Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Collision of Worlds: Rio+20 and Reality

" If we look at the underlying issues driving the water and sanitation crisis, they are right up at the surface: unsustainable (energy-enabled) human population growth, especially in areas with little or very polluted sources of water; climate change, which greatly expands the areas with little water; and consumerist civilization, which destroys what few sources remain by externalizing pollution cost in its economic model.

Last week we introduced the idea of Slavery 2.0, a concept we have been mulling for a couple of years. Our notion is that much of what we take as rights are in fact artifacts of a receding era of cheap, abundant, very Btu-dense energy. Now that petrocollapse is underway, we can kiss those rights goodbye, and in their place, prepare ourselves for Slavery 2.0.

If there exist alternatives to this bleak future, one of the places we might hope to find them would be at Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development getting underway in Brazil next week. We are flying down this weekend to be part of the delegation of the Global Ecovillage Network, and we are personally giving a side-event on eCOOLnomics this Sunday afternoon at the Gaia Home, a dome structure in Flamingo Park, at the inauguration of the People’s Summit.

As in Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban, the official conference is being separated from the civil society displays and counter-events by a distance of 30 km, but free shuttle buses are available to delegates.

There are many excellent side-events being offered over the coming week, many of them open to the public, and they sound themes that will be familiar to readers of this blog. The ones we are most interested in are those describing the UN Foundation’s initiative for clean cook stoves, alternatives for food security that involve storing gigatonnes of carbon in soil, actions on the ground to reforest the planet a.s.a.p., attempts to drive a stake through the dead but beating heart of Wall Street, and Bhutan’s Gross Happiness Index.

However, there are still a great many countries and non-governmental groups in attendance that are in the sway of deluded cornucopians or technofixers and there are vast numbers of social gatherings and events dedicated to sating their appetites for ever grander delusion. It seems to us, just looking at the week-long schedule, that the closer you get to the venues frequented by corporatocracies like the US and China (now a monetary union), the deeper that delusion becomes.

brings together sustainability focused tertiary education associations with government delegates and student body representatives from across the world, to discuss the critical role that universities and colleges play in creating the societal shift required to reach the objectives and outcomes of Rio+20, and indeed in reaching sustainable development and a transition to a fair and green economy. As the primary interface for educating and skilling political and industry leaders, policy makers and professionals, tertiary education institutions provide the greatest opportunity to reorient current thinking.”

We think the buzzword-laden phrase “reaching sustainable development and a transition to a fair and green economy” some years past its expiration date, and we wonder if those words will decompose on their long way up the winding staircase to the ivory towers they are intended to reach.

Quoting their press release, 

“In 2010 the UN General Assembly recognized access to water and sanitation as a human right. In this way [they] crowned the evolution from the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights´ Observation Nº 15 as [a] landmark definition of [the] human right to water and sanitation (2002). Although [the] UN has recently recognized good performance of MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] targets on water and sanitation, in the current context where there are some 2600 million people without access to water and sanitation, the issue of implementation entails a major challenge.

From this perspective, this workshop aims not only to take a snapshot of current legal framework, but much more to analyze the complex and diverse realities being faced by governments regarding implementation of such an important right. From the budget constraints of a world in crisis, to participation of non-state actors (as NGOs, water companies), [the workshop will consider] available short-term solutions to ensure universal service. Against this background, the question of implementation requires a pragmatic view based on a rights-perspective to understand what actions should be developed by different actors (governments, business, civil society) at the time to comply, as well as which consequences may arise from lack of implementation or significant delays.

The event will stage five contributions and organize interactive discussion with participants on different views of human right[s] to water and sanitation. Based on the contributions and the discussion, a joint reflection document will be prepared as information for civil society and as input towards and beyond the official Rio+20 conference.”

While we join with most in the UN community in lauding the efforts by this group and others in that underfunded field, we can’t suppress a deep sigh. How many times have we gone to an acre of vegetables that has been neglected for too long and is overgrown with weeds, and we have to say, can one person with a hoe really do anything to make a difference at this point?(Admittedly this simile has become less apt since permaculture came to our rescue and our acres of vegetables are now part of productive, multi-layered ecosystems with scant concept of weeds or any need for hoes).

If we look at the underlying issues driving the water and sanitation crisis, they are right up at the surface: unsustainable (energy-enabled) human population growth, especially in areas with little or very polluted sources of water; climate change that greatly expands the areas with little water; and consumerist civilization, which destroys what few sources remain by externalizing pollution cost in its economic model.

The attempt to patch over these underlying rifts in the fabric of the natural world by some technofix like (fossil-fuel based) pumps to mine underground sources faster, giant green funds to build sewage treatment facilities along coastal estuaries, or solar-powered water treatment ozone-bubblers and UV-lights seems to us making the real problems worse by shrouding them in a fog of business as usual. Growth must stop. Growth must go in reverse. Get used to it. You want clean water? Stop using so much of it!

We know, that is a tough sell.

To paraphrase Tony Clarke of the Polaris Institute, we face a triple-E crisis: economic (unleashed greed and skyrocketing inequality leading to ever more corruption, instability, violence and war), ecological (our biosphere is rapidly degrading to the point where it may not be able to support human life), and energetic (we are ravaging the planet's depleting energy reserves to continue to live in this unsustainable way). 

The answers being proposed by thoughtful civil society participants are a triple-R response: rights (protecting the rights of people in civil society, not corporations or unelected transnational entities, to make decisions about the issues that affect their lives), restoration (working to care for the biosphere and repair the damage we have done to it) and resilience (developing the ability of local communities to survive the degree of climate chaos that is now unavoidable).

We will be blogging and tweeting (@peaksurfer; #GaiaRio) this coming week, as we visit the various venues and listen to all the proposals, some misguided, like these education and sanitation ones, but others exceedingly wise. So stay tuned….

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