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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Rio: Whos In Charge?
distributed 6/29/12 - ©2012

The UN Earth Summit, held last week in Rio, was destined to be a disappointment. Billed as "Rio +20", it evoked the 1992 Earth Summit held in the same city. Two decades ago, all the heads of state came to Brazil, and made bold -- if still unfulfilled -- promises about addressing the planet's problems. Nothing comparable happened this time.

The fact that 20 years of diplomacy and high-level conferences haven't made a dent in the issues named in 1992 is a painful reality check about the United Nations' lack of real power, and about the depth and complexity of the problems we face.

As I try to make sense out of this month's news and commentary about the Rio summit, I've found an intriguing analogy drawn from a very different situation. The horrible conflict in Syria opens some strategic insights for me.

Early in 2011, what is now called "the Arab spring" broke open a wave of populist protest -- both peaceful and violent -- which toppled and threatened several repressive regimes. In Syria, President Bashar Assad has been especially brutal in crushing dissent and preserving his power. More than 14,000 Syrian citizens have been killed in 15 months of conflict.

Within Syria, Assad has some strong support from factions who favor his secularist policies. Internationally, the Assad regime has been broadly condemned, with Russia pretty much alone in its strong backing. Unlike NATO's military support for the rebels in Libya, though, the international community has not intervened to overthrow Assad. In large part, that's because the Syrian opposition has not formed a strong and well-organized coalition that could take over the country if the president was removed.

The Associated Press describes, in northern Syria alone, "more than 20 rebel groups, with anywhere from fewer than 100 to more than 1,000 fighters each. ... while all share a deep hatred of President Bashar Assad's regime, their unity stops there. Simply put, no one is in charge."

The ongoing bloodshed in Syria shows me a situation where an entrenched power base fights to maintain its position. Passionate constituencies are willing to fight to the death for change, but they are unable to agree among themselves what change is needed, and their fragmented movement can't gain the backing of global powers. While Assad is despised internally and internationally, he remains in office.

Compare that situation with Grist columnist Greg Hanscom's description of Rio: "In a nutshell, the leaders of the world said, 'We recognize that we are in deep doo-doo, and we need to do something about it.' What that 'something' is remains unclear."

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The Rio summit meeting had a challenging topic. This conference was not dealing "just" with global climate change. According to the US State Department, "The official themes for Rio are the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development."

An article discussing the difficulty of addressing Rio's goals triggered my thinking about Syrian rebels. Henning Melber wrote:

However, to date there is no universally accepted definition or common understanding of what a green economy is supposed to be. ... Paradoxically, what governments do seem to agree on is the need for each country to interpret the concept of a green economy according to national priorities.

Virtually everyone involved with Rio knows that we have a catastrophic global situation. Countless reports show that conditions have deteriorated since the 1992 Rio meeting -- with soaring consumption of scarce resources, continuing extinction of species at alarming rates, unchecked global warming, and rising inequality. There is a broad awareness that "we are in deep doo-doo", but no consensus about what to do.

Even in the midst of our obvious crisis, there are strong powers who seek to maintain their privilege. Nations and corporations are willing to continue the destruction because it serves their narrow interests, and they have exercised their political and economic power to shape the discussions and decisions in Rio. Many worthwhile proposals -- including a convention to protect the high seas, and a condemnation of fossil fuel subsidies -- were crushed by delegations whose interests were threatened. (Under UN guidelines, conferences documents require consensus among all participating nations. Initiatives that have strong support can be vetoed by just a few holdouts.) It is easy to name and blame bad guys who have blocked action.

But, along with entrenched power, Rio also revealed the diversity and fragmentation of those who seek change. Indigenous voices decrying colonialism and exploitation don't share any common ground with those who look to the World Bank to fund huge energy initiatives. There is sharp disagreement about what measures to use in gauging progress -- the crude and purely financial Gross Domestic Product, some form of a still-fiscal accounting that does a better job of valuing natural resources, or Bhutan's Gross Happiness Index.

Rio showed the conflict between a wide variety of change agents. The sharp disagreements among those who oppose the status quo are part of what allow the continuation of business as usual.

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Where does this sort of analysis lead us? What can we learn from the fragmented opposition in Syria?

It is not enough to fight the status quo, to decry the greed of rich corporations and the intransigence of privileged nations. We also need to do a better job of building a coalition with similar goals and plans. The unsustainable trajectory of the world is clear, so there is much to fight against, but we need to be more clear about what we are fighting for. There won't be one clear goal that all will adopt, but we at least need to clarify the language and cluster the options.

One of the as-yet vague, but fast-tracked initiatives that did come out of Rio is a push to develop clear sustainable development goals. Some of the current definitions of sustainability seek only to sustain economic growth, while others highlight the need to sustain the web of life. It is essential that those of us with an eco-justice perspective -- respecting both ecology and social justice -- weigh in on the discussions about these goals. The UN has set an ambitious target of 2015 for developing these new goals. In our churches and advocacy groups, we need to be involved actively in this process.

I also see the need to better highlight and empower those initiatives for sustainability and ecological health that are working now. There's a need for increased visibility and broader support for projects that bring appropriate technology into poor regions, for the transition movement in the over-developed world, and efforts toward sustainable prosperity that is equitably shared among all. Among the great diversity of change efforts, credibility and encouragement need to be given to the ones that are proving to be effective.

The world is in crisis. There's really little dispute about that. The dispute is about what direction to go and what strategies to pursue in getting us out of the crisis.

Syria shows us that, when the agents of change are deeply divided, the powers that be will prevail. The utterly uninspiring conference in Rio shows the need to clarify our goals, empower our values, and build better cooperation among our allies.

We may never see big UN conferences and global treaties that define one path to salvaging the planet. These conferences, though, are a powerful forum for defining guiding principles, highlighting effective options, and giving credibility to the most viable players. Those are processes that we can, and must, support through our churches and in our advocacy.

A very helpful review and commentary on Rio that dovetails with my reflections comes from Yale Environment 360.

Thanks to the many readers of Notes who responded to last week's request for links and insights -- you've informed and shaped my thinking!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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