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.


Rio+20: ¿El Futuro Que Realmente Queremos?

by Julian Velez

Frente a la profunda crisis económica, social y ambiental de nuestro planeta nuestros gobiernos están fracasando en proponer soluciones reales y en priorizar el bienestar social y ambiental en sus agendas políticas. Esto se vive en las negociaciones del texto “The Future We Want” (El Futuro Que Queremos), plataforma de discusión de la Conferencia de Desarrollo Sostenible de las Naciones Unidas (ONU), Rio+20.

Los gobiernos del mundo están negociando soluciones a la crisis multifacética de hoy en día con el marco del desarrollo sostenible como la ruta a seguir; sin embargo, las negociaciones no están brindando respuestas reales a los problemas estructurales políticos, económicos y sociales de nuestro sistema neoliberal. Ya que este mantiene el poder corporativo, que es en gran parte responsable por la disparidad de la riqueza, la explotación del medio ambiente y múltiples injusticias laborales. Los gobiernos no escuchan las necesidades de la sociedad civil, y por eso la gente en Tahrir, Montreal, Chile, México y el movimiento global de “Occupy” está alzando su voz para exigir los cambios  que la sociedad quiere ver.

Por las mismas razones, nosotros aquí en Rio+20 estamos alzando nuestra voz para cuestionar y retar las discusiones en torno a los temas incluidos en el  texto de negociación que pretende articular soluciones a nuestro futuro. Pero éste falla en el intento. No describe el futuro que queremos y necesitamos. Por esto, nosotros, Earth in Brackets, proponemos “The Future We Really Want" (El Futuro Que Realmente Queremos), un documento que explora los problemas de raíz y genera propuestas a la esencia de los mismos.

Hasta el momento el desarrollo sostenible, tema principal de esta junta, no parece una prioridad para los gobiernos en Rio+20. El tema que esta generando mayor discusión es la iniciativa de la Economía Verde, propuesta que pretende impulsar el desarrollo sostenible y la erradicación de la pobreza, alejando la economía del dominio de los derivados del petróleo. Parte del problema es que no hay acuerdo respecto a la definición de la Economía Verde, pero hay muchas interpretaciones. El PNUMA (Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente), formuló dicha propuesta que en resumen dice que la Economía Verde está elaborada como una propuesta que mejora el bienestar humano por medio del crecimiento económico, mientras que asegura la protección de la naturaleza. Pero nosotros y otros grupos de la sociedad civil y las ONGs no piensan lo mismo.

La Economía Verde es un iniciativa enmascarada, no es una vía real para alcanzar un desarrollo sostenible. En realidad es una respuesta a la crisis financiera que pretende crear un nuevo método para salvar el sistema neoliberal que dominan los países desarrollados. Es un intento por rescatar a los mercados a toda costa, propone la mercantilización de la naturaleza incluyendo los servicios que brindan los ecosistemas. Es un camino que apunta hacia la legitimación y la mercantilización de la destrucción de la naturaleza. Se está proponiendo un nuevo patio de recreo para el poder privado, en donde la existencia de los recursos comunes queda en juego, ya que propone una economía basada en el crecimiento sostenido y en los mismos patrones de producción y consumo excesivos de nuestro sistema. La estrategia consiste en una perspectiva de “lavado verde” (presentar a la economía y sus productos como ecológicamente amigables), para que sea aceptado continuar creciendo a costa de la dependencia de los países subdesarrollados, de las injusticias laborales y la explotación de la naturaleza.

La sociedad civil y la juventud en Rio+20 está consciente que el proceso excluye su voz y los gobiernos no hablan por sus pueblos. Los intereses de la sociedad civil no están en la mesa, la Economía Verde no refleja los intereses ni las necesidades de la gente. Nosotros, la juventud, estamos conscientes que existen otras maneras para salvaguardar la naturaleza, no se necesitan valorizaciones monetarias, pues la naturaleza tiene derechos inherentes. Queremos ir mas allá del PIB con indicadores que reflejen el bienestar social, ambiental y económico. Necesitamos una nueva visión de lo que es desarrollo que esté basada en justicia y los derechos, no en el consumo y la producción. Bajo el principio de equidad, la economía debe conducir a una redistribución del poder y la riqueza entre los países. La transición debe estar basada en que los países tienen responsabilidades comunes pero diferenciadas con respecto a su realidad socio-económica y a su responsabilidad histórica de explotación de los recursos naturales.

