Civil society occupies the Rio+20 Earth Summit

Photo by Ben Powless. Used with permission.

Last week, Brazil hosted over 190 heads of state and high-level ministers — including Hillary Clinton, Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao — for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, popularly referred to as Rio+20. In addition to the governmental representatives, the conference also included over 40,000 participants from civil society — which, by the U.N.’s classification, encompasses indigenous leaders, students, climate scientists and the CEOs of multinational corporations.

The formal inclusion of large numbers of civil society groups at the original 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, after all, was unprecedented and part of what made it such an historically significant event. This year, though, these same groups wound up publicly denouncing Rio+20’s failure to deliver meaningful results.

In 1992, the Cold War had just ended and democratic-capitalist “one-worldism” was being proclaimed as the “end of history.” Yet there were serious reasons for pause. We’d recently just barely closed a deal to stop using chemicals that were putting and enormous hole in the ozone (that hole is still there but at least it isn’t getting any bigger), and we’d come to realize that greenhouse gases were beginning to blanket the planet with heat and could make large segments of the earth uninhabitable if we didn’t do anything to reduce emissions. How could a global growth-oriented capitalist system and a global environmental crisis be reconciled?

The inclusion of civil society — an appeal to conceptions of global citizenship and democratic deliberation — was one part of an incomplete answer. The adoption of a set of Rio Principles for sustainable development framed in terms of human rights was another.

The creation of processes for the negotiation of climate change and biodiversity loss were a way that member states could look like they were really accomplishing something while simultaneously passing the buck on the most politically tricky issues. We’ve since seen the failure of these processes, whether in Kyoto, Copenhagen or Durban, to generate meaningful outcomes. Meanwhile, the interrelated crises of economy, environment and politics have all become more severe.

Many had high hopes that a 20-year follow-up to the Earth Summit might be an opportunity to redesign the architecture of multilateral talks, a chance for world leaders to take a step back to address basic systemic problems in a holistic manner. Radical transformation was unlikely, but perhaps some important reforms could be made to hold off irreversible damage to people and planet while at the same time focusing media attention on the big picture problems of our time. This was certainly the viewpoint of many civil society groups when the lead-up to Rio began over a year ago, and they made a point of coming to the table with a lot of good ideas in hand.

However, of the more than 40,000 civil society representatives in Brazil last week, most had been following the preparatory talks for months with increasing frustration. They’d watched as negotiators bracketed and deleted any and all proposals that might have challenged the global status quo. They’d fought, sometimes successfully, to retain human rights language, but knew that ambitious proposals for things like the establishment of an international financial transaction tax or a world environmental court were not going to be politically feasible.

Some groups had set their sights on smaller but still significant victories like the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies or the creation of a World Environment Organization on equal footing with bodies like the WHO. Others just prepared to take a defensive stance. Most groups arrived alongside mid-level government negotiators, a full week before the heads of state. Days were spent frantically trying to track developments, lobby delegations, and report back to constituencies at home.

Then, all of a sudden, two days before the conference was scheduled to begin, everything went behind closed doors. No media. No civil society. A negotiated text was released the next morning, and it was far worse than anyone could have imagined.

The document, entitled “The Future We Want,” suggests that an international race to the bottom had taken place. It was clear that unless high-level officials reopened the negotiations, Rio would be a tremendous waste of what U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon had called a “once in a generation opportunity.”

The 50-page document contains almost no actual commitments. It gives lip service to the idea of building a “green economy” but fails to commit countries to cease giving massive handouts to polluters. It acknowledges the need for stronger environmental governance and increased foreign aid, but commits funding for neither. It even fails to openly acknowledge our dangerous encroachment on planetary boundaries, the critical tipping points beyond which science warns that our most basic ecological life support systems may, in fact, just fail us completely.

In response to the text, civil society groups did what they do best. They issued press releases and made speeches condemning the document for its lack of ambition in the face of clear and present dangers. They tried to use the media to put pressure on heads of state to reopen negotiations and add some substance to an otherwise empty document.

