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Rio+20: The Challenges of the Peoples’ Summit*


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rio20-mock-logoThe United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio +20 takes place at a time when the economic crisis, that erupted in August 2008, plunging the United States, the European Union and Japan into recession, has intensified competition among governments of the central countries and emerging states, exposing the environmental weaknesses of all.

In this context, revisiting the goals established at Rio-92, one of the original purposes of this year’s conference, simply exposes governments and business elites to ridicule for their unkept promises.

To address the environmental crisis looming over the entire planet would mean scrapping huge capital investments made in industries which carry economic weight and political power, such as oil and automotive industries and those sectors devoted to conspicuous consumption. It would mean confronting both the Asian (particularly the Chinese) model as well as that of Latin American neo-developmentalism.

Tiny minority sectors of capital are venturing into the “green economy”, but without a chance of reaching positions of dominance at the heart of the process of neoliberal accumulation, whose hegemony remains unchallenged.

Thus, the dominant tone of the UN conference in Rio de Janeiro will be a public relations circus at Riocentro, at the heart of Rio’s Miami, as far as possible from popular demonstrations.

At this circus, the Dilma government intends to distract discussion about humanity’s march toward environmental collapse by focusing on the advances Brazilians have made in the fight against poverty. Already the markets are looking to Rio +20 for a mandate for a new offensive in the mercantilisation of nature, turning it into a commodity, with new “enclosures” and new spaces for accumulation.

The only place where the strategic dilemmas faced by humanity will be discussed is the Peoples’ Summit, the counter-conference of civil society and the social movements, scheduled for the Aterro do Flamengo, from 15 to 23 June. It is here that there will be room to express the criticisms of policies that have concentrated wealth and produced environmental crisis, and offer an alternative to global capitalism.

The Summit provides an opportunity to extend our critique of the civilisation produced by capitalism, one that is urban, industrial, manufacturing and increasingly consumerist. The Summit can provide us with ways to overcome this form of social organization and its relationship to nature.

A Civilization in Crisis

Governments around the world have had to accept, if only formally, that an economy of carbon, waste and disposables has produced global warming. The Fourth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, held in 2007, states that emissions of greenhouse gases may lead to an increase in temperature of more than 5 °C by 2100,eliminating the favourable conditions humanity has enjoyed since the end of the Ice Age.

This is just one of the threats we face. The loss of biodiversity and the imbalance in the nitrogen cycle in industrial agriculture are other processes that are out of control. The acidification of the oceans, changes in land use, imbalances in the phosphorus cycle, the destruction of the stratospheric ozone are all other well known problems. When one of these boundaries is crossed, it sparks off other changes in a complex dynamic.

Some scientists describe these imbalances are “rapidly accelerating”. Even moderates are reaching radical conclusions. James Hansen, formerly of the US space agency,

NASA, insists that the fight against global warming has the same moral significance as the fight against slavery. We can not leave our children and grandchildren in an exhausted world.

But to do this means reversing activities that underpin the functioning of society. Much of what is produced under capitalism is unnecessary for a dignified and healthy life and is harmful to the planet.

When we put all this into perspective, it becomes clear how deep are the changes necessary to address the environmental crisis. The clash with capitalism, which only allows palliatives, must be head-on. While one study published in Nature in March says temperature may increase by 3 ºC by as early as 2050, the climate negotiations have been postponed to 2015, and any agreement that is reached then – unlikely as this may be – would only begin in 2020.

Major disasters, which tend to occur if a social revolution does not confront the bases established civilisation, are not things for the distant future, but threats that will affect those who are already adults today.

This complex of information leaves the left facing an unavoidable conclusion. Neither the Chinese economic model nor South American neo developmentalism (deindustrialization and a return to primary production) are a viable alternative to the more regressive variants of neo-liberalism. On the contrary, they are a fast track to an intensification of the social and environmental crisis. This is not just a scientific observation, but a perspective held by increasingly significant social actors in our region.

In Brazil and throughout much of South America, popular movements have come into conflict with bourgeois development projects that are increasingly supplying inputs for Chinese capitalism. The regression of our industries to primary production [that is, the growing importance once again of the primary sector, compared with industry] is being accompanied by a significant increase in the destruction of ecosystems.

The fight against the reform of the Forest Code in Brazil, the struggle against mining in Peru, Ecuador and Argentina, and the opposition to export corridors and dams designed to lower the cost of extracting minerals sold to Asia across the continent, are part of the same strategic effort to rebuild the left around an alternative that can transcend capitalism.

The struggle for social and environmental justice is not compatible with policies to expand consumption, policies that do not offer basic public services but instead offer further gadgets and privatised services. The recent “gains” in South American economies are being achieved at the cost of dismantling more complex industrial chains of production. Set in motion by governments claiming to be on the left, this policy offers a progressive façade for the new enclosures of the commons goods and an increase in external dependence.

This is the framework to the strategic debate facing the left on this continent and of its potential contribution to a global movement increasingly confused by the consequences of the crisis. This is the background against which the debates at the Peoples’ Summit will take place.

Radicalizing democracy

The radicalization of our opposition to capitalism, to developmentalism and consumerism makes us different from a certain tradition of the productivist Left, best exemplified by the former Soviet Union. It paves the way for dialogue with large sections of the youth movement who who sense that today’s civilisation is on the road to disaster.

The scale of the changes needed requires the majority of ordinary people to take the stage come in and force a drastic change in the direction history is taking. To do this , however, they must change themselves in the process. It is impossible to undertake the transition that the human race and the planet demand with peoples whose ideal of happiness is consumerism and whose way of life is based on the exploitation of nature.

The emergence of a new political generation in the “Outraged” movements in Europe, in the Arab Spring, in the “Occupy” movement in the United States, requires a the left to make a wager, to believe that forces are germinating here that are capable of building a new civilization. Strictly speaking, this wager is not an option, but a duty for the socio-environmental left.

This can only happen through the exercise of a participatory democracy. The motto of some strands of today’s young “Outraged”, real democracy now!, is inseparable from the socio-environmental challenge. Only with the support of real democracy will we be able to overcome the current crisis of civilisation.

* This article was published in IBASE’s magazine, DemocraciaViva. Translation by LAB.

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