Rio+20: An Ecological or Political Crisis?

Ten days ago the most important environmental summit of recent times ended in Rio de Janeiro. This great event was named in honour of the first Earth Summit, also held in that city in 1992.

Twenty years have gone by since the ideas of ‘shared responsibility’ for all countries and ‘sustainable development’ of our planet were firmly put on the table. So many of us expected this meeting to – finally – offer a global framework with specific and detailed agreements to address the rapid environmental destruction of our planet.

However, not only did our leaders fail to agree on clear strategies to address the profound dangers of our unsustainable lifestyle, but it became even clearer that the obstacles to this goal have become greater than ever. The final declaration is little more than 283 paragraphs of formalities: diagnoses are made on past diagnoses; shared concerns about the global environmental crisis are repeated again and again; the urgent need for action is expressed in various ways.

Furthermore, the new text now uses ‘sustained growth’ to refer to what in 1992 was called sustainability. This begs an obvious question: how far can we take sustained growth in a world that depends on non-renewable natural resources? Doesn’t that contradict the basic definition of sustainability?

The work of some delegations deserves to be mentioned. The US was the only one capable of imposing specific desires: it was able to veto (as is now the custom) specific references to patterns of overconsumption and waste, which, unfortunately, are becoming desired lifestyles to people in developing societies. Moreover, they managed to do this without President Obama; who like Britain’s Cameron and Germany’s Merkel, failed to show up at the summit.

Colombia’s participation was equally interesting. While the Colombian delegation was dedicated to promoting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), President Santos made several references to large mining initiatives – the cornerstone of his government’s development agenda.

After a lengthy process which began in early 2011, and which sent the team of deputy minister Londoño around the world several times, paragraphs 245 to 251 of the declaration refer to the SDGs; however, no single idea is developed in detail. Only a promise was made to address them in detail at a later occasion.

Fortunately, the Summit left us one priceless gift: the 10 minutes during which the President of Uruguay, José Mujica, lectured the honourable representatives of 193 countries (see video above). It will be remembered as a speech, or as he calls it “a moment of teeth grinding”, that masterfully sums up the problem, the guilty ones, and the solution(s).

President Mujica, who is also famous for donating 90 per cent of his salary to charity (dear reader: please compare this to your own political representatives), offers us a profound insight into ethics and life. His bombshell, coming 4 minutes 10 seconds into the speech, sums up our global sustainability catastrophe which will no doubt remain the case for the next 20 years: “The great crisis is not an ecological crisis, but rather a political one”.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 2 July 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.


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