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Mainstream, VOL L, No 26, June 16, 2012

Rio+20 and its Historical Context — A Challenge to the System

Wednesday 20 June 2012, by Branislav Gosovic

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) is taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 21-22, 2012. It is being called Rio+20 as the Conference is being held 20 years after the UN-sponsored “Earth Summit†that took place in the same city in 1992. For two days multilateral diplomacy would be at work while discussing environmental issues, water, sanitation, corporate responsibility. The following article by a distinguished expert is being published here as a curtain-raiser of that Conference.

A Long Journey

To understand better Rio+20, its proceedings and eventual outcomes, one needs to recognise that it is a way station on humankind’s continu-ing journey.

• Multilaterally it started in 1945 with the creation of the United Nations, the decoloni-sation process and the rise of the developing countries—the Third World or the South—as a political force on the world scene, and the North-South confrontation over development and the global political and economic order, a confrontation that continues today in a variety of contexts.

• Politically and theoretically its beginnings are to be found in the musings of philosophers and religious figures in antiquity over the nature of human society, polity and economy, place and role of the individual, and relation-ships with the nature. In the contemporary epoch it is reflected in the struggle over paradigms that orient society, economy, states and human action, and increasingly in the debates on the nature of the nascent world system and civilisation. This struggle is evi-dent within and between nations, in the North and in the South, and in occasional global forums and gatherings, such as Rio+20, where one has to look at the whole.

The underlying controversies, conflicts and dilemmas that have characterised this collective journey will figure prominently at Rio+20, as they did in earlier environment-related global gatherings, beginning with the 1972 Stockholm Conference.

For some among those who will be at Rio+20, especially the younger “internet†or “twitter†generations, the environment-related story begins with the 1992 UNCED. They have little familiarity with antecedents and often minimal awareness of the overarching “world order†problematique, of which Rio+20 is but a side event. Indeed, at the beginning of the 1990s, when the UNCED took place, the “end of history†was triumphantly announced to the applause and relief of many. This was an attempt to be-little and dismiss the given dimensions of history, including some at the very centre of the early disagreements likely to reappear at Rio+20. They were summarily pronounced to “belong to the past†and as of no relevance in the evolving context.

Two Underlying Controversies

THERE are two running, underlying controversies originating in the early period that have affected and stalled international action on environment. Their ramifications persist to the present day.

The first controversy concerns the definition and scope of “environment†, and the twinning of environment and development agendas made at the UNCHE following pressures by the South. The developing countries considered this broad-ened approach as a quid pro quo for their joining the environmental bandwagon driven by the North. They expected that in return the deve-loped countries, which they held principally responsible for the global environmental pro-blems, would become cooperative and positive in dealing with the international development agenda. Development was a means to overcome poverty and underdevelopment-related environ-mental problems, and also to bolster the deve-loping countries’ ability to respond to and avoid the environmental problems caused by moder-nisation and economic growth, including pollu-tion. The developmental dimension was reflected in such provisions as human settlements, finan-cing, transfer of technology, access to markets, and in general safeguards against possible development burdens and obstacles caused by environmental measures. The Nairobi location for the UNEP headquarters, secured by the Group of 77 against the wishes of the North, was also supposed to keep the new organisation aware of the development challenges.
The developed countries were not keen on the broadened definition, including in particular the implications of the soon to follow New International Economic Order initiative, the demand of the developing countries for recog-nition of national sovereignty over renewable and non-renewable natural resources, attempts to institutionalise in the framework of the United Nations scrutiny of and disciplines for TNCs in their global activities and secure the harnessing of science and technology for development.

For them, environment was a specialised assessment-management matter corresponding to their advanced stage of development, a technological problem often involving end-of-pipe solutions, and a nature conservation challenge. While they worried about population growth in the South and the degradation and exhaustion of natural resources, they were not keen on expanding the environmental agenda to include poverty, human settlements, addition-ality of development assistance, easy access to environmentally sound technologies, avoidance of trade barriers on account of environmental regulations, etc. Nor were they prepared to reinvigorate the international development agenda. And, the “peripheral†location of the UNEP remained for them a source of institutional unhappiness.

