07 June 2012

Rio+20 and its historical context – a challenge to the system

by Branislav Gosovic*
A long journey
To understand better Rio+20, its proceedings and eventual outcomes, one needs to recognize that it is a way station on humankind’s continuing journey. 

  • Multilaterally it started in 1945 with the creation of the United Nations, the decolonization process and the emergence of the developing countries – the Third World or the South – as a political force on the world scene, and the North-South confrontation over development and the global political and economic order, a confrontation that continues today in a variety of contexts.
  • Politically and theoretically its beginnings are to be found in the musings of philosophers and religious figures in antiquity over the nature of human society, polity and economy, place and role of the individual, and relationships with the nature. In the contemporary epoch it is reflected in the struggle over paradigms that orient society, economy, states and human action, and increasingly in the debates on the nature of the nascent world system and civilization. This struggle is evident within and between nations, in the North and in the South, and in occasional global forums and gatherings, such as Rio+20, where one has to look at the whole.

The underlying controversies, conflicts and dilemmas that have characterized this collective journey will figure prominently at Rio+20, as they did in earlier environment-related global gatherings, beginning with the 1972 Stockholm Conference.

For some among those who will be at Rio+20, especially the younger “internet” or “twitter” generations, the environment-related story begins with the 1992 UNCED. They have little familiarity with antecedents and often minimal awareness of the overarching « world order » problematique, of which Rio+20 is but a side event. Indeed, at the beginning of the 1990s, when UNCED took place, the « end of history» was triumphantly announced to the applause and relief of many. This was an attempt to belittle and dismiss given dimensions of history, including some at the very centre of the early disagreements likely to reappear at Rio+20. They were summarily pronounced to “belong to the past” and as of no relevance in the evolving context.

Two underlying controversies
There are two running, underlying controversies originating in the early period that have affected and stalled international action on environment. Their ramifications persist to the present day.

The first controversy concerns the definition and scope of “environment”, and the twinning of environment and development agendas made at UNCHE following pressures by the South. The developing countries considered this broadened approach as a quid pro quo for their joining the environmental bandwagon driven by the North. They expected that in return the developed countries, which they held principally responsible for global environmental problems, would become cooperative and positive in dealing with the international development agenda. Development was a means to overcome poverty and underdevelopment-related environmental problems, and also to bolster the developing countries’ ability to respond to and avoid the environmental problems caused by modernization and economic growth, including pollution. The developmental dimension was reflected in such provisions as human settlements, financing, transfer of technology, access to markets, and in general safeguards against possible development burdens and obstacles caused by environmental measures. The Nairobi location for UNEP headquarters, secured by the Group of 77 against the wishes of the North, was also supposed to keep the new organization aware of development challenges.

The developed countries were not happy with the broadened definition, including in particular the implications of the soon to follow New International Economic Order initiative, the demand of developing countries for recognition of national sovereignty over renewable and non-renewable natural resources, attempts to institutionalize in the framework of the United Nations scrutiny of and disciplines for TNCs in their global activities and secure the harnessing of science and technology for development.

For them environment was a specialized assessment-management matter corresponding to their advanced stage of development, a technological problem often involving end-of-pipe solutions, and a nature conservation challenge. While they worried about population growth in the South and the degradation and exhaustion of natural resources, they were not keen on expanding the environmental agenda to include poverty, human settlements, additionality of development assistance, easy access to environmentally sound technologies, avoidance of trade-barriers on account of environmental regulations, etc. Nor were they prepared to reinvigorate the international development agenda. And, the “peripheral” location of UNEP remained for them a source of institutional unease.

The second controversy has to do with the dominant paradigm of how to organize human society. By postulating a sweeping integrated or holistic approach to environmental challenges at UNCHE, the door was opened to address and link different issues and their cause-effect relationships. This legitimized the questioning of the nature of the existing world order and helped launch the quest for « alternatives », including in economics, and economic and social indicators, including GDP/GNP. The first daring multilateral foray into this “off limits” territory was made by UNEP and UNCTAD, in cooperation with Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, at their 1974 Cocoyoc Symposium on Patterns of Resource Use, Environment and Development Strategies. It is the controversial Cocoyoc Declaration that launched the now widely used concepts of « lifestyles » and « patterns of consumption and production ».

