I mean come on guys, this is up to us, we have to do it

by Surya Karki and Aneesa Khan

After 15 hours in our little Toyota Corolla, sleep deprived and hungry, we stumbled into the David L. Lawrence convention center in Pittsburgh on Friday the 18th. We were about an hour late for the opening keynote speech so we made a mad dash for the second floor. We walked into a ballroom buzzing with energy and we could feel it all around us. 10,000 people were leaning forward in their seats, the eagerness to make a change clear on their faces. “I mean come on guys, this is up to us, we have to do it. I just want to say, have a healthy disrespect for authority.” echoed Yudith A. Nieto’s closing statement. The crowd burst into applause, she got a standing ovation, and the uproar was enough to wake up half of Pittsburgh. We made it just in time to hear Yudith A. Nieto’s closing statement, but what an impact it had, it resonated so well with us. We were finally at Powershift 2013, a space where youth from all of the country and some from other parts of the world, had come to meet people with similar ideals and beliefs, to share their thoughts and ideas and to actually make a difference through action, not just talking.

Phillip Brian Agnew, executive director for Dream Defenders (a group that fights for equal rights for colored youth) claimed the stage. He stressed upon the point that he was not here to talk at us, but to talk to us. He was one of us, with the same dreams, with the same hope of solving so many of the problems the world. This was probably one of the things that drove so many people to come out to Powershift – It was run by the youth, for the youth. “Get up. Get on your feet and repeat after me. I. Believe. That. We. Will. Win.”, he said. Once again, the 6000 people got off of their chairs and began to yell out “I believe that we will win!” repeatedly until we actually believed it and felt the energy from everyone in the room. On that note we set off on our two-day journey of workshops, discussions and making new connections, all to shift the power from big corporations back into the hands of the general public, back into the hands of youth.

Continue reading “I mean come on guys, this is up to us, we have to do it”

The Point of It All

Point of No Return

By Mariana Calderon

Sitting back in a bed in a hostel in Rio de Janeiro, trying to regain some sense of normalcy through regular sleep and regular meals, I hardly dare to think back on the last two weeks – or the last 20 years – just yet. Some time to recover, please.

Unfortunately, time is something we don’t have much of anymore. In the halls of the Rio Centro convention center, the atmosphere differed depending on the crowd: While frustration abounded, the sense of urgency you might expect from such a reputedly important moment in history was lacking in many rooms. It seemed as though few participants had any real grasp of the situation; in negotiating rooms, delegates showed little of the ambition necessary to address as huge an issue as sustainable development. Compared to other meetings, such as those for the UNFCCC, the theatrical dramatics were missing. It is a strange way to put it, but while at the climate COPs, negotiators are constantly bombarded with the responsibility to save humanity and the earth before time runs out, here in Rio the feeling of momentous occasion was lackluster, enough that media were starving for interesting shots and swarmed around children at the conference center (our future!). Negotiations felt staged, simply a ritual which representatives had to go through to show that they had tried – and the more governments insist on holding ritualistic meetings without real substance, the faster we run out of time.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Certainly, there were States championing the rights to water and food (even as others strove to weaken or eliminate them) or fighting against a “green economy” that would commodify and privatize nature as well as human life, but I am pondering the long term effects of this gathering and all those before. Why didn’t this conference, and the many preparatory meetings that came before, or the last twenty years work?

If I’m going to be completely fair, one answer is that sustainable development is huge. It could be called The Next Big Thing. After all, it should be all-encompassing. It needs to mention climate change, and biodiversity. It must address poverty eradication, how to bring it about, and how to do so while protecting the environment and traditional ways of life. It has to guarantee basic human rights for all. It needs to fix our economy and create a framework under which all of this will be done. It also should address the various issues we care about, including gender and reproductive rights, youth unemployment, the use of science, protecting oceans and forests, and just about everything else that we, as humans within and as part of our environment, have to interact with and decided to throw into the mix. Therein lies our problem. Sustainable development is the Next Big Thing that no one really knows how to deal with. It is an issue that no one person could possibly begin to fully comprehend – sustainable development deals with everything. True sustainable development, a kind that would acknowledge, respect, and take into account social, economic, and environmental issues as part of a larger whole, is an ideal.

So it’s really no surprise that it hasn’t worked so far. After all, when you’re talking about everything, a two-page inspirational statement would be next to useless. A cumbersome 49-page document could be more useful, but no one wants to look at it, and anyways, 234 paragraphs still isn’t everything. There was no sense of urgency because no one would know where to go with it. So why the meetings? Why the thousands of flights to Rio de Janeiro, dozens of shuttle buses, and “recycled material” installation artwork full of styrofoam? I can’t answer to the styrofoam and plastic bottle art on Copacabana, but I do still see a point to these meetings. They could work, but first, the people need to get angry. Angrier.