The second controversy has to do with the dominant paradigm of how to organise the human society. By postulating a sweeping integrated or holistic approach to environmental challenges at the UNCHE, the door was opened to address and link different issues and their cause-effect relationships. This legitimised ques-tioning the nature of the existing world order and helped launch the quest for “alternatives†, including in economics and economic and social indicators, such as the GNP. The first, daring multilateral foray into this “off limits†territory was made by the UNEP and UNCTAD, in coope-ration with the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, at their 1974 Cocoyoc Symposium on Patterns of Resource Use, Environment and Development Strategies. It is the controversial Cocoyoc Decla-ration that launched the now widely used terms “lifestyles†and “patterns of consumption and production†.

None of this was to the liking of the developed countries. The linkages between sectors, issues and disciplines, and an integrated vision of what is de facto a man-made system were frowned upon; the so-called “salami†approach of dealing pragmatically with discrete issues, on a case-by-case basis, in specialised, “man-dated†institutions was preferred. This was also a means to avoid dealing with broader, inter-related policy issues (trees versus forest) in global UN forums.

“Conservative Counter-revolutionâ€

A major policy shift to the Right of the political spectrum, which took place first in two key countries of the North, had no sympathy for either one of these two directions that were being hatched in the framework of the United Nations.
These were perceived as potential challenges to the system and a deviation from the favoured policy outlook. These trends had to be countered and the United Nations, as their facilitator and platform, had to be tamed and marginalised.
This was an aspect of the “great conservative counter-revolution†, conceptualised by Right-wing think-tanks and embraced by the leaders of these two developed countries, which they made explicit first at the 1981 North-South Cancun Summit.
By the time of the 1992 UNCED, for all prac-tical purposes, the North-South development dialogue was over, the Washington Consensus, as a global doctrine, was firmly enthroned as a panacea for all problems faced by humankind, including development, and the policy space of the United Nations was curtailed and its Secre-tariat staff placed under tighter control.

The Age of Neo-liberal Globalisation

THUS began the period of neo-liberal globali-sation, when many outstanding issues were delegitimised or swept under the rug and earlier agreements and objectives simply ignored.

Politically and substantively, the UNCHE, WCED and UNCED belonged to the earlier phase, when the North-South dialogue was functional and the progressive approach to environment held sway in a few countries of the North, for example, Sweden, which inspired the original initiative to place environment on the UN agenda.

What followed in the post-UNCED period was an effort to force the “escaped genie†(that is, environment-development and systems app-roach) into the neo-liberal globalisation bottle of market supremacy et. al. and recast North-South relations and the development agenda according to the same model, with the WTO, World Bank and IMF leading the multilateral charge.

Internationally, the negotiations in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change brought into a single focus and exposed the underlying structural and policy controversies and dilemmas mentioned above. As usual, this involved the high cost of proposed measures, burden sharing and differentiated responsibi-lities, access to and transfer of technologies, and the responsibility of the developed countries in coping with consequences of global climate change.

Similarly, the “definitional†disputes over the meaning and implications of the “green economy†concept illustrate the cleavages and suspicions that exist between the North and the South, whose origins have their roots in the early experiences and in what has transpired globally in the period since.

Rio+20 Outlook

IN the existing conundrum, one cannot have great expectations from Rio+20 in terms of major breakthroughs and outcomes. The North-South development dialogue is in shambles, the hard-nosed attitude of the developed countries, pressed by their own domestic and global eco-nomic problems, which led to heated confronta-tion with the Group of 77 at UNCTAD XIII, including over the institutional mandate of this organisation to address linkages between trade, finance and technology, are likely to reflect on the Rio+20 proceedings. This goes especially for such issues as trade, financing for development, and transfer of technology, which have fanned the global North-South environmental debates since Stockholm.
The same is true of the underlying challenge of how to maintain the environment-develop-ment Siamese twins (that is, sustainable develop-ment) together, and the related controversial institutional issue of creating a “specialised†world environment organisation and thus return to a more narrowly defined concept of “environ-ment†, while delegating to other “qualified†institutions the troubling development consi-derations.

