by Kari Koch
The greater good – sacrificing for the benefit of the whole – can be found either on the micro level, neighborhood by neighborhood where people look each other in the eye and have relationships that bind them together, or on the meta level, internationally where the path toward global ruin can be clearly seen and resources are amassed to address the needs of everyone. It could have been that civil society believed that the greater good was being pursued, and felt hopeful about humanity’s path, when the United Nations met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil twenty years ago to discuss and adopt sustainable development policies as the world was developing into mass globalization. That conference, named the ‘Earth Summit’, probably seemed like the best place to lay the ground work for a future that mitigated the growing power of international corporations and prioritized a collective approach to economic development and caring for our resources. Or perhaps it was as clear then as it is now that, while the UN makes forward thinking resolutions about rights and dignity, in the end their best work is non-binding and the UN’s primary muscle reinforces global systems of capital that directly contradict their many various declarations of rights.
Now, twenty years later at Rio+20, intended to continue the work of the Earth Summit, corporate development and capitalist growth have an even firmer grip on the international process and actively thwart any movement to compassionately, logically, or holistically care for the needs of people in our communities or the ecosystem at large.
As is evidenced by the ever-growing crisis and deepening economic caverns between the owners and the workers, capitalism is on the decline, though it is by no means dead. It is wiggling it’s way into a new phase – the Green Economy. This was the primary focus at the Rio+20 conference and the primary focus of dissent at the People’s Summit, a conference of popular movements that ran parallel to the official UN negotiations inBrazil.
The Green Economy is a slightly revised version of capitalism based on the fundamental belief that corporations and the market are the best stewards of the natural environment where everything on Earth can be bought, sold, and traded on the Green Exchange, called La Bolsa Verde. The classic tenets of capitalism still exist where corporations reap short-term profits and build their ‘industry’ around speculation, and governments buffer corporations from financial risk, and control the local community. We still see this relationship play out in the US from the financial collapse of 2007.
This green-washing of capitalism is not going to solve the global climate crisis, protect our communities from harm, or manage our common resources. Most importantly though, Rio+20 has made it clear that a Green Economy is not a transitional demand toward systemic environmental change. Capitalists in power have taken the term Green Economy and pursued it under the same banner that they pursue something called sustained growth, which means infinite growth in a finite world. The two phrases in the UN document coming out of Rio+20 are used interchangeably. I’ve often heard it argued, by environmentalists and labor unions, that theGreen Economy is better than nothing and that it is a step toward actual sustainable economies. This is a lie: nothing that reinforces the notion that all things in the world deserve a price tag and can best be protected by corporate interests could possibly lead us to real solutions. The Green Economy will continue to cause pain, destruction, and brutality just as every incarnation of capitalism has done.
In Rio, at the People’s Summit, the overall analysis was that capitalism and the false solutions that it generates, like the Green Economy, will cause more problems then they will solve and that the people in charge of the economic systems at present are only concerned with quick profit making and maintaining power. The US and it’s corporate allies scheme on how to avoid all commitment to regulation on industry and undermine any agreements that put primary responsibility for global climate change on the world’s longtime biggest polluters. Meanwhile, China, Brazil and other economies verging on the First World focus on fighting against any regulation that prevents them from using the same destructive mechanisms for development that propelled the US and Europe to their current stronghold positions; meaning coal, deforestation, oppression of indigenous populations and workers more generally. Developing nations, those with no voice in global policy making outside of the UN and barely a whisper inside the cavernous monument that houses the UN Summit, are fighting to keep their countries both literally and figuratively above water. There is a bloc of nation states with modest economies that fight for some forms of justice inside the UN – Venezuela, Bolivia, some of the northern European nations. Even then though, they are still conducting power plays for their own advantage. In the case of Venezuela, their Green Economy is actually a petrol economy; in the case of Bolivia, they are building superhighways through communities for the transport of goods; and in the case of various European nations the Green Economy is based in market-mechanisms such as carbon off-sets that simply move pollution around for a price instead of reducing it.
“The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it. Whenever consumer capitalism becomes snarled up by its own contradictions, governments scramble to mend the machine, to ensure – though it consumes the conditions that sustain our lives – that it runs faster than ever before,” writes George Monbiot of the Guardian. Whatever hope was sustained by the possibilities that could emerge from an international effort, has officially evaporated into thin air.