Sustainable development may be huge, but collectively, we understand what needs to be done. I’m not talking about negotiators understanding, or Heads of State, but everyone else. The solutions are right in front of us, and civil society can see them. Some things, like affordable renewable energy, need to be ironed out. Figuring out how to feed the world without relying on genetically modified organisms and monocultures is difficult. Conserving biodiversity when developing countries need the natural resources is complicated. But we know enough to start. In fact, we know enough that we could get a running start, punctuated by leaps and bounds. It could be done, but only with a united effort. This is where we run into problems. For the most part, the way in which we currently try to collectively address global issues would involve governments taking lead. Clearly, this is not working well. So the question we must ask is why? Why are our governments not taking lead?

We have one huge problem: Our governments no longer represent us. They no longer (if they ever did) have our best interests at heart. If millions are hungry, forests are being razed, and the oceans are being emptied, and we know that it is possible to change all this, shouldn’t it be done? Yes, it would be difficult – incomprehensibly difficult – but, if there is to be a focus on human well-being by governments (the rights of nature non-withstanding, we know most governments hardly like to hear about inherent values to biodiversity), then our governmental bodies should be working harder to listen to our solutions and put them into play. They are not.

This is where we get angry. What do governments do at these meetings? Many come into the game full of empty promises and empty pockets – they left all their accountability behind when they started to put the interests of large corporations before the interests of people. Money shouts loudest. It’s that simple. I may be biased. After all, supposedly, the US government is representing me. In the halls of the UN, I am often ashamed of this. The US government has consistently tried to take the right to food out of the text. I have the right to be furious. But are other governments any better? In small ways, perhaps. But small ways do little when what is needed is larger collaboration. Small gains in the text – on human rights for example, are more symbolic than practical when there is no one to read all 234 paragraphs of text and check on governments to see if they are adhering to them. And governments won’t adhere to them. Not completely. Some countries simply can’t, just yet, and those who can often resist assisting them.

But I should come back to the anger. We have to be angry. The reason is this: Sustainable development is an ideal. Multilateralism is an optimistic sort of idea. It seems like we’re striving for utopian perfection; it’s so utterly far away. But, the more we strive to reach it, the further we’ll get. And with millions dying of something so simple as hunger, we have to reach as far and long as we can. We won’t get there with optimism or defeatism, practicalism, or realism. To get there, with governments who don’t represent us, and who are stubbornly stuck on the modern world as it stands, we need anger.

The reason we couldn’t hope to achieve sustainable development right now is because most people, most governments, are looking at it as a way to alter our current system. We’ll make our billions of cars green with biofuel, drink fair trade coffee from a continent away, buy reusable plastic tote bags for our groceries, and this will work just fine, we say. But we know better. The system isn’t working. Sustainable development will never fit in, neatly, or otherwise. The shift must be bigger. It has to be huge. The world has to change, and to do so, we must change who our governments listen to and work for: Not for big corporations – they work for us, and we have to remind them. We’ve been trying to do it nicely for a while. Some have given up on being “environmentalists,” forsaking the world of environmental policy and multilateral agreements for local and grassroots efforts centered on changing communities. This is necessary as well – change has to come in two directions, which is why I still place value on multilateralism.

For practicality’s sake, the United Nations makes sense. The issues the world faces are global, and global discussions and action are needed to address them. There is an institution available, ready to facilitate that. It is a resource, and should be used. If this multilateralism isn’t working, it is because UN meetings are driven by those who drive the negotiators. Negotiators are driven by their government offices. Those governments are too often, and increasingly, driven by corporations and big polluters. To get the shift we want, we must drive the governments ourselves. It’s that simple. But first, we have to make them listen. There must be action outside of the UN, as well as inside. I will continue to work from the inside even as others work from the bottom up. I am privileged enough to have some sort of voice inside negotiations. I’m going to use it to make delegates, negotiators, and representatives look twice at the large groups in their complexes denouncing their false work. We can show them that we have solutions, and can come to them in a truly consensus-based way. We can provide the ideas and values, and the words to frame them, that they are too cowardly to put into writing themselves. They will leave with that uncertainty hidden in the back of their minds, and then they will go home, patting themselves on the back, and they need to find movement back home as well. We’re at a point of no return. We have to be angry enough to be loud enough to show our governments that 1) They need to put our interests before those of polluters, and 2) That if they don’t, they will be losing the power we had given them. We will demand a future and take matters into our own hands.


