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.


Selling Indigenous at the People’s Summit

by Lara Shirley

I went to the People’s Summit yesterday. It was its first day, and was inaugurated by an impressively large gathering of indigenous people. It was very powerful: they were dressed in their traditional clothes and dancing. I stopped by a few hours later as well and noticed that, while there were still some events going on, many of the indigenous people had set up around the tents and started selling pieces of jewelry and trinkets. There were feathered headbands, peacock earrings, golden straw hats and wooden beaded bracelets.

This really disturbed me. My first thought was concerning how genuine the objects were: some of them looked like souvenirs that I’ve seen in places all over the world. If these products are indeed ‘genuine’ (a strange concept in itself), then how does their value – not economic, but social and cultural – change when they become souvenirs put out for sale instead of being made, earned or given?

This also occurred to me while they were dancing – there was a tremendous media flurry – but I would like to note that I don’t think that is my place to judge. I am not saying that it is bad, necessarily: I am saying that it is interesting, and merits further thought.

In all honesty, I found it fairly depressing that these people who passionately demand change and justice are still participating in the current economic system that is one of the main causes of the injustices and pain they are suffering from. Capitalism and consumerism are wreaking havoc on all parts of the world, and especially on the areas and people that are most vulnerable. But, again, I am not imposing my morals on their choices. I find it disheartening that current conditions are such that this is the choice they want to make, these people who are so strongly affected by this culture of excess and materialism.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not suggesting that everyone stop doing everything that has a bad effect because that would be incredibly naive, and also very hypocritical. At this point in time – and at almost any point in time, really – to live without negative impacts is impossible. But we should always be conscious of the implications of our actions, because they are always there. Every action has good effects and bad effects. Question everything. Just because it seems ‘good’ – because it’s sold by indigenous people, because a big NGO says so, because it has some certification sticker on it – doesn’t mean it is. The only opinion you can trust completely is your own.

Rio+20 anda en pantuflas

Rio+20 anda en pantuflas

por Anyuri Betegón

Amaneció el tercer día de las negociaciones y las promesas quedaron por cumplir. La ceremonia de inauguración del PrepCom III (Comité Preparatorio encargado de establecer el programa, concluir la redacción de la declaración de principios, plan de acción y decidir las modalidades de participación de otros interesados en la Cumbre), debía adoptar una agenda, la cual no fue aceptada. Ésta tenía como objetivo tres puntos: el logro de un acuerdo conjunto, la finalización del documento “The Future we Want” (El Futuro que queremos) y decidir el status de la participación de Palestina en esta conferencia.

Al no aceptar la agenda, se rechazó el inicio del PrepCom III, haciendo así de estas negociaciones un conjunto de conversaciones informales. Para sorpresa de todos el día de ayer durante la ceremonia de clausura se adopta la agenda (lo que significa que inician la reunión oficialmente), pero luego de una hora clausuraron con broche de oro estas negociaciones oficialmente informales, que dieron como resultado el consenso en 119 párrafos y más de 199 párrafos con corchetes. Estos párrafos que no han sido acordados serán pulidos por el gobierno de Brasil.

Ahora que el gobierno de Brasil ha tomado la responsabilidad de moderar las negociaciones y moldear el documento final, nos preguntamos si el resultado no acabará por desilusionar a las masas que no han sido escuchadas. La preocupación nace debido a que la conferencia en general ha dejado un sabor de caos, desorganización, y de poca ambición hasta el momento.

Las negociaciones siguen avanzando para atrás como los cangrejos. Y Rio+20 anda en pantuflas sin darse cuenta de que la posibilidad de un futuro sostenible un futuro en donde la vida de muchos está en juego y que no se puede seguir durmiendo.


Traducción al inglés:

Rio+20 walks in slippers

by Anyuri Betegón

The third day of negotiations landed on the Rio+20 Conference with promises still unmet. The opening ceremony of the PrepCom III (Preparatory Committee responsible to establish the program, complete the draft declaration of principles, action plan and decide the modalities of participation of other stakeholders of the Summit) should have adopted their agenda, but didn’t. This agenda consisted on three points: achieving a joint agreement, completing of the final document, and deciding Palestine level of participation in this conference.

By not accepting the agenda, the PrepCom III was rejected, thus making the negotiations a number of informal conversations. To everyone's surprise, yesterday during the closing ceremony the agenda was adopted (which means that the meeting officially started), but after a short time it was closed with a whim. These officially informal negotiations resulted in the agreement of 119 paragraphs but more than 199 paragraphs were left in brackets. These paragraphs that were not agreed upon have been edited by the Brazilian government.

