The Future 'We' Want

Reflections on Rio+20.

Unlike the Olympics, there is an international jamboree this year which is intended to be good for the environment. But expectations of great things emerging from Rio+20 are officially low. Our esteemed Prime Minister is not even going, even though the original date of the meeting was changed to avoid clashing with the Jubilee, awkwardly depriving him of his initial watertight excuse for staying at home. Britain will instead be represented by Nick Clegg and Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary and ex-agribusiness lobbyist.

This is in stark contrast to the global fanfare with which heads of state gathered in Rio the first time, for the 1992 "Earth Summit". The idea of getting together to save the planet was still a novelty at the time, and they lined up eagerly to proclaim their green credentials. Rather like Copenhagen in 2009, the message was that world leaders were gathering to roll up their sleeves and sort out the mess.

Of course the mess has got considerably worse since 1992, and the Earth Summit certainly didn't live up to the hype. Unlike Copenhagen though, and despite George Bush I's memorable statement in Rio that "the American way of life is not up for negotiation", some positive outcomes were achieved the first time around. Chief among these was probably the establishment of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which later spawned the Kyoto Protocol. The UNFCCC was a legally binding document, as was another outcome, the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Also signed at Rio in 1992 was the remarkable Agenda 21. Although non-binding, this did contain some fairly radical principles, and it continues to be indirectly responsible for a fair bit of mildly green policymaking around the world. Showing remarkable consistency and staying power, the US Republican Party has this year passed a resolution condemning Agenda 21 as "a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control" whose "plan of radical so-called sustainable development" sees "the American way of life of private property ownership, single family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms, all as destructive to the environment". This insidious document, apparently, was and remains aimed at the "socialist/communist redistribution of wealth".

If only. Readers may recall the heady days when every UK local authority had a Local Agenda 21 officer, charged with implementing 'so-called sustainable development' in their area. Rather inconveniently for the achievement of global political control, their power to change any significant council policy was usually as minimal as their budget. If any were acting as agents of communist wealth redistribution, they certainly didn't get very far. Still, Agenda 21 did contain some fine aspirations, such as "access to land for all households through environmentally sound planning", which is unfortunately at least as far away as it was in 1992.

It would be rash to say that the outcomes of Rio+20 have no chance of upsetting the Republican Party. However, it is clear that the final report, modestly titled "The Future We Want", will contain nothing anywhere near as radical as Agenda 21.

The days when the environmental rhetoric emerging from international summits seemed left-wing are long gone, and the turf has been well and truly occupied by the other team. Saving the planet is very big business now. The spin doctors have been hard at work, and the buzz phrase is no longer Sustainable Development, but the Green Economy.

What exactly does this mean? As Spelman puts it, "a thriving green economy will generate the investment and innovation to transform our products and services and capture new markets". Green investment will lead to green growth, green products and green jobs. For the powerful players who are quietly deciding what future 'we' want, the Green Economy is mostly about keeping economic growth going by turning ecological crisis and resource scarcity into profitable new business opportunities.

As we go to press, NGOs such as the ETC group are pressing for The Future We Want to include a commitment to 'technology assessment' safeguards, in order to stop the Green Economy being built on damaging but highly lucrative technologies such as GM, biofuels, and geoengineering. Unfortunately, they have little chance of success.

Others, such as Via Campesina, are lobbying for the document to give some protection against the huge international land grabs which are turning indigenous areas and peasant lands into biofuel plantations and 'agricultural investments'. Pushing the other way are the powerful World Business Council on Sustainable Development (no doubt soon to be renamed the World Business Council on the Green Economy), who insist that global agricultural output must double by 2050. Apparently this means, as a 2009 World Bank report on African agriculture put it, that "over time, land must be able to change hands, moving to those who can use it most productively." This is the Green Economy in action.

As sociologist Ariel Salleh points out though, the real 'green jobs' are the livelihoods of the small-scale and traditional farmers, largely women in the global South, who still grow most of the world's food. It seems safe to say that the future most people want is one in which these livelihoods are safeguarded and valued, not 'greened' out of existence.

The Future 'We' Want
This article originally appeared as 'The Future 'We' Want' in The Land Issue 12 Summer 2012