Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Rio+20…deleting justice

The world’s governments are gathering in Rio de Janeiro in June for Rio+20 – the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit. They will dedicate a document to the occasion with the inspiring title ‘The Future We Want’. That might sound a bit like ‘the hamburger we want’ or ‘the chewing gum we want’ and indeed Rio+20 comes with strong assurance that everything is for sale. That’s because anything that is not for sale just doesn’t make sense.

So the river, the watershed, the forest, the whole ecosystem must be re-defined as providing ecological services with a price on the services. Otherwise the river is a non-thing – a void in the map – and the people there are nowhere. With a price on it, the ecosystem can be privatised right down to its DNA and then traded. That is what makes it real to the world’s rulers. When they can own it – some hope – maybe they won’t trash it. It might also be hoped that, if they own the people they won’t trash them either. Regrettably, the history of slavery does not confirm this.

This is the ‘green economy’ that suddenly became so fashionable when the banker’s economy went bust in 2008. Even South Africa got in on the act with the Department of Trade and Industry hosting big green economy conferences. It is driven by the desperation to find something more to profit from. The green economy does not mean that renewables will now replace coal. It means that renewables will be added to coal. There must be more, always more.

The first draft of the Rio+20 document, called the zero draft, was 19 pages. The next version, with every nation’s brackets, amendments and deletions, comes in at over 250 incomprehensible pages. Fortunately Paul Quintos of the Ibon Foundation, a Filipino NGO, is there to tell us what’s going on. Any text that says people have rights must be expunged:   “the ‘Right to food and proper nutrition’ – delete says one major power … ‘Right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation’ – delete!”

On the other side of these deletions is the sacred market: “‘promoting open and transparent markets; … promoting secure rights to land and natural resources, …’ -- by secure rights they mean property rights – that is fine for them!” But do not mess with the market: “‘Regulating financial and commodity markets to address price volatility’ – Delete!”

Bracketing text is preparing it for deletion. All the Rio principles, says Quintos, “are being bracketed: the Polluter Pays Principle, Precautionary Principle, Common But Differentiated Responsibility.”

This last principle is the one that means that the North is more powerful than the South – and got rich on causing the destruction – and must therefore contribute more to cleaning up the mess. The US does not like allusions to inequality of power. Such allusions suggest that there is something wrong with the world in which it is top dog, that it owes something.

Indeed they do. For the Southern elites, common but differentiated responsibility means that the North must put cash on the table. It also means that, in the name of equality between nations, it is the South’s turn to destroy. Money, not destruction, will be at the heart of the divisions at Rio+20.
Yet North and South are all agreed that equality between classes may not be discussed. If it was, how could they push down the price of labour? How could they plunder the land?

In June we will see if they arrive at an agreed text. With any luck, the conference will end in mutual recrimination and they will leave Rio in shame and disarray. But however that may be, they will keep coming with the common and undifferentiated agenda to wipe out all rights but the rights of the market.


  1. I get your point but I also think you're missing it. Currently clean water, air, pollutant gases etc have no monetary value attached, which means that in the (dominant) market-based system, they don't exist. Valuing them at least makes them visible, puts a cost on them, means it might become more difficult for companies to pollute and destroy these resources without a pricetag being attached (hah! - but we live in hope). At the moment, what is happening is a massive market failure because these costs are real but aren't being counted.

    Whether the market-based system should be the dominant one is a separate argument, and one which isn't going to be won before Rio. It's repellent to have to live and operate in a world where everything is for sale, but if nature is forced to be a prostitute, then let's at least try to negotiate a high price for her services.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Caroza. No, we did not miss it. We just don't believe it. As Joan Martinez-Alier puts it, this isn't a market failure but a failure of the market system. Pricing things won't save the ecology any more than carbon trading does - it just gives them something else to trade. Indigenous people object that much of what will get traded is on their land and repeats the colonial trope of 'res nullius' and inaugurates another round of dispossession.

    You clearly don't really believe them either. That's why you say, (hah! ...). We see little hope in handing control of natural systems to the people who presided over the global Ponzi scheme revealed in 2008. (You may have seen the latest scandal related to that - the fixing of the Libor rate.) Recall too that the present enthusiasm for the green economy originates in that moment. It was and is about saving Capital, not nature.