Now that the Brazilian government has taken over the responsibility for moderating the negotiations and reshaping the final draft of the future we want document, one may ask whether or not the result will ultimately disappoint the masses who haven’t been heard. The conference in general has left a taste of disorganization and chaos, and no ambition so far

Negotiations are moving backwards like a crab. The Rio +20 conference walks in slippers without realizing that the possibility of a sustainable future is at stake and that we cannot stay asleep.

Achim Steiner, Youth Development and the Future of Exploitation for the Natural World


by Bogdan Zymka

Achim Steiner is the Executive Director of United Nations Environment Programme. His background includes international development and enviornmnetal policy. 

“The environment usually loses to talks of economics.”

Steiner was greeted with quiet applause when he arrived for his impromptu visit to the Youth Blast, (a space designated to voice the concerns of the Youth group that oddly welcomes UN bureaucrats and figures of power). His demeanor is calm and he carries himself as most UN representatives do when grabbing photo ops with youth, with an aura of “I’m here to listen, but I’m also here to push.”

His position, and the official position of the Major Group for Children and Youth, is to elevate the UN Environment Program to a specialized agency, putting it on the same level of influence as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), both cited as representing the economic and social pillars of Sustainable Development.  From the point of view of Steiner and MGCY, the elevation of UNEP to a specialized agency would give the environment its first high-level global platform of influence.

He’s right. Most conversations about development put environment on the back burner, claiming that economic development is the priority and that preserving the environment comes after nations and their people have the capacity to do so.

For a man who advocates for environment, he talks like an economist – but an out-of-touch one

“The global financial crisis is not affecting the whole world. Some countries are doing fine and are saying, ‘Please don’t disturb our economic prosperity.’”

But it is affecting us, the 52% of the world who are under 30.

Unemployment and class hierarchies have become one of the defining characteristics of our generation. In the U.S, youth unemployment is 19.1%, more than double the national average of 8.1%. In Spain, the national unemployment average is 22.9% while youth unemployment is 51.4%. In Greece, 21% is the national average while over 51% of the youth are unemployed. This is not only a problem of the developed world; in most developing countries that provide statistics, youth unemployment is double or more of the national unemployment average.

What have most of us done? In the U.S, we go to college to wait out bad job markets, resulting not in a bunch of bored youth with “fine arts” degrees living off of their parents’ money, but rather a mass of educated workers without jobs, who are pissed off. But not everyone has the opportunity to get an education while waiting out rough economic times.  In Egypt, the go-to example of youth inciting revolution, two thirds of the population is under 25, and while 80 percent of the youth population is unemployed they retain a 88% literacy rate.

“We’re not interested in the monetization of nature, we are interested in the valuation of it, which manifests itself through monetary means.”

UNEP’s solution to incorporating economics into the environment: Turn everything into markets, “natural capital.” The idea is that free-markets regulate themselves, you use a lot of water, and you pay a lot of money. But that doesn’t work for the human rights and needs. For example,  when communities that are already stripped of their rights to water and land have to then pay multi-national corporations for use of the commons, the focus shifts from providing basic needs and services to people who need it most to the further and more detrimental exploitation of the environment. Natural capital means foreign investment and foreign investment isn’t interested in the development of peasant communities, it is solely interested in profit.

“If bees could send us invoices for their services, they’d be for billions of dollars.”

The bees won’t ever send us an invoice because the bees don’t believe in markets, and that’s the point. Steiner’s position directly reflects what the ever-industrializing developed world wants to do with the environment. They pillage, exploit and rape the natural world until it degrades to dust and then we figure out how to turn the rest into “capital” so the rich keep getting richer and the ultra consumers continue on their tirade of pollution with a little less guilt on their shoulders because they’re “investing in the natural world.”

Put simply, it’s the commodification of nature. Putting monetary values to the natural world that can’t and shouldn’t be traded or capitalized. It’s not only a bad idea for communities but it’s a terrible idea for the natural world.

Quotations provided are directly from Archim Steiner at an informal meeting with Youth during the second day of Youth Blast.