In the opening plenary of the conference, representatives of youth organizations condemned the document as unacceptable and asked world leaders point blank, “are you here to save face or to save us?” The enormous caucus of NGOs took an even more aggressive stand, publicly requesting that the phrase “in full participation with civil society” be removed from the document’s preamble. Heads of state clapped politely at the end of each statement and then, as if these interventions had never happened, took turns congratulating themselves on what they had supposedly achieved.

By the second day of the three-day conference, it had become clear that none of the leaders present were willing to reopen the negotiations. The remainder of Rio+20 would just be more photo opportunities and hollow speeches, and those of us from civil society groups would be reduced to set dressing in a spectacle designed to portray the likeness of meaningful action where none had occurred.

At around 1 p.m. on that second day, activists from the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition held a satirical press conference in the walkway immediately outside the plenary hall. Posing as corporate executives, they distributed copies of a document entitled “The Future We Bought” to the crowd that formed around them and celebrated how Rio+20 had gone forward without actually doing anything to regulate corporate behavior. It was pretty good political theater, but what came next was even more interesting.

Copies of the mock-document were ceremonially ripped up and onlookers were asked to sit down on the floor and to join in a “People’s Plenary.” A young woman began facilitating and explaining consensus decision-making. Various participants took turns voicing their frustrations with the U.N. process and its outcome, their words echoed by the human microphone. Were it not for the business casual attire and the U.N. ID badges, it could have been a scene straight out of last fall in Zuccotti Park.

The plenary grew as journalists, civil society representatives and members of government delegations from around the world stopped to see what all the commotion was about. Some stood around the edges while others committed to sit down and stay a while. Security was powerless to remove such a large group of people. Eventually, the conversation shifted from an airing of frustration with the document to a plan for collective action. There was a great deal of discussion about how the group could be most accountable to those who could not be present inside the walls of the fortified conference center. Was there anything left to do in terms of playing the inside game?

The consensus process seemed to be moving painfully slowly, but about two hours into the plenary, a decision was reached. Those present felt they had done all they could inside the conference center. Rather than continue to legitimize a failed summit, they would walk out, leave their badges and join the people’s summit on the other side of town.

The walkout, like so many of the recent protests around the world, was largely, although certainly not entirely, made up of young people. The group was several hundred in number and included representatives from women’s organizations and indigenous communities, as well as the staff from major international NGOs including Friends of the Earth, Ibon International and 350.org.

As the policy wonks, students and veteran negotiation-trackers marched out of the complex, they were inundated with cameras. U.N. staff and government officials looked on in awe and embarrassed smiles as the group chanted for “rights, justice, equity, the Earth’s integrity” before switching to the more straightforward “Walk out — don’t sell out.”

The protests got the attention of the international press, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no reopening of negotiations. Discontent with the political process at Rio was largely reported alongside praise for the individual commitments made by some states and corporations which do next to nothing in terms of challenging the political status quo or reconciling the fundamental structural tensions between economy and ecology that necessitated the first earth summit 20 years ago.

In the wake of all of this there are a great many questions that need to be asked. Have the nations of the world really become so beholden to the short-term interests of financial markets and campaign donors that they are willing to waste an historic opportunity to literally save the world? If so, are we simply doomed to live on a dying planet? Can states be forced to become responsive to a broader base of interests and protect the global commons?

Further, one might also ask: What does it mean when those groups which are supposed to be working inside the political system on behalf of broad constituencies feel that they have no other option but to turn to the tactics of an Occupy protest?

For those who had devoted months, if not years, to trying to move the U.N. process from the inside, the decision to occupy and to walk out was as desperate as it was romantic. It was also effective so far as it represented a clear and coherent rejection of governmental self-congratulation.

Yet, the question remains of where to go next. Social movements and civil society organizations are not likely to get very far by only committing romantic acts of desperation over and over again. Moving from passion to real commitment and impact means doing the hard work of building and growing the kinds of independent and resilient institutions and networks that can offer new ways of doing things while also leveraging power against the forces that actively uphold a status quo with bleak implications for the future. This may be alien territory for civil society groups that have traditionally operated with narrow reformist missions and stable funding. However, after Rio they may have no choice but to reflect deeply on their own methods and take a step into the unknown.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.