En el futuro que realmente queremos, necesitamos un verdadero cambio, no queremos continuar por la misma vieja vereda con adornos nuevos. Se necesita un cambio de estructuras y de mentalidad que esté basado en la armonía con la naturaleza, la equidad entre las naciones, la igualdad en las sociedades, la salud social y ambiental. Los derechos humanos y del medio ambiente deben anular  la mentalidad lucrativa.

Welcome (or not) to Rio Centro

by nathan thanki

Today marked the first day of the "Third Preparatory Committee meeting to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development." That basically just means that negotiators have a few days to finalise all the details of the outcome document (the offensively titled "Future We Want").

Things just got kicked up a gear.

These past few days had been spent getting our bearings in Rio, and meeting other youth from around the world (and many from our host country of Brazil) at the Youth Blast. The contrast between those days and today is hard to overemphasize.

Whereas the Youth Blast was loose, informal, fun, and generally relaxed (even though it had been very well organised – kudos to those who made that happen), the atmosphere at Rio Centro could not be more different.

Whereas the Youth Blast had been planned to be as participatory and accessible as possible, Rio+20 seems to have been planned by the Brazilian government to be the exact opposite. Now, I do not underestimate the logistical challenges involved in organising such an event, nor am I a conspiracy crackpot: I have reasons for saying that. Rio Centro is literally as far away from the People's Space as possible without being in another city. Two hours on a bus that is not signposted, nor frequent enough or big enough to carry the some 50,000 participants to the centre. It's almost as if the voice of the people is not welcomed. Further reminders of this appear when you arrive. In the chemical smelling halls of Rio Centro, military and security personnel outnumber Youth. The security is tighter than an airport. You are constantly asked to show your badge. You are treated like a criminal by your caring global UN 'family'


But you've arrived, so you let those things slide.

However, the creeping sense of being unwelcome returns soon after. It's the usual closed-door meetings. It's the usual changing of plans and schedules last minute, the usual lack of a shit given to civil society. And it's the usual [green] façade that shines on. It's a paperless conference (bravo), but there are people going to the medical tent with problems breathing in the chemicals in the air of the pavilions. There are solar panels inside, not hooked up to anything. Not since St. Patrick's Day was anything so artificially green. We're told that the UN is based on respect. But that means respecting their rules, that means respecting their right to speak, as governments and bureaucrats rather than respecting all of our rights to speak as human beings. 

We don't like it, but we'll be back there tomorrow. Because as we keep saying, you can't have a tug of war without a rope. It's just the rope-burn that hurts…

Tweeting, Blogging, Shouting, Learning

By Mariana Calderon

Recently, in an online conversation about expectations for Rio+20, and the point of it all, Nathan Thanki was informed that “nothing of any worth” would happen at the conference in June. Entirety of the conversation, arguments and responses aside, I was struck by a simple truth in Nathan’s reply: “We’re students, and so place value in learning.” We are students. Students, sometimes “youth,” in halls dominated by those who are older, sometimes wiser, and certainly more experienced. So what does it mean, to be a student at a UN conference?

Being a student means that these days, I am often putting aside my visions of historical change and progress, or catastrophic failure and apocalypse, for a simpler, more selfish, and more immediate turning point in my life: My impending degree in Human Ecology. One year remains to me – a year in which I must simultaneously complete my courses and requirements (would anyone like to offer me an internship?), craft and produce a final, culminating project, and decide what Human Ecology means (and then write about it). I might even squeeze in time to sample student-budget-friendly wines, read Game of Thrones, Issac Asimov, and Sherlock Holmes, and cultivate my Tumblr account.

So why do I, in addition to these simple aspirations, also aspire to spend time at as many international environmental meetings in the next year as possible? I’m not crazy. I don’t even own a time-turner. It’s simple: The time spent at these meetings is invaluable to me and my studies. I am cultivating the collection of stamps in my passport, my collection of “that time in Rio when we took the wrong bus” stories, and my knowledge and experience in international environmental politics and the UN circus. For someone who currently is more comfortable navigating negotiating texts than filing a tax return (is anyone comfortable with filing tax returns?), the prospect of finally earning the degree is almost as unnerving as the price of food within the conferences. Therefore, I am packing a lunch, and aiming to make it the most nutritious, well thought out and organically produced lunch as possible, with a cordon bleu-worthy presentation, and some guilty pleasure, hardly-real-food type dessert (I’m thinking a Twinkie type of comatose post-conference time on the beach with 50 Shades of Grey). With all that preparation in the morning, I’ll have a meal that has everything I need to continue in the afternoon (no, don’t ask about graduate school). In short, if I’m going to earn that degree, I’m going to make it one that will serve me well, and do so outside of school. And I won’t do it by extending terrible metaphors.