In the end, the UN process is ill-equipped to deal with development or climate change because the nations of the UN, and their corporate sponsors, are primarily concerned with petty politicking, power plays, and ultimately profit-making. It’s not a place to come to the table with global common interests – such as maintaining the ability of this planet to host human life – and to deal with issues that require sacrifice. The UN summits instead act as a place to come to the table to demand sacrifices of others for the benefit of the global 1% while playing real-life political strategy games at the expense of the rest of the people and the Earth itself.
The UN and it’s constituent groupings will not bring about any serious movement towards true sustainability or toward addressing climate change until there is a strong enough global movement to force them to do so. In previous global convergences the way we demonstrated that power (or lack thereof) was through mobilizations and disruptions of the UN space. This time things felt different. Certainly, there were marches, rallies, and disruptions, but the primary focus of the People’s Summit was on building. The eight days of the Summit were spent in workshops, plenaries, discussion forums, strategy meetings, assemblies, and relationship building. The global networks linked together to initiate conversations about international targets and campaigns that could unite our local struggles. The event planners prioritized space for a real solidarity economy to exist within the Summit. Organized social movements hosted multi-day plenaries where people could demonstrate, discuss, and dissect solutions that spanned from the very specific to the global.
It feels like a bit of a relief to not go begging at the door of national leaders and corporations. We can only be ignored beating at the doors of the elite for so long without losing all hope. Refocusing on areas where we actually have agency and can care for our communities is a welcome direction. This is a critical, and difficult transition for the global movement. This realization emerge throughout the Summit, particularly in the Solutions Plenaries, where local organizers were supposed to be putting forward and debating tangible solutions to the Green Economy and all that it encompasses. The vast majority of people focused still on the problems their communities face and the struggles in which they are engaged. As people who have rarely or never held traditional power, or felt the capacity to make fundamental change, adjusting to a mindset of being powerful enough to create solutions is a challenge. This is why we must practice. We need to spend time experimenting with solutions, trying out decision making models, claiming power in our own lives, and building relationships that can help navigate this global fight.
This is a critical moment for global and local movements to strike, when the system is weak, bloated, and failing to meet the people’s needs. In order for our attack to be effective we have to be ready to respond with some ideas and directions for what we do want, how we want to be structured, and what sort of economy will work. This is the direction that I saw at the People’s Summit, a clear move to the offensive.
A key lesson from the Summit is that no one person or community has the answer; and looking for some person who’s solo action or idea will move us towards victory is naïve.
The systems highlighted at the People’s Summit were about rerouting our decision making, action, and economies so that they are based in the collective, and are unique to our local communities. Whether that is getting rid of corporate structures and needless bosses to implement worker collectives, dismantling traditional notions of private property to institute collective management and community control based on those that work the land, or overcoming patriarchy to develop societies of gender equity and respect, these are the dual power systems that peoples of the world brought to the Summit.
Additionally, while we can develop models to share around the globe, only our communities truly know what’s best for the people, economy, and environment in that place. People’s movements coming out of the Summit are working to develop networks and solutions that are interconnected globally, whether that is through open-source technology, collective targets, or shared analysis. In the US and other ‘developed’ nations our task is double, because while building the power of social movements is critical, it’s also true that our government is one of the primary proponents of the Green Economy and uses it’s economic and military might to support the suppression of popular movements around the world. Organizers in the US have a responsibility to address this repression and imperialism that inhibits revolutionary peoples movements and just economies around the world. The Summit reinforced this foundation of local struggle based in internationalism, or conversely international movement building grounded in local community organizing. These are not brand new concepts, but the conversation about how to implement these concepts felt newly energized and liberated from the constraints of simply protesting.
The UN Summits are not a place for the people of the world to get together to decide of how to preserve our collective resources and advance our well-being, the governments of the world cannot be trusted to take on this high task, and corporations are actively working to exploit our communities at each opportunity. That leaves the people, social movements, our networks, organizations and relationships to navigate the way forward. The People’s Summit in Rio was one step, the next is an international gathering in Bangkok hosted by Focus on the Global South in September, completely removed from any UN process and entirely focused on the question of how to align local movements for maximum international effect. So here we are, remaining our relationships to each other and to the natural world, all the while, crafting plans, and taking action to make those ideas a reality.