Bottoms up

by Ana Puhac

After witnessing the process of negotiations on the Zero Order draft compilation document for only three days, disappointment in the spaces of the UN Headquarters is laughably apparent. Disappointment is not an unforeseen ingredient when dealing with the global political scene and UN. However, when it is implied in mordant remarks of Staffan Tillander, Ambassador for Rio+20 while putting amendments into the Zero order compilation text, it is an omen that calls for rethinking the accountability of the high-level negotiating juggernaut in spearheading the change toward sustainable development.

What struck me the most was that there is a prevailing acceptance coming from both inside & outside of UN, that there is a prescribed place for the change to happen, and it is ultimately in the hands of a minority of high-level decision-makers. I am particularly concerned with the evident inferiority complex that civil society, as well as the Major Groups, are still battling with. Opening up intergovernmental flora to civil society in 1972, the Stockholm Conference offered an opportunity to show that civil society organizations can reach their highest political potential during environmental blockbusters. Still however, in the twenty years of the sustainable development jamboree, civil society and Major groups have a role but of civil slaves to the governments and corporations.

Marian Harkin, Member of European Parliament from Ireland, and a passionate speaker at the side event, Volunteering for Sustainable Future, definitely changed my expectations on how expertise influences the share of responsibilities in implementing the change with her remark that volunteerism is still seen as “an appendage” to  the real (?) actions on sustainable development. Maybe I’m wrong, but it appears to me that at the UN there are powerful experts in many areas who are not doing much of anything, and outside of the headquarters there are many powerless people who are not  necessarily experts in anything, but contribute to everything.

Predictably, my point is that the floundering inaction at the highest levels has been elevated to a format where it’s clear that we can’t lose any more time putting tremendous efforts into reigniting the commitment of the world leaders. Indeed, it is not entirely true that the bottom-up approaches will ultimately bring the solution either. Change is not vertical or horizontal. Change is organic, and it does not occur in harmony with the human expectations. One would think that, some natural impulse for survival would  kick in by now, and people would realize they need to push to create a web, or a network if you will, rather than a streamline that operates bottom-up or top-down solely.

However,  the power of grassroot niches and international local governments, the field of my great interest, are going to become places of creating the web of change in this century. Local communities must raise their self-awareness and keep cultivating its role in the web-creating transition to change until it reaches the top. In that regard, the side event of Just and Sustainable Cities brought to the table different growing initiatives between local communities and businesses that happen in local urban communities around the world. Surprisingly, at the negotiations on the Zero order text yesterday, the paragraph on cities received some quite interesting and innovative ambitions. Most of them were, quite successfully, smothered by [US, Canada, EU and New Zealand].  Japan brought up an important point of establishing a platform to promote sustainable cities for the future with active involvement of the relevant UN entities such as United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) and United Nations Centre for Regional Development (UNCRD). This is a proposal that recognizes the real benefit of initiatives that come from the local and international levels simultaneously. Cities and metropolitan regions are growing so big that they are gaining a real potential to become future autonomous enclaves. For that reason, the cities and growing towns are the prominent acupuncture points for the civil society to “press” on, where the relief  on our biosphere can be the greatest.

This is not an outcry to dismantle the UN system or other global governing powers. Even though it might be marvelously cathartic to do it, for that we’d have to compete with the United States and the other developed giants. Let’s not forget however, that in the contrast to the UN meetings, there are the G8 countries, WTO, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and such other meetings to which civil society is explicitly unwelcome. Those are the events that need proliferating passionate protests, too. With the Rio conference approaching, my hope is that the civil society  will recognize that it needs to distribute the energy among itself, not to end up pressing the UN’s belly to burp “the solution” while forgetting that the solution comes from the gut of civil society as well.

I say we need to realize that the effort put in the negotiations is mostly effort to decide how much green make up should be thrown at the Earth’s face. We must find ways to act against that plastic surgery of our planet. The events such as the Rio conference more than ever need a passionate crowd that believes that the sky will fall in order to remove the centuries of hubris that have been blocking politicians ears like wax plugs. However – finally, but vitally, this century movements will be closely shackled with advocacy of the rocketing power of local communities (Cairo, Madrid, NYC, Damascus, Athens…) that are more mobile to organize, but still great enough in number to influence national, federal  and sub-national legislations. From this point on,  the rational political acumen and the muscle of the local system will hopefully get this perpetuum mobile of the world to reach an unprecedented life of dignity and efficiency [we] here are dreaming about.