20 June 2012

Rio + 20 = Too Much

If the environmental impact of Rio +20 mirrors the flow of emails announcing it, then we are all well and truly screwed.

The insanity of hosting this conference in the least sustainable part of one of the world’s least “sustainable” cities has not quite caught on in the official announcements. Somehow, a city with no recycling program, with no food security program, with clogged traffic arteries, a huge housing deficit, no program to check if the subsidized closed condo complexes are connected to municipal sewage lines, somehow, this classifies a place as “sustainable”. It must be the massive military occupation that makes this word fit. Or perhaps filling hotel rooms is a way to “green” a city. Or perhaps slapping some grass on rooftops and creating false environmental certifications, contracting foreign universities to collaborate with business magnates or embarking on repetitive cycles of creative destruction lead business and policy elites to say things like:

Leakages. Right. I also understand that North Korea has issues with their voting machines.

For the thirty-odd people that are not in Rio de Janeiro this week for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development [sic], the Cupula dos Povos, the C40 Mayor’s conference, Humanidade (still not sure what that is), and three days of mayor-decreed holidays,  you are missing out.  The city’s avenues are shutting down periodically and emphatically for the comings and goings of super, extra-important and very, very special people. On every corner in the Centro and Zona Sul there are huge men standing around with even bigger guns, showing the path to Barra de Tijuca where tens of thousands of Brazilian army regulars are patrolling. Every few minutes a helicopter with snipers sitting in the open door putters past my window. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I perceive as the rank hypocrisy of Rio+20 and what I perceive to be the complete green-washing of what has become a global business conference. We all know that in the midst of an economic crisis, the first items to be cut are international holidays (unless paid for with public funds), environmental protection measures, education and health care. The order and depth of the cuts vary, but is always the same. “Austerity” is just another word for nothing left to lose. I think that’s a Joan Baez tune.

So is this clusterbumble of an event designed to make the world conscious about environmental issues, or is it a chance to get us to resolve our problems through the more efficient implementation of technological and technocratic solutions to a narrative of collective doom articulated by prophets of globalization? It is probably something in between those two poles, but both are being stroked by conservatives.

The raising of environmental consciousness is, of course, necessary and right. However, unless that consciousness is decoupled from acts of consumption then it continues the same patterns that have made that consciousness necessary in the first place. That is, if we think that buying carbon offsets and engaging cycles of creative destruction is a way to solve environmental problems, then I am going to change my last name to Bloomberg. The mantra of sustainable development depends on cycles of ever-increasing growth, not wealth re-distribution or re-allocation or alternative use. Reducing the divide between rich and poor will never enter the equation @ Rio+20. Building a discursive platform that “everyone” (except us) can agree upon while sustaining economic growth, ensures that the status quo will be maintained, an essentially conservative position. Does it matter whether or not we collective act upon the carefully crafted words of Rio +20? Or have the words been so carefully crafted that they will have no effect other than to assuage our collective iphone guilt? Is there an app for that? Can I buy carbon credits with the money I get from selling my Exxon shares?

The other pole dancers are those who see the era of capitalist developmentalism with certain nostalgia and want to slap a certificate on their old products to continue business as usual. It is right and proper that the conference is happening on an overdeveloped wetland with massive sewage, transportation, social and housing problems. The lack of irony is as profound as the lack of honest intention. We can market the solutions to death. As my colleague Leo Name pointed out recently, what happened to Chlorofluorocarbons? Remember how bad those things were? Then there was a solution, HCFCs, just a little more expensive. Now, HCFCs are bad, so we need another, yet more expensive solution, HCFC+. I prefer leeches, thanks. Stick ‘em right on that old air-conditioner.

I’m going to process this Rio+20 mess by avoiding it entirely. The alternatives being proposed at the Cupula dos Povos are much more interesting and the massive marches happening today from the Vila Autodromo to the Rio+20 site, despite intentional sabotage from the city, are an expression of a human consciousness that goes beyond mercantilist logics which is where we need to go to arrive at solutions for problems that may or may not be collective, depending on your ability to buy yourself a motorcycle escort, helicopter flight, or clean glass of water in Barra de Tijuca.  

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