It’s official. According to the UN, my age defines me: 15-24. I am a “youth.” This means a number of things. It means that some in the crowd around me take a look and confide that they see themselves in me, 20 years ago (with the current state of the international environmental governance, this is sometimes infinitely encouraging, sometimes cringe-worthy). It means that some of those I strive to work with and learn from can be unwittingly condescending. I get virtual pats on the head. It does mean that I am often surrounded by an enormous amount of positive energy and collaboration. It also means leading a very hectic life: Normal coursework is time consuming. Staying informed about the latest international policy is time consuming. Being actively involved in youth efforts to make a difference is time consuming and devours email inboxes. Those who roam the UN halls alongside me know this – more official participants could likely teach me a lesson or two about time-consuming work.

But as students go, the writers of Earth in Brackets are lucky. We are lucky enough to pursuing degrees that are flexible, with coursework that actively grooms us, arms us, and then sends us to international negotiations to make what we will of them. Our work in the UN world is part of our work fulfilling degree requirements. Add the fact that our degrees are individually crafted, and four years of undergraduate work can become a sort of international environmental policy degree, if we so desire, complete with courses in economics, statistics, ecology, cultural anthropology, domestic law, and photography thrown in for good measure. With that sort of background, or even just the beginnings of it, for a first-year, we can take the long days, dragging negotiating sessions and miniscule amounts of sleep, and glean an incredible amount of learning from it all. We might even enjoy it.

I am often asked what it is that Earth in Brackets does. What do we do that we enjoy so much, enough to travel to exotic locales and spend the majority of the time in over-air-conditioned buildings? “We tweet, we blog, we shout.” The catchphrase has a lot of truth to it: We do tweet. We do blog. Sometimes, we shout. We also meet with other youth, and with representatives from other Major Groups, NGOs, countries, and coalitions. We sit in on negotiations, and chuckle at the co-chair’s dry jokes while taking notes on attempts to water down the Right to Water. We discuss the poorly-defined Green Economy, and the idea of a Sustainable Development Council. We plan actions (where we shout), and analyze newly-released text at 2 in the morning. At 5am, we tell the world on twitter and facebook that, once again, things didn’t go the way we so desperately hoped. And then we write here about why, and how, and how to turn what happened into something useful.

In between all of that, we learn. We can be optimistic, but we are not naive. We know that the chance of our work creating a perceptible difference is slim. But we try, and we learn, and we try again. We get pushy. Some of us may continue the work, and the years of experience between will pay off. Yes, we’re writing, analyzing, and networking, but most of all, we are learning, about the policy, the atmosphere, and the relationships. We learn when to be aggressive and when to be charming, and to give out our cards. We learn how to understand the language. We see the possibilities and impossibilities, and try to stop defining them as such.

In attending the international meetings I study, I can develop a more holistic perspective on the UN and international environmental governance. I can meet the people I know on paper as “Representative of the US,” or “Representative of the G77,” and try to understand them as human beings as well as negotiators. I can understand how the mood in a negotiating room can drastically change the pace and results of the negotiations – and why optimism, if not idealism, is so important. I think this all to be of great importance. It will be an integral part of the degree I craft and what I choose to do with it. I look around at other student-participants and feel that their being present is a step towards the Future I Want. Learning alongside other “youth” at the negotiations often gives me much more hope than watching negotiators does.

Some also ask, why waste time with the UN? After all, it is bureaucratic and slow, frustrating and, in the minds of many, useless. We’re raking up carbon emissions in order to “feel better about ourselves” and “failing to produce results.” I’ve been informed of this many times. It is a discussion that never ends, and one that I am still developing answers and opinions for. Nonetheless, in the end, I still feel justified, perhaps wrongly, perhaps self-centeredly, in participating – in flying across a continent to take part in what I see as a turning point. Because nothing beats experiential learning. And it is important to know your enemy. Or important to understand the world you work in. Or important to understand that which you seek to change. And important to bring that understanding back home.