A Lesson in Green Economics

Organizing a world meeting on sustainability in a totally unsustainable place using totally unsustainable methods may be the price to pay for an agreement and a project to share with the international community. But if that agreement is substantially irrelevant — cosmetic as opposed to functional to the environmental policies we need today — then operation ‘Rio+20’ is just another wasted opportunity. The premise for the meeting was to celebrate an event that, 20 years ago, raised consciousness round the world and aroused legitimate expectations. Precisely this commemorative approach ought to have spurred greater courage, participation and vision. But after the earth’s mighty had dropped out one by one, the event was deprived of any real bargaining commitment. The upshot is a document of hackneyed principles, the fruit of a pointless compromise, of no use to anyone and unsatisfactory for environmental associations, present in Rio en masse. For their part, the Brazilians have to answer for their bungling, madcap event organization, which left thousands of delegates at the mercy of a hotel system whose prices were extortionate. For its part, the European Parliament delegation preferred to give up the ghost rather than fall prey to the intolerable room rates (600 euros a night for a minimum of seven days for a meeting that lasted only four). If this was supposed to be the dress rehearsal for upcoming sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics, then Rio emerges with its image badly tarnished. If this is sustainable development, then it’s better to keep well away.

It’s a good job the People’s Summit was organized in the livelier, more laid-back setting of the beach of Flamengo. Here was a meeting of the peoples of this country cum continent, attended by thousands of grassroots associations that practice sustainable projects on a daily basis and, through their relational networks, activate virtuous processes: farming communities, organizations involved in educational and social activities in cities and their favelas, the powerful national association of the catadores, gatherers of recyclable material, who, given the lack of any differentiated refuse collection policy, practice recycling on their own. Here were humble people from all over the country who are fighting for property rights and against deforestation and who practice composting to reduce the use of chemicals on farming land — a multitude well rooted in civil society.

The end result is disconcerting: two parallel worlds, concerned with the same issues but adopting different methods and approaches, which don’t speak to each other, each incapable of sensitizing political parties and the institutions that count. When all is said and done, this is the real leitmotiv of the historical moment we are living in, a present without a clear future. Could philosopher Edgar Morin be right when he argues that the good practices of the innumerable movements that he defines as ‘communities of destiny’, will change politics?

Is this diffuse network of organizations really generating a new world consciousness capable of steering to safety ‘the Earth, the boat on which humanity sails’? Or are the catastrophists right? Maybe humanity is marching irresponsibly towards irreversible environmental disaster.

Viewed from Rio, both solutions seem possible. Everyone feels the need for new paradigms but no-one knows how to share them. Awareness is mounting for a policy limiting development, but no-one is ultimately prepared to put it into practice.

It’s hard to convert a world organized to produce more and more by creating the illusion that it costs less to a sense of measure and proportion. So even as buses full of delegates and the police escorts called in to ensure the safety of third-rate power players jam the traffic, causing interminable delays on journeys of only a few kilometers, even as hovering helicopters surveil the unsustainable gathering, on the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon the Cariocas continue to play soccer, exercise and improve their tans.

There’s nothing new under the Rio de Janeiro sun!

Carlo Petrini, La Repubblica 22/06/2012

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