None of this was to the liking of the developed countries. The linkages between sectors, issues and disciplines and an integrated vision of what is de facto a man-made system were frowned upon; the so-called « salami » approach of dealing pragmatically with discrete issues, on a case-by-case basis, in specialized, “mandated” institutions was preferred. This was also a means to avoid c
onfronting broader, interrelated policy issues (trees vs. forest) in global UN forums.

“Conservative counter-revolution”
A fundamental policy shift to the right of the political spectrum, which took place first in the two key countries of the North, had no sympathy for either one of these two directions that were being hatched in the framework of the United Nations.

These were perceived as potential challenges to the system and a deviation from the favoured policy outlook. Such and similar trends had to be countered and the United Nations, as their facilitator and platform, had to be tamed and marginalized. 

This was an aspect of the « great conservative counter-revolution », conceptualized by right-wing think tanks and embraced by the leaders of these two developed countries, which they made explicit first at the 1981 North-South Cancun Summit.

Shortly after the 1992 UNCED, for all practical purposes, the North-South development dialogue was over, the Washington consensus, as a global doctrine, was firmly enthroned as a panacea for all problems faced by humankind, including development, and the policy space of the United Nations was curtailed and its Secretariat staff placed under tighter control.

The age of neo-liberal globalization
Thus began the period of neo-liberal globalization, when many outstanding issues were delegitimized or swept under the rug and earlier agreements and objectives simply ignored.

Politically and substantively, UNCHE, WCED and UNCED belonged to the earlier phase, when the North-South dialogue was functional and the progressive approach to environment held sway in a few countries of the North, for example Sweden, which inspired the original initiative to place environment on the UN agenda.

What followed in the post-UNCED period was an effort to force the “escaped genie” (i.e. environment-development and systems approach) into the neo-liberal globalization bottle of market supremacy et. al. and recast North-South relations and the development agenda according to the same model, with WTO, World Bank and IMF leading the multilateral charge.

Internationally, the negotiations in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change brought into a single focus and exposed the underlying structural and policy controversies and dilemmas mentioned above. As usual, this involved high cost of proposed measures, burden sharing and differentiated responsibilities, access to and transfer of technologies, and the responsibility of the developed countries in coping with consequences of global climate change.

Similarly, the « definitional » disputes over the meaning and implications of the « green economy » concept illustrate the cleavages and suspicions that exist between the North and the South, whose origins have their roots in the early experiences and in what has transpired globally in the period since.

Rio+20 outlook
In the existing conundrum, one cannot have great expectations from Rio+20 in terms of major breakthroughs and outcomes. The North-South development dialogue is in shambles, the hard-nosed attitude of developed countries, burdened by their own domestic and global economic problems, which led to heated confrontation with the Group of 77 at UNCTAD XIII, including over the institutional mandate of this organization to address linkages between trade, finance and technology, are likely to reflect on Rio+20 proceedings. This goes especially for such issues as trade, financing for development, and transfer of technology, which have fanned the global North-South environmental debates since Stockholm.

The same is true of the underlying challenge of how to maintain the environment-development Siamese twins (i.e. sustainable development) together, and the related controversial institutional issue of creating a “specialized” world environment organization and thus return to a more narrowly defined concept of “environment”, while leaving to other “qualified” institutions the troublesome development considerations.

While the neo-liberal globalization model is beginning to show signs of weakening, including in the North, its hold is still tenacious. It does not permit major departures from the prevailing orthodoxy. One thus cannot expect many, if any, alternative thinking and fresh, innovative proposals to emerge from the intergovernmental deliberations at Rio+20.

