Scattered as they are between thick foliage on mountain slopes and leaning into the sea – a visible sign of humanity’s interdependence with nature.
It was in Rio last week that the governments of the world met once again to see what had happened in the past 20 years to the sustainable development project, renew their increasingly empty commitment to humanity and launch the “green economy”.
At a venue that was a one- to two-hour bus ride away from the main meeting, the people gathered “for social and environmental justice, against the commodification of life and nature and for defence of the commons”. This, too, was a continuation of meetings and movements, such as the World Social Forum, to deepen analysis of the problems and crises facing the world, strengthen alternatives and build solidarity.
The contrast between RioCentro (the suits) and the Cúpula dos Povos at Flamengo Park (the masses) was palpable, although many people moved smoothly between the two. Air conditioning cooled the full-protocol-mode delegates in artificially lit tents at RioCentro, whereas tents without walls allowed sunlight and the sea breeze to soften Rio’s heat for those seated in circles in Flamengo. To some extent the topics were the same, but the analysis, approach and answers were not.
The point of departure for the Cúpula was that the ecological, social, economic and financial crises facing the world were not simply a result of market failure, but arose from a more fundamental dissonance. The political economic system we have could not respond adequately, if at all, to the challenges facing human beings and other species. Indeed, this system, which reifies greed and alienates people from each other and nature, was the cause and continued to make things worse.
We are, many argue, going through a period of change as profound as those of the Agricultural Revolution some 10 000 years ago and the Industrial Revolution around 200 years ago. As a species we have hit the natural limits of the world and need to adapt or die. And it needs to happen now.
The way the Cúpula was organised reflected the kind of diverse but convergent responses that are needed. Self-organised events about cultural expression, future territories to exchange best practice and knowledge, teaching sessions and markets for food and products were among the activities that were both autonomous and fed into plenary sessions organised around five themes: rights for social and environmental justice, defence of common goods and against commodification, food sovereignty, energy and extractive industries – the production of another economy and new paradigms for society. Apart from the long-standing social struggles for human rights and against the power of transnational corporations and global capital, a new conversation around the dual poles of the green economy and the rights of nature is emerging, as was evident in Rio.
Like sustainable development, the term “green economy” is contested. Without an Orwellian twist, it is an economy that is responsive to and reflects ecological realities; with corporate capture, it becomes an economy in which nature itself is priced and handed over to the highest bidder.
Halt and reverse
The response from conscious and active citizens to this theft is twofold: to halt and reverse the commodification and exploitation of nature and present alternatives. The alternatives are not merely alternative economic models, but include new conceptual frameworks, shifts in consciousness and reconnection with self, society and nature.
At the heart of this is how humans understand our existence within the Earth’s life-support system. For centuries, perhaps even millennia, humans have – with seeming success – distanced themselves from the natural environment and, depending on your particular world view, tamed, managed or conquered it. Rivers have been poisoned, forests decimated and species eliminated. We have even managed to alter the concentration of gases in the atmosphere and could well be facing runaway climate change that many people and other species will not survive.
Embracing the rights of nature at personal, legal and administrative levels could go some way towards reversing this. Instead of deciding how much pollution you can dump into a river, the river has the right to exist without being harmed and not just for the sake of human beings. In case this sounds far-fetched, think of other rights-based struggles and how the objectification of certain people – slaves, women, black South Africans – meant that they could be abused or killed with little or no remorse on the part of the perpetrator and no legal consequence.
This shift in mind-set to view ourselves as inseparable from nature, combined with legal and decision-making mechanisms, is necessary for the preservation of life itself. As shown in Rio, it is the answer that is emerging from social movements around the world but remains elusive to governments and corporations.
Jessica Wilson manages the water and climate change programme at the Environmental Monitoring Group