Rio+20 proves capitalism won't save the planet

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While the world’s governments refused to act, 50,000 thousands trade unionists, rural workers, landless peasants and indigenous peoples demonstrated outside. They are the real hope for a mass anti-capitalist movement movement to stop environmental disaster.

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by Martin Empson

Martin Empson, a member of the British Socialist Workers Party, took part in the Peoples’ Assembly in Rio. This article originally appeared in Dutch on the website Internationale Socialisten.

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development ended last week in what can only be described as failure. The declaration that came out of the conference, optimistically titled “The Future that We Want” is a bland statement of the obvious. We face enormous environmental problems, but the Rio+20 response offers nothing but empty words; no timescales for action, no firm commitments.

Instead signatories re-committed themselves to “growth” and solutions such as “mobilizing funding from a variety of sources, public and private …  including innovative sources of finance.”

This is already breeding demoralisation amongst some activists. Veteran British environmentalist George Monbiot, argued that the international process is now almost pointless. For him, we should “give up” on such global agreements, and fight to preserve what we can, where we can; “Rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – offers the best hope we have of creating refuges for the natural world.”  This seems rather like the 1972 film Silent Running which depicted a future were the last remaining plants were kept in domes, orbiting a barren earth. It’s hardly an attractive vision of the future.

Monbiot rightly argues that the failure lies with governments that would rather spend money on war and bank bailouts, than saving the planet. But this should not be news.

Twenty years ago, the first Earth Summit met amongst a torrent of publicity and hope. Then, heads of state hurried to Brazil to be seen saving the planet. It was a time of concern over environmental issues, Chernobyl exploded a few years previously, the ozone layer and greenhouse effect were terms that reached popular consciousness. Environmental groups and Green Parties grew as people expressed concern over what was happening to the planet.

But since 1992 the situation has worsened. Thousands of species have gone extinct; greenhouse gas emissions from energy use are up 48%. Summer Arctic ice has decreased by three million square kilometres. 31 million hectares of Brazilian rainforest has been destroyed.

Writing in August 1992, Dave Treece pointed out that, “The Earth Summit demonstrated that those who hypocritically claim to speak of ‘our common future’, while upholding an exploitative, destructive market system, cannot be relied upon to abolish the conditions which endanger our well being and survival.”

Treece’s early assessment was proved absolutely correct. Since Rio ’92, governments around the globe have furthered their commitment to the neo-liberal agenda and, consequently, have undermined or blocked environmental action.

In 2009 the Copenhagen meeting of Concerned Parties failed to reach an agreement on action over climate change. That meeting took place in the midst of enormous mobilisations by environmentalists, trade unionists and activists. The failure demoralised many and the climate movements internationally have been on the defensive ever since. Politicians too recognised the debacle at Copenhagen and, in their desperation to ensure that it was not repeated, the Brazilian hosts created a draft text that was acceptable to all. Any trace of controversy was removed in advance. This was a draft that was full of fine words, but much more than is needed.

One of the great themes of the UN conference was the “Green Economy.” This sounds great, but can mean almost anything. To activists they sound like a clarion call to remake our economy. To governments they mean trying to green the existing economy – putting a green spin on existing industry and creating a few “green jobs.”

One indication of this was the way that corporations were central to the UN conference. The airport signs welcoming Rio+20 to Brazil were dotted with the logos of supporting companies. Delegates were treated to speeches from representatives of multinationals with such impeccable environmental credentials as Pepsi, Union Carbide, Shell, BP and Nestle. More than 1000 companies were represented at the summit.

Another can be illustrated with the attitude of the British Government. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg came to Rio full of promises. His government is prioritising the further privatisation of nature. The idea that the whole of the natural world, trees, parks, forests, landscapes can be costed is at the heart of this “Natural Capital”. Recently, Caroline Spelman, the British Environmental Secretary told us that the social and economic value of a tree, in an urban setting is £38,000. Britain wants to see countries create an environmental audit of the value of their natural world. Then, presumably, once the world has a value, it can be bought and sold.

Such free-market solutions have very much been at the heart of environmental solutions for decades. When Tony Blair’s favourite economist Nicolas Stern reported on the economic impact of climate change, he damned the way that the “free market” hadn’t been given enough opportunity to solve the crisis. At Rio+20 and at Climate conferences in Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban, we’ve seen governments trying to open up those opportunities.

It is no surprise that outside the conference there was enormous cynicism towards the UN event. Activists gathering for the People’s Summit had little, if any, belief that the outcome of Rio+20 would be anything other than a green wash. In the beautiful setting of Flamenco Park, some 15,000 activists took part in hundreds of meetings and debates to discuss the alternative. Those of us who had taken part in events such as Social Forums, Genoa 2001 or the Cochabamba conference, were reminded of some of the heights of the anti-capitalist movement. Not least in the critique of capitalism common amongst many activists.

Yet there were some problems. On the Wednesday, up to 50,000 people took part in an enormous demonstration calling for real action on Sustainability. This was a demonstration dominated by the trade union movement and mass organisations of rural workers, landless peasants and indigenous peoples. For socialists who believe that mass action from the producers of the world is what is needed to stop capitalism this was a high light of the week. Yet these groups did not turn out to the People’s Summit in numbers. As such the alternate conference failed to bring together those fighting the system, with those fighting for environmental justice.

Brazilian politics demonstrates this in microcosm. During the UN conference indigenous people had occupied the site of the Belo Monte Dam. Earlier in the year, construction workers at the same dam had gone on strike demanding “free air fare, permissions to visit hometowns every three months instead of the current six-month period and a higher-value monthly meal vouchers.”

The Brazilian government has just given the go ahead for a new Forestry Code, that will open up more of the country’s Rainforest to logging by multinationals. It will even give an amnesty to those who illegally cut the wood for decades. Currently there is a huge strike of workers in Brazilian universities. Many of these were represented on the demonstration at Rio+20.

These are issues that link indigenous people, landless workers and trade unionists. The Alternative People’s Summit should have brought those movements together to discuss alternative strategies.

One of the jobs of the left has to be to try and unite struggles. In the context of growing world-wide economic crisis and the increasing threat of environmental disaster, a socialist argument that says governments need to create “climate jobs” to solve both unemployment and environmental problems can get a wide hearing. Such a strategy is a way of opening up the debate about what sort of economy we need, and how it can be organised. A transitional demand like “climate jobs” can be a bridge towards revolutionary politics. Sadly there were too few socialists in Rio making these connections.

The danger is that the cynicism and demoralisation that followed the Copenhagen conference deepens in the aftermath of Rio+20. But this need not be automatic. Many of those at the People’s Assembly were linking the fight to save the planet with the struggles against capitalism.

If this political generalisation deepens and links are made with those fighting back against the consequences of economic crisis, it can be the beginnings of a powerful movement. On the demonstration last week, the movement of landless workers, the MST, carried a banner in front of thousands of their members, declaring “we reject the false solutions of green capitalism.” It is an eloquent slogan for a movement that must increasingly challenge capitalism if we are to avoid environmental disaster.