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Civil Society

No Strategy for Civilisation in Crisis

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 26 2012 (IPS) - The Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) in Istanbul in 1996 was one of the international meetings most open to civil society participation.

Its conclusions, published as a voluminous Plan of Action, collected thousands of proposals and recommendations from participants. But Jaime Lerner, the urban planner who decades ago was responsible for innovative management in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, said the document “lacked strategies” to bring its aims into reality.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, ended on Friday 22 without a glimmer of a strategy for humanity to exit the trap it has fallen into.

Proposals from NGOs, meeting in a parallel forum, were excluded from the official outcome document. Indeed, how could a conference of national governments, 99 percent of them from countries with capitalist economies, swallow the anti-capitalist ideas of the civil society forum?

The final declaration of the People’s Summit says “We assume the urgent challenge of putting a brake on the new phase of capitalism’s recomposition,” in which only “the people, organised and mobilised, can free the world from the control of the corporations and of financial capital.”

The main contribution of Rio+20 may be to provide a shock of realism to stimulate reflection and the realisation of previously unrecognised facts, such as the pretentiousness of calling the official outcome document “The Future We Want”, or convening a “People’s Summit” as the parallel event in Guanabara Bay, suggesting a hierarchy which the same “people” reject when they meet in the World Social Forum.

The search for new ways forward has already begun. A movement launched on Saturday Jun. 23 in Rio de Janeiro, named “Rio+20+one day” or “Day After”, is aiming for “a new social contract for the 21st century,” based on the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the humanist philosopher whose tricentennial falls this year.

The initiative of Carlos Lopes, executive director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), “Day After” was launched in the presence of prominent personalities like Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and economist Ignacy Sachs, who coined the term eco-development.

There is a definite consensus on the need for a new paradigm of production and consumption. However, the new pattern remains undefined, and so do the means of attaining it, both questions that lead to inevitable disagreements. No one, not even the anti-capitalists at the People’s Summit, is advocating a social revolution.

The impasse reached at Rio+20 puts a check on the idea of relying on autonomous action. Many people call for the present world leadership to exercise “statesmanlike boldness and courage” to solve “the crisis of civilisation,” which combines environmental, economic, social and ethical crises. But do we want to see the return of enlightened despots?

The impeachment and dismissal of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo during the Rio+20 conference showed that presidents, too, have their limits. They must respond to the real interests of national society and to the correlation of forces behind the political and economic elites, not to opinion polls in which a majority of respondents say they have environmental concerns.

The decision of U.S. President Barack Obama not to attend Rio+20 was attributed to the risks he faces in the forthcoming November elections. To take on environmental commitments would likely threaten his reelection.

The divergence between short-term and long-term political dynamics on environmental issues might pose another hindrance to taking definite action on the challenges. But prolonging mandates is out of the question, and recent examples show the increasing intolerance of perpetuation in power.

A new institutionality seems essential to confront the challenges to humanity, such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, scarcity of drinking water, ocean acidification and desertification.

The Rio+20 conference weakened multilateralism, in favour of the preference in the Americas for national initiatives and against binding global agreements, former Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva concluded.

The United Nations was trapped by corporate interests, according to many other activists.

Therefore, the creation of a new environmental agency in the U.N. orbit, modelled on the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which was the main proposal for an environmental governance structure, does not appear very promising.

No significant progress was made on the issue of financing sustainable development either. Emerging nations proposed creating a 30 billion dollar fund, but this was vetoed, principally by the United States.

Yet at the meeting of the Group of 20 rich and emerging countries (G20) held almost simultaneously in Mexico, a contribution of 456 billion dollars was agreed for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), of which 75 billion dollars were pledged by the emerging BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), sending a clear signal that the priority is to “save the banks,” activists complained.

Given the complexity of global problems, idle repetition of the need for new consumption patterns is a waste of time. There are measures well known to be effective, like the elimination of subsidies for fossil fuels, which totalled 409 billion dollars last year according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Forecasts indicate that these subsidies will rise to 660 billion dollars in 2020. Why has this incentive to destroy life not even been reduced, as was achieved in regard to tobacco?

Another action that would have significant results for the environment, society and health is the distribution of efficient wood-burning cook stoves, which have already been developed. Even better would be to use alternative fuels instead of wood, which is used for energy by three billion people worldwide.

People’s organisations, such as NGOs, trade unions and social movements, all with their own specific goals, lack a common strategy to convert effective socio-environmental experiences into public policies, and to influence the national and global decisions that are key to the future of humanity.

Exploring pathways to political effectiveness – not including political parties, which have been generally ruled out because of their failures – is an exercise that deserves greater efforts on the part of activists.

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  • Joe Shumaker

    There is a new initiative called goodgeyes that has both an example model and a strategy for transitioning from the present model to this more sustainable model. See:

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