I intended to blog about Rio+20 daily during June 20-22, the “official” days for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the UN. Instead, I was swept up in the emotional roller coaster of the final days, joining in Civil Society actions protesting the weak outcome document claiming to represent the “Future We Want.” I needed a week for the overwhelming feelings of excitement, heartbreak, hope, and disgust to settle before coming back to reflect on what actually happened at the conference. This post is the first of a series evaluating Rio+20, both in terms of the policy it produced and the transformative experience it was for me.
There is no consensus on the outcome of Rio+20. Some (mostly governments) say it was a resounding success in multilateral diplomacy, proof that UN negotiations need not engage in brinkmanship in the very last hours of a conference. Speaking on behalf of the entire UN system, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared that "Rio+20 has affirmed fundamental principles – renewed essential commitments – and given us new direction." Others observers (mostly NGOs) claim that Rio+20 was an incredible failure, a wasted opportunity where millions of dollars led to a greenwashed, corporate approved, business-as-usual document that takes us closer to environmental and social ruin. Among the critics, Vandana Shiva described Rio+20 as “the death of democracy” and Bill McKibben joined in the twitter trend of #Riofail.
For the most part, I share McKibben’s perspective that Rio+20 was a huge disappointment. I was expecting a very weak policy outcome document to emerge from the conference, but I did not expect to also be so disappointed in the policy process. The UN prides itself on being inclusive and transparent in all of its proceedings and supposedly designated special pathways for civil society participation in Rio+20. Brazilian President and conference host Dilma Rousseff was particularly emphatic about this point, declaring that Rio+20 was the most inclusive and participatory conference in history and a "global expression of democracy." Yet on the final days of the negotiations, civil society groups were shut out of the official conversations. Policy points my friends had spent years lobbying for were curtly removed, calls for greater participation were ignored, and after some secret closed-door meetings, Brazilian facilitators produced the “final text” with no possibility for alteration.
The outcome document satisfied the minimum requirements for all of the national governments in attendance, but it was a far cry from the ambitious response we need to deal with the world’s mounting social, economic, and environmental crises. And with the outcome document completed a day before the arrival of heads of state, the official three days of Rio+20 turned to be little more than leaders posturing in an endless stream of speeches. To add even further insult to injury, on the last day of the conference civil society groups were barred from making any final statements. Originally, the UN had promised each of the civil society participatory groups the chance to give a 2-minute final symbolic statement. But even this symbolic participatory measure was taken away.
With nothing productive left to do in the conference and every avenue for participation blocked, I decided to join a youth-led protest of the entire negotiation process. We highlighted the corporate influence on the Rio+20 process, held a “people’s plenary” to decide what next steps to take, and ultimately decided the strongest action would be to simply walk out of the conference venue. To see the full story, check out the video below:
While walking out of RioCentro, I experienced powerful feelings of solidarity and moral resistance. It was in many ways a culminating protest for my past four years of climate activism, a declaration that current global policy is leading us towards catastrophic tipping points. I believe that real sustainability requires nothing less than a complete transformation of society. We need new economic models that provide for everyone’s basic needs while respecting planetary boundaries. We need to change our underlying societal motivation from greed to empathy. We need to realize that cooperation is often more efficient than competition. And we need to do this on a very short timescale, because climate change and widespread environmental degradation suggests we are rapidly approaching the limits of what the planet can sustainably bare.
There are limitations to protest though, limitations that deeply troubled me after walking out of RioCentro. While protests can help spur policy change, they are much more effective at blocking destructive proposals than creating alternatives. And even policy has its limitations. Full sustainability cannot be mandated through legislation, nor can complete social and cultural change be imposed through a UN declaration or national law. Policy and protest are incredibly powerful tools, and they can move society forward in large bounds when used effectively. But to make something new, to create a better world rather than just preventing a worse one, requires something more.