While the neo-liberal globalisation model is beginning to show signs of weakening, including in the North, its hold is still tenacious. It does not permit major departures from the prevailing orthodoxy. One thus cannot expect many, if any, alternative thinking and fresh, innovative proposals to emerge from the intergovernmental deliberations at Rio+20.

Rio+20 cannot hope to repeat the UNCED, UNCHE or Brundtland Commission, in terms of outputs. Its negotiated outcome document, a result of an unwieldy process, is not likely to match the more elegant and comprehensive declarations and plans of action adopted on earlier occasions, although it will repeat most of the key themes and objectives. Given the exis-ting tensions and unresolved issues, one cannot hope that it will end with a closing celebration of the kind that crowned such world conferences in the more inspiring pre-globalisation period.

The above does not mean that one should be pessimistic about Rio+20. Together with Stock-holm, Rio and Johannesburg, it belongs to an ongoing, continuous process and will be affected by the same unresolved issues, dilemmas and disagreements, in their old or new form. The earlier documents and decisions, including Agenda 21, did not yield in practice much visi-ble progress on key systemic issues of North-South relations, or in confronting the nature and direction of the existing system. On the contrary, in some key areas, there occurred a backward slide. Many of these will be on the negotiating table again, reflected between lines or caveats appended in the text adopted, or in the background atmospherics at Rio+20.

Post Rio+20—a Crossroads?

RIO+20 is taking place after decades of limited and spotty progress, deep-freeze and even retrogression imposed on the policy and action fronts by the key developed countries and powerful economic forces within them, by the neo-liberal globalisation paradigm and the ideologically-motivated dismissal of global public good/goods concepts and ideals of human solidarity and cooperation.
Given the intensification of global environ-mental problems, emerging doubts in the dominant system and model in the North, the rising South and growing capacity and self-confidence of some developing countries, and many articulate voices coming from the civil society and indigenous peoples that will be gathered in Rio on the margins of the main event, some of whom will speak openly and dare challenge the dominant order, one is tempted to hope that the next stage on this long march initiated in Stockholm will be a happier one.

Regardless of its outcomes and various recommendations that it will adopt or not adopt, building on the foundations cast over the years and as a delayed, slow-gestating fruition of labours at the UNCHE and UNCED or repeated frustrations, Rio+20 could yet turn out to be an important crossroads that will lead into and signal the arrival of a positive and promising stage in international relations and multilateral processes.

It could allow some of the initial, farsighted principles, concepts and ideas of international cooperation to be revived and implemented, for example, to have taxation of uses of global commons (for example, today including massive internet windfall benefits that accrue to some) to mobilise significant financial resources for global sustainable development needs and to place them under multilateral UN control, thus overcoming traditional dependency on the rich countries’ largesse for funding (which today includes corporate and philanthropist donors) and their using this to determine the nature of activities or simply to block the unwanted ones, or indeed to dominate specialised agencies and their programmes and staffing.
Rather than entrusting the development of environmentally-friendly and “green†techno-logies wholly to the big business and corporate sector, is it not possible to have these developed as joint, international public undertakings, to be placed in the public domain, as public goods in service of planetary objectives, available and subsidised, for use by all worldwide, and avoid technological dependence and high costs that the former would entail?

“Internationalising†, that is, making them “belong to†(rather than “owned by†) the world peoples, nations and humankind, of global services (for example, telecommunications) and global corporations working in domains of public interest (for example, health, food, energy, software) would depoliticise the controversies over their ownership, make them available and accessible to all, and yield income for planetary needs, rather than channel these resources into accounts of investors, banks, corporations, patent holders and monopolies, and obscenely mega-rich transnational coterie or class of individuals. Among other things, this calls for deconstructing and replacing the existing, highly obstructive intellectual property regime entre-nched in the WTO by a different one, starting from completely new foundations.