In terms of outputs, Rio + 20 cannot repeat UNCED, UNCHE or Brundtland Commission. Its negotiated outcome document, a result of an unwieldy “drafting by committee” process, cannot match the more elegant and comprehensive declarations and plans of action adopted on earlier occasions, although it will repeat or touch on most of the key themes and objectives, with usual qualifications. Given the existing tensions and unresolved issues, one can only hope that it will end with a closing celebration of the kind that crowned such world conferences in the more inspiring pre-globalization period.

The above does not mean that one should be pessimistic about Rio+20. Together with Stockholm, Rio and Johannesburg, it belongs to an ongoing, continuous process and will be affected by the same unresolved issues, dilemmas and disagreements, in their old or new form. The earlier documents and decisions, including Agenda 21, did not yield in practice much visible progress on key systemic issues of North-South relations or in confronting the nature and direction of the existing system. On the contrary, in some key areas there occurred a backward slide. Many of these will be on the negotiating table again, reflected between lines or caveats appended in the text adopted, or in the background atmospherics at Rio+20.

Post Rio+20 – a crossroads?
Rio+20 is taking place after decades of limited and spotty progress, deep-freeze and even retrogression imposed on policy and action fronts by key developed countries and powerful economic forces within them, by the neo-liberal globalization paradigm and the ideologically-motivated negation and dismissal of global public good/goods concepts and ideals of human solidarity and cooperation.

Given the intensification of global environmental problems, emerging doubts in the dominant system and model in the North, the rising South and growing capacity and self confidence of some developing countries, and many articulate voices coming from the civil society and indigenous peoples that will be gathered in Rio on the margins of the main event, some of whom will speak openly and dare challenge the dominant order, one is tempted to hope that the next stage on this long march initiated 40 years ago in Stockholm will be a happier one.

Regardless of its outcomes and various recommendations that it will adopt or not adopt, building on the foundations cast over the years and as a delayed, slow-gestating fruition of labours at UNCHE and UNCED or repeated frustrations, Rio+20 could yet turn out to be an important crossroads that will lead into and signal the arrival of a positive and promising stage in international relations and multilateral processes.

This new stage could allow some of the initial, farsighted principles, concepts and ideas of international cooperation to be revived and implemented, e.g. to have taxation of uses of global commons (e.g. today including massive internet windfall benefits that accrue to some) to mobilize significant financial resources for global sustainable development needs and to place them under multilateral UN control, thus overcoming traditional dependency on the rich countries’ “largesse” for funding (which today includes corporate and philanthropist donors) and their using this to determine nature of activities or simply to block the unwanted ones, or indeed to dominate specialized agencies and their programmes and staffing.

Rather than entrusting development of environmentally-friendly and “green” technologies wholly to the big business and corporate sector, is it not possible to have these developed as joint, international public undertakings -- to be placed in the public domain, as public goods in service of planetary objectives, subsidized and available for use by all worldwide, and avoid technological dependence and high costs that the former would entail?

“Inter-nationalizing”, i.e. making them “belong to” (rather than “owned by”) world peoples, nations and humankind, of global services (e.g. telecommunications) and global corporations working in domains of public interest (e.g. health, food, energy, software) would depoliticize the controversies over their ownership, make them available and accessible to all, and yield income for planetary needs, rather than channel these resources into accounts of investors, banks, corporations, patent holders and monopolies, and, obscenely, the mega rich transnational coterie or class of individuals. Among other things, this calls for deconstructing and replacing the existing, highly obstructive intellectual property regime entrenched in WTO by a different one, starting from completely new foundations.

Such measures would help defuse the conflict of “who will pay” and “bear the burden” of needed measures, which in a number of domains represents the main stumbling block today. Also, they would help do away with interminable haggling and often futile negotiations between unequal partners, such as take place in climate change forums and which divert attention from strategic issues.

