Earth Summit: Slouching Toward Pointlessness

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


Rio de Janeiro—At the RioCentro officials from 193 countries, including more than 100 are heads of state or government, are taking the podium in the plenary session to read their 15-minute statements in favor of sustainable development. Some illustrious participants are Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe, Raul Castro from Cuba. On the coast road from Copacabana to the RioCentro, someone has hung a large banner reading in English, "Ahmadinejad go home."

So what did Cuban President Raul Castro have to say? To his credit, he did decry the vast amount of money being spent on the military around the world. Oddly he did not mention the U.S., which accounts for more than 40 percent of global arms expenditures. But, of course, communism bears no responsibility for the poverty of the Cuban people. "Poverty spreads, hunger and malnutrition become greater and inequality increases, all of these aggravated in past few decades as a result of neoliberalism," Castro asserted. Wrong. He did however, conclude, "Cuba hopes that common sense and human intelligence will prevail over irrationality and barbarism." Yes, let's do hope so.

The U.S. is sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Rio +20 to add her two cents to the discussion of sustainable development on Friday.

Thursday was a dreary day and a weary dispirited calm has descended on the RioCentro Conference Center. Even the frantic chirping from the environmentalist choir of doom was muted. The most that the activists could muster was a hand signal training session as they sat in a RioCentro courtyard using an Occupy Wall Street style bullhorn in which a chorus repeats the words of a speaker. An earnest woman explained that wiggling one's hands downward ("down twinkling" I believe she called it) signified disapproval of what someone might be saying. This brought to mind a more emphatic and traditional hand gesture signifying disapproval that a young Carioca woman flipped our bus loaded with conference delegates as we passed by earlier in the day.

Since not much news was being made at the conference, I wandered over to what amounts to a trade show at the Athlete's Park next door to the RioCentro. Every Brazilian state had a pavilion touting their sustainability and their eagerness to attract new businesses. Some signaled sustainability through the design of their exhibition pavilions, e.g., Rio de Janeiro's was constructed of wooden shipping pallets. The Italian pavilion confirmed the cliché that Italians know how to design. The bamboo outer walls of that country's striking cubic pavilion were covered with sleek black solar panels from Enel. Bamboo and solar cells together just practically shout sustainability. On the other hand bamboo seemed to be more or less slapped onto the tent that housed the United Nations Environment Program's (UNEP) pavilion, proving the cliché that bureaucrats lack imagination.

At the UNEP pavilion I did pick up a copy of a Monica and Friends children's book entitled, Caring for Our Planet. It basically repeats the standard litany of doom:

Huge problems: Climate Change

Pollution, Deforestation

Endangered Animals

And Super Population

What can kids do to care for our planet? Ride bikes, take shorter showers, plant a tree, eat fruits and vegetables, cut back on meat, and of course, reduce, recycle, and reuse. It ends:

You can keep this book nearby

You can read it many times

You can always memorize

It's easy. It's all in rhymes!

All that you learn as a child

Remains forever. It's true!

We can make a difference too,

And the World will say:—"Thank you."

The environmentalists who sponsored the publication clearly believe the maxim attributed to the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola, who reportedly said, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man." I do worry that the Jesuits and the environmentalists may be right.

The UNEP pavilion also featured an exhibit of a handmade wind turbine that looked like a contraption out of Mad Max. Basically, making the turbine involves a hub cap, some copper wire, and wooden wind mill blades. The exhibit explained that one could build "a cheap and efficient electric generator that can produce up to 48 volts and charge batteries to supply more than 15 households with light." It was actually quite clever, but I am not sure what the project is suggesting about humanity's sustainable future. While looking at the wind mill I sat down on one of the cardboard stools made available for guests. I am 6 feet and 5 inches tall and weigh 200 pounds. While I sat on the stool it began to crumple.

The Rio +20 Earth Summit slouches to its close on Friday.

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