The Future We Really Want: The Why, and What

By: The Informal-informals [Earth] Team

Earth in Brackets has critically examined the history of sustainable development negotiations, outcome documents, and implementation, and has found it to be, with the exception of small gains made in the implementation of Agenda 21, uninspiring. Current institutions under the UN lack the coherence, jurisdiction and consistency to fully address issues of sustainable development, and there has not been sufficient action addressing these issues. As time progresses, the interconnected crises the world is facing are accumulating and intensifying, making them ever more difficult to combat. The Millenium Development Goals, while ambitious, seem to have been forgotten about and are unlikely to be completed by 2015. Implementation of Agenda 21 has been highly unsatisfactory. Now, there is The Future We Want, a document we find to be lacking in ambition, and which is, despite some participants’ best efforts, being increasingly diluted in the negotiations precluding the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

Therefore, as international youth from [Earth] and the College of the Atlantic, and as voices of the future with a vested interest in the outcome of UNCSD, we have developed The Future We Really Want. We stress that The Future We Really Want is not an all-encompassing final document, but rather a reflection of the work of a focused group of individuals over the course of a concentrated study on the Rio process. It includes some, but not all, of the issues, goals, and actions that we are most passionate about, and that we believe are critical for consideration if there is to be true progress towards sustainable development. It is part of our platform for dialogue and change, both in our own communities, and the greater community of our allies and those with whom we must work harder to collaborate and whom we welcome into productive discussions.

Below, we present some of the key issues and statements outlined in the document:

Overarching Points

  • Negotiators must be truly conscious of their responsibility to future generations, to their constituents, and to one another. Increased political will and commitment to sustainable development and poverty eradication are needed to ensure accelerated fulfillment of sustainable development objectives, and re-commitment to inclusive, transparent and effective multilateralism is needed to better ensure the full and fair participation of all relevant stakeholders.
  • All States have Common But Differentiated Responsibilities – there are historical ecological, social, and economic obligations, therefore countries must take action proportional to their capacity to do so and proportional to the level of harm they have inflicted on society and the global environment.
  • There is inequitable distribution of wealth, resources, and opportunities, necessitating full cooperation among member states in supporting multilateral development strategies.
  • States should reiterate their commitment to the adoption of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with a renewed emphasis on the recognition of all human rights including, inter alia, the rights to clean water, food sovereignty, and development.
  • Neo-liberal economic policies are detrimental to sustainable development. Only a deep reform in the economic system will ensure the equitable fulfillment of sustainable development goals.
  • The economy should serve to fulfill basic human rights and need, and should be based on cooperation beyond consumption and growth while avoiding detrimental effects on the environment. To this effect, we encourage countries to work towards localization, internal development, and move away from growth.
  • The creation of a new Sustainable Development Council, with a progressive mandate that fully integrates all stakeholders in the decision-making process, would provide support for members to effectively communicate, negotiate, and implement their policies, and would provide a platform through which there could be an exchange of relevant information, including implementation assessment, creating a stronger and  more coherent process.

Thematic issues

  • Water is a necessity for human life and is needed for basic well-being and dignity: Countries must guarantee access to responsible quantities of clean and safe water, and should also cooperate more closely in order to prepare for, mitigate, and respond to water-related crises. The right to water should also be extended to Earth’s organisms and ecosystems; the protection and allocation of safe and clean water resources to natural processes and habitats is indispensable for avoiding the endangerment of essential hydrological cycles.
  • Cities have become our main habitat, and there can be no sustainable world without sustainable cities. Unsustainable urban expansion and the increase in mega-cities aggravate problems of poverty, waste, and pollution. For this reason, intermediate city development and a retrofit of existing cities should be encouraged. In order to address international issues arising from city-level problems, States’ policies should support and facilitate the evolution of sustainable cities from both a national and local level and allow the development of self-sufficiency in city management.
  • Earth has a carrying capacity: There are scientific indicators of optimum and maximum sustainable yields that define the limits on how much humans can produce and consume. In order to adequately discourage over-consumption, shift to cleaner production patterns and fulfill basic human needs–especially in the areas of food, water, and energy–sustainable patterns of production and consumption must be adopted in accordance with the principle of  Common But Differentiated Responsibilities.
  • Food is a fundamental human right that must be acknowledged by all states. Food security is a tool that is closely intertwined with sustainable development, and, with a shift towards localized production and consumption, can strengthen, revitalize, and empower local communities, and reduce international food dependency. Food sovereignty is also vital to sustainable development and is the fundamental right of communities to have control over and/or access to, inter alia, arable land, agricultural and marine resources, seeds, the methods of food production, and nutritional food.

Read the full text of The Future We Really Want