Evidently, measures of this kind call for significant systemic change and paradigm redesign, and of course for major political and mindset changes, especially in the key developed countries. They also imply liberation from the continuing global “intellectual leadership”, i.e. “domination”, skillfully exercised by the North, including in the media and educational fields, which form the global public opinion and younger generations, and shape the thinking about and understanding of global issues.

“Global spring” on the horizon?
Thus, an optimist can dare hope for a “global spring” in the medium-term period following Rio+20, one of systemic and paradigm change -- heralded first by the Stockholm Conference and the efforts that followed it  -- of recovering the ground lost and moving on to a future of cooperation and peace.

Possibly, given the existing ideological deep freeze cum systemic impasse, countries and societal forces committed to progress and positive action should consider mounting independent, parallel actions to implement some of the agreed policies and needed measures. This may be preferable to submitting for decades to the fiat of the “convoy syndrome”, i.e. moving at the speed of the slowest (big) ship dictated by its peculiar domestic politics and global ambitions, and thus waiting for decades, often in vain. Or, to seeking negotiated quid pro quo agreements and compromises with unwilling “partners” who do not exhibit the necessary enthusiasm to join but rather frown upon and oppose this global quest, unless it can produce tangible benefits and payoffs for them, including corporate actors.

As for the developing countries, South-South cooperation provides an opportunity to act on their own on shared objectives and concerns, with some interested developed countries joining in triangular arrangements. Importantly, the South will need to examine the balance sheet of its decades-long, quite often sterile, engagement with the North and to revive and evolve its own strategy of collective self-reliance. This involves taking lead in the still uncharted terrain of alternative patterns of development, production and consumption patterns and lifestyles, and moving into the position of global policy leadership.

One thing is certain, ideas abound and there is a shared agreement on broad environmental objectives. States locked in their disagreements may wish to revisit and study for inspiration and guidance the declarations and plans of action they have adopted over the years in the United Nations and pay greater attention to societal forces and actors able to think outside the box of “man-made” conceptual, paradigmatic, methodological and bottom-line schemes that have entrapped and paralyzed the establishments and pragmatists who are in power and have been marketed to the global public opinion and taught in educational establishments as the only possible and viable alternative.

If adopted, the recommendation to launch work on sustainable development goals (SDGs) provides the next, important opportunity down the road to continue and resume efforts in this direction following the Rio+20 episode. Hopefully, unlike MDGs, which were simplistic and quantitative, almost wholly addressed to individual developing countries and elaborated in a closed door setting, with Bretton Woods institutions and OECD playing a leading role, SDGs ought to be derived through a wide and participatory process, primarily addressed to the advanced countries and to collective responsibilities of the international community, and represent a judicious mix of policy, qualitative and quantitative objectives.

“Dream on”, some hardened, realist observers will comment sarcastically, while the contemporary world, spearheaded by finance capital, corporate, S&T, communications, military superiority and the 21st century version of power and realpolitik, inexorably marches on and the traditionally dominant players are joined by the new ones, eager to imitate them and move to the pinnacle of the global pyramid, thus reinforcing the old, supposedly eternal system, though in a new, shiny garb.

But the future is made of dreams of a better world. It is a civilizational and global democratization challenge. Certainly, Pachamama and One Earth would approve, as would the peoples and coming generations of this world, including those who will gather at a hypothetical Stockholm+100 conference. It may yet turn out that the environment-development link made in the now-distant 1972 was the foundation stone of a global community building. A luta continua. (3026)                                   

* Branislav Gosovic is the author of The Quest for World Environmental Cooperation, The case of the UN Global Environment Monitoring System, Routledge, London and New York 1992. Most recently he co-authored with Boutros Boutros-Ghali Global Leadership and Global Systemic Issues: South, North and the United Nations in a 21st Century World, Kolofon Press, 2011. During his long international career, he worked in UNCTAD, UNEP, ECLAC, WCED, South Commission and South Centre. The present note, completed on 5 June, the World Environment Day, was prepared in conjunction with his interview given to Inter Press Service on 29 May 2012, “North-South Divide Looms Heavily over Rio+20 Summit.”

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