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.

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