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.


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

What They Forgot to Mention

By Clara de Iturbe

The preceding day felt way too long and the tension in the air you felt when entering the ECOSOC room the morning after said a lot about what was coming next. Lengthy discussions of the Food Security thematic area—whose title has not yet been agreed upon—demonstrated that the North and the South have very specific agendas and that they are not ready to cooperate in certain areas yet. This was obviously predictable and it somehow kept the negotiations real. Israel and its last-minute additions remained obscure to the rest of the people present in the room, since they were yet to be analyzed by the other negotiating parties. These paragraphs will add to the many more that are to be considered, reconsidered and over considered in the next stages of the negotiation.

The rush I was feeling while being surrounded by so much reality, however, was clouded when I stepped back and realized that some vital aspects concerning food security were missing in the discussions. The amendments and new additions by the North and the G77 were many times not only repetitive and whimsical, but also lacking. Many issues were vaguely mentioned, and some major ones were not subject to discussion because they were simply not there at all—not mentioned even by the almighty G77. For instance, neither the text nor the amendments make reference to the food crisis. This is worrying as it should be the core of any proposed text or actions. By analyzing the implications and causes of the food crisis it is possible to figure out where the flaws of the current food system are and open in-depth discussions over what has to be done to overcome it. By forgetting to mention it, they are also forgetting the existing contradiction in  the fact that almost one billion people are currently food insecure while the world cereal production showed a historical peak in 2008. Moreover, this obscures the threat of clean biofuels to food prices and the huge political influence that the private sector has in this matter. The lack of reference to the food crisis undermines the importance of price stability and obscures the issue of speculation of food prices raised by the G77—which was rapidly bracketed by Australia.

On a not-so-different note, it seems like they also forgot that not everything concerning food security is about food production. Again, the overemphasis on production, or rather the extreme minimizing of food distribution and consumption patterns makes me wonder what their concept of achieving food security is, especially being clear that malnutrition is a challenge for both North and South. The only vague mention to distribution was proposed by the US yet in a context of sustainability—which is indeed important—but certainly does not address equity.

But let’s suppose for a moment that the negotiators actually cared about the sustainable production and distribution of food. If so, how can we explain that they also forgot to mention meat production—excluding fish? With the North and emerging economies increasing their meat consumption this should be a major area of debate, since this, besides being a great cause of land degradation and GHG emissions, is incredibly energy and water inefficient. Furthermore, the oxymoronic proposal of the US, EU, Norway, NZ and amongst other MDCs of encouraging a sustainable intensification of agriculture that makes charming promises of efficiency and increased yields, makes me worry that it might someday replace sustainable production. Also, only the G77 seemed to remember that this can in no ways be achieved without technology and information transfers and that, in fact, small scale farmers still supply around 70% of the world food while the oligopoly of agricultural technologies and GM seeds is held by only a handful of multinational corporations.

In the document, the US eagerly highlights the importance of agriculture for the Green Economy, but they prefer to forget the G77 appeals to actions at local and national levels. This will continue to create tensions between the countries with acute free-market approaches like the US, New Zealand, Canada, or Australia.

As these issues were being forgotten, many things were going on in the room. Delegations were very vocal: The right to food to which the US, the EU and other MDCs politely opposed; Mexico’s push for protecting traditional farming methods made the EU very uncomfortable; and Japan, surprisingly advocated for a more inclusive and localized food production. So, not all is looking so bad. Regardless of the EU effort to bracket any mention of indigenous farmers–as they consider it an ‘unclear concept’–one vastly addressed point of agreement was gender equality and the integration of other stakeholders in the process. The importance of land tenure was surprisingly mentioned too by an MDC.

I was not expecting that more comprehensive and ‘radical’ concepts like Food Sovereignty be mentioned, but it was very disappointing to find that the core aspects of the food crisis and the underlying inequity in the systems of production, distribution and consumption were not considered. So, I guess this blog entry was about what they forgot to mention, but not only that. It was about the good, bad and the ugly; about what is attainable, and politically unlikely; and about the issues that are so important that they simply prefer to ignore.

Education for Sustainable Development and Shifting the Paradigms

by Anna Odell

One of the issues when dealing with “sustainable development” is the lack of clarity around the term itself. We have spent an entire term working, studying, and understanding text such as the “The Future We Really Want” in depth and grasping the general issues that are relevant for Rio+20. But at times, I feel as though we need to take a step back and look at what we expect developing nations to become and what developed nations need transition to. What are they developing towards? To paraphrase Mr. Kartikeya Sarabhai, from the Center for Environmental Education in India, when examining development, we have to define what sort of development we are looking at. What do we actually want our future “green societies” to look like, and how will we get there?

The current model of development is illogical; developing nations are attempting to develop into the model that the developed nations have created, while at the same time the developed nations are attempting to transition to sustainability. However, the planet does not have the capacity for the world’s population to develop into over-consuming nations, such as the United States. As we use the current “developed” world as a model, we are running into some serious issues. While listening to the negotiations, sometimes I feel that states need a gentle reminder that sustainable development is not simply “development.” Instead of moving into the model already set by the developed world, developing nations have the unique opportunity to skip the wasteful carbon intensive development process which is socially, environmentally, and economically inequitable and inefficient, and shift to being sustainably developed. It is necessary for us to re-envision how we want our world to look, and how we are going to get there.

That’s where Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) comes into the picture. Mr. Sarabhai stated, “The real change is when people change,” and education is one of the most effective ways of implementing that crucial and necessary change. For generations we have had an education system that has attempted to teach us to obey societal norms and categorize, and now we need an education system that teaches us to think critically (and in fact, human ecologically) in order to solve the most serious problems ever facing the human species. According to Mr. Sarabhai, “not only do you need a different paradigm of development, you need a different paradigm of education.”

Another common issue with the current education and development paradigm is the assumption that the rich, developed world has it all figured out. It is also important to note that clearly the presence of an advanced education system itself does not imply “sustainable development.” Despite 80% of United States citizens having a post-secondary degree, the comparatively small population of the United States consumes about 30% of the world’s resources. ESD must include policy makers, youth, disadvantaged communities, and developing and developed nations. Ms. Laila Iskander, of the Community and Institutional Development Consulting in Egypt, shared a powerful example of the system of trash and recycling collection system that was organized by the poorest people in Cairo’s slums. People would go door to door collecting trash, then sorting it and recycling and reusing it into products to be sold for profit. This system grew to employ over 120,000 workers, and with the help from an NGO, education programs were started and those who never received a formal education were able to start their own businesses and flourish. Then, the North discovered something magical: Landfills. Landfills were then imposed on Egypt, creating a system in which trash was taken far away from the city (and the workers who were actively collecting and supporting themselves) and multinational corporations took control over what previously was an entirely local, economic system. The transportation of the trash is actually much more carbon intensive and inefficient. Ms. Iskander stated, “we need to stop talking about how we must education the poor people in the South; It is the people in the North who need to learn first.”