Monday, June 11, 2012

Rio + 20 part 5: The future we want, but no clue and no will needed to get there.

What is this summit about?

            As it was twenty years ago at the original Rio summit, it is also the case now that the world is trying to pull together in Rio this month, in order to solve some of the issues that affect all of humanity.  It is often hard to remind ourselves of this fact, especially since local or regional politics try to downplay it, but it is nevertheless true that we do live in a “global village”, and thus many problems involve all the huts from the village, not just one single one, or a group within.  When it comes to a sustainable future, there is no controversy about the fact we are all in it together, through good or bad.

What is on the table?

            There is currently no major point on which we can reach global consensus.  Poor countries oppose any moves to attempt to push for a binding commitment to deal with environmental and sustainability issues.  They are going to the summit, believing that this is 1992 (year of original Rio summit), all over again and developed nations will still sing “mea culpa” for the entire world’s problems.  This however is the post-Kyoto world.  It is a world that saw emissions rise by over 40% since then, despite Europe managing to keep its emissions levels flat since 1990.  In 1990 however the EU was producing two times more greenhouse gases than China.  Now, two decades later, China produces almost twice as much greenhouse gasses as the entire EU[i].  We should remember also that there are also many other countries headed in the same trajectory as China’s.  At this point, anything EU might choose to do on climate change is largely irrelevant as long as the rest of the world continues as we do.

            The original Rio summit was also a time when developed nations such as the ones from Europe, North America, and a few from Asia were economically solid.  After two decades of heavy transfers of jobs and wealth to the developing world, the developed world is no longer able to provide its citizens what it used to.  It is true that on the surface, and on paper, people in places like the US, UK, Canada, or Germany still live well.  When one scratches the surface however to see what is beyond the statistical data, we get a different picture.  Young people all over the western world are unable to start their own families, because there just are not enough opportunities to earn a decent living.  Youth unemployment in Spain for instance is now over 50%.  In the US, half of recent college graduates are either unemployed, or underemployed, and an increasing number of them are moving back with their parents, because they cannot afford to be out there on their own[ii].  Everywhere, there is talk of cutting jobs, pensions, services, and in some cases, there is even the very real danger of government default, as is the case with Greece.  Countries like Greece still figure as rich countries on paper, if we are to look at GDP per capita, or wages, since they are still in the top 20% globally.  Can we really expect Greece to pony up billions of dollars in order to help the poor of Africa, or to invest in trying to curb climate change?  Most western countries are facing serious budgetary challenges for as far as the eye can see.  Poor countries, as well as left leaning individuals from our own society may choose to ignore this fact, but ignoring it does not make it go away.

What is the point of having this meeting?

            The UN, the world body responsible for organizing this meeting stated that the summit is not about binding pursuing binding agreements, but about energizing voluntary action instead, in order to achieve sustainability, or “the future we want” as they put it[iii].  In other words, nothing will happen at this summit.  In fact, it may be an occasion for many to backtrack on previous commitments made twenty years ago.  There is therefore absolutely no point to having this summit, even though we need global action on sustainability more than anything else at this point.

How did we get here?

            As I stated in my first article on this theme in February, there is a lot at stake at this summit.  I believe this is the moment that we will be able to point to in the future as the moment of our collective human failure.  It is a momentous occasion, because at no previous point in time was there an opportunity such as this to make history.  Societies ranging from Easter Island, to the Maya have failed before, but those were all local disasters.  Now, since we live in a “global village”, we can go for the record, when it comes to self inflicted catastrophes.

            Is this impending disaster preventable?  Technically speaking, the answer is yes, but realistically speaking, we should not expect it, because we seem determined to get into the way of our own salvation. 

On the right of the political spectrum, we have those who believe that anything we do in terms of our economic activities is sustainable from an environmental and resource availability perspective as long as capitalism leads the way.

I will not get into the more complex environmental issue on this one.  A quick glimpse at one of the most politicized commodities we consume can tell us all we need to know about whether the trajectory we are headed on is sustainable or not.  There is no arguing against the fact that the world is in economic convergence mode.  This means that at some point there will be far less disparity among countries and regions in terms of their living standards.  Now the question arises, whether we can achieve this convergence at a level that is at least familiar to us westerners in terms of living conditions, without hitting barriers to achieving this in terms of resource availability constraints.