Such measures would help defuse the conflict of “who will pay†and “bear the burden†of needed measures, which in a number of domains represents the main stumbling block today. Also, they will help do away with interminable haggling and negotiations between unequal part-ners, such as take place in climate change forums and which divert attention from strategic issues. Evidently, measures of this kind call for signifi-cant systemic change and paradigm redesign, and of course for major political and mindset changes, especially in the key developed coun-tries. They also imply liberation from the conti-nuing global “intellectual leadership†, that is, “domination†skillfully exercised by the North, including in the media and educational fields which form the global public opinion and shape the younger generations.

“Global Spring†on the Horizon?

THUS, an optimist can dare hope for a “global spring†in the period following Rio+20, one of systemic and paradigm change, heralded first by the Stockholm Conference and the efforts that followed it, of recovering the ground lost and moving on to a future of cooperation and peace.

Possibly, given the current ideological-cum-systemic impasse, countries and societal forces committed to progress and positive action should consider mounting independent, parallel actions to implement some of the agreed policies and needed measures. This may be preferable to submitting to the fiat of the “convoy synd-rome†, that is, moving at the speed of the slow-est (big) ship and its peculiar domestic politics, and thus waiting for decades, often in vain. Or, to seeking negotiated quid pro quo agreements and compromises with unwilling “partners†who do not exhibit the necessary enthusiasm to join but rather frown upon and oppose this global quest, unless it can produce tangible benefits and payoffs for them, including the corporate actors.

As for the developing countries, South-South cooperation provides an opportunity to act on their own on shared objectives and concerns, with some interested developed countries joining in triangular arrangements. Importantly, the South will need to examine the balance-sheet of its decades-long, quite often sterile, engagement with the North and to evolve its own strategy of collective self-reliance. This involves taking lead in the still uncharted terrain of alternative patterns of development, production and consumption patterns and lifestyles.
One thing is certain, ideas abound and there is a shared agreement on broad environmental objectives. States locked in their disagreements may wish to revisit and study for inspiration and guidance the declarations and plans of action they have adopted over the years in the United Nations and pay greater attention to societal forces and actors able to think outside the box of “man-made†conceptual, paradig-matic, methodological and bottom-line schemes that have entrapped and paralysed the estab-lishments and pragmatists who are in power, and that have been marketed to the global public opinion and taught in educational establishments as the only possible and viable alternative.

If adopted, the recommendation to launch work on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) provides the next, important opportunity down the road to continue and resume efforts in this direction, following the Rio+20 episode. Hopefully, unlike the MDGs, which were simplis-tic and quantitative, almost wholly addressed to the individual developing countries and elaborated in a closed-door setting, with Bretton Woods institutions and OECD playing a leading role, the SDGs will be derived through a wide and participatory process, will be primarily addressed to the advanced countries and to collective responsibilities of the international community, and will be a judicious mix of policy, qualitative and quantitative objectives.

“Dream on,†some hardened, realist observers will comment sarcastically, while the contemporary world, spearheaded by finance capital, corporates, S&T, communications, military supe-riority and the 21st century version of power and realpolitik, inexorably marches on and the traditionally dominant players are joined by the new ones, eager to imitate and join them at the pinnacle of the global pyramid, thus reinforcing the old, supposedly eternal system, though in a new, shiny garb.

But the future is made of dreams of a better world. It is a civilisational and global democra-tisation challenge. Certainly, Pachamama and One Earth would approve, as would the peoples and coming generations of this world, including those gathering at the Stockholm+100 conference. It may yet turn out that the environment-development link made in the now-distant 1972 was the foundation-stone of global community building. A luta continua.

Till recently the Acting Director of the South Centre, Geneva, and a UN official working in the area of environment, Branislav Gosovic is the author of The Quest for World Environmental Cooperation: The Case of the UN Global Environment Monitoring System, Routledge, London and New York, 1002.

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