If the current world population were to converge in petroleum use to a level, where the average citizen of the “global village” will consume ¼ of current per capita US consumption, we would need to produce 110 mb/d of liquid fuels.  We currently struggle to provide 88 mb/d[iv].  Remember that I assume no additional population growth will occur, by the time of this partial convergence will happen, if it was to ever happen.  Report after report on many crucial resources, such as clean, fresh water, soil, oil, ocean fish, and many other important commodities tell us that we are faced with increasing constraints on our economic activities and continued consumption & population expansion.  Yet the right leaning worshipers of the invisible hand, believe that there is no need to pay attention to sustainability, despite evidence of global prices of crucial commodities such as food and oil getting out of control (food prices rose by 150%, and oil prices rose by about %500 in the last decade)

The ones on the left, believe that they are in tune with these issues, and as such they believe they are part of the solution, since they advocate for sustainability all the time, and most of them consciously behave in a more environmentally friendly manner in their every day activities.  But are they really part of a solution? Or are they making matters worse by proposing solutions that do not work?  Everything, without exception that makes it on the discussion table currently involves searching for the grand unanimous bargain that every state on this planet signs on to and adheres to.  In the absence of such an unlikely agreement, they believe that the way to go is to encourage local voluntary action and self-sacrifice on things like climate change, which is what gives the environmental movement a bad name. 

The Europeans managed to dupe themselves into signing on unilaterally to save the world from the impending climate catastrophe, and the end result we can see currently, both in terms of the lack of meaningful benefits to their actions, and in terms of the damage they managed to inflict on their economy, as I already mentioned.  At the upcoming Rio summit, the environmentalist movement will ask Europeans as well as others to engage in even more meaningless self-sacrifice in order to make this world a better place.  As a result, they will be left extremely disappointed when they will receive a cold shoulder from most who will attend.  So in a way, the current environmentalist movement is an impediment to moving forward, because their idealism gets in the way of proposing realistic solutions.  Their proposals also make good ammunition against environmentalism, because the proposals they support are so obviously flawed that it does not take a highly intelligent or educated mind to understand that these do not work, and furthermore it can be damaging to any local or regional society that might get duped into signing on to their agenda.

Just as with everything else, once we take the ideals and ideas of the right and the left off the table, there is nothing left.  That empty table is a monument to humanity’s lack of ability to go beyond adopting ideas bundled together into an ideological belief system.  Now more than any other period in humanity’s history, we need to become very selective in choosing ideas.  We cannot afford to embrace or discard ideas based on the ideological direction it may come from.  That is however exactly what we will continue to do, so this is how it is that at the Rio + 20 summit, we will fail to save ourselves from impending disaster.

For most citizens of the “global village”, the date of June 22, when the summit will be wrapped up, it will be a date that will go by, unnoticed.  For many delusional people, it will be a moment of celebration of some fake success, which will prove to be highly irrelevant.  There will be some who really will believe that after the summit, individuals, companies, towns, states, and regions will become energized into voluntary action and self-sacrifice for the greater good, so “people power” will overcome the absence of an agreement on a mechanism meant to achieve global sustainability.  The right will celebrate its failure, because as I said, they believe that the “invisible hand” of the markets is all we need to make everything alright.  For me, the date of June 22, 2012, will remain one where we should acknowledge humanity’s failure.  Perhaps, if we could at least do this much, we might be able to start looking outside the box, and start contemplating the need for a new direction. 



  1. This situation is no longer deniable. Opportunities like the one offered at RIO+20 cannot be missed. During my lifetime, many have understood the Global Predicament we are facing now, but only a few ‘voices in the wilderness’ were willing to speak out loudly and clearly about what everyone can see. It is not a pretty sight. The human community has precipitated a planetary emergency that only humankind is capable of undoing. The present ‘Unsustainable Path’ has to be abandoned in favor of a “road less travelled by”. It is late; there is no time left to waste. Perhaps now we will gather our remarkably abundant, distinctly human resources and respond ably to the daunting, human-induced, global challenges before us, the ones that threaten life as we know it and the integrity of Earth as a fit place for human habitation. Many voices, many more voices are needed for making necessary changes.

    1. This is exactly the problem, we don't actually seem to be presented with a viable opportunity for action at Rio. We are too over-dependent on goodwill with every proposal. Unanimous agreements are not posible, because in the absence of penalties for those who do not sign on, the temptation to gain a competitive advantage through exploiting the environmnet more intensively than others is too great. What is left on the table then is voluntary action on the part of individuals, companies, and governments, which we already saw how inadequate it can be to rely on this.
      The best thing that can happen in the aftermath of this failure is a re-emergence of a more pragmatic and less idealistic environmental movement. I fear however that even the chances of that happening are slim. Environmentalists and the political left will blame the political right, and big business for the failure, without bothering to look inward.
      It is a shame.