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10 Things You Should Know About the Rio+20 Earth Summit

Will we turn environmental protection into a game of profit? What you need to know about the global gathering.

Rio by banjo boy

Photo by Banjo Boy

In 1992, the Rio Earth Summit brought world leaders together around the frame of “sustainable development” and launched global agreements on biodiversity, climate change and desertification. Two decades later, the environmental and economic crises they had hoped to stave off—global warming, record extinction rates, depleted fisheries, vast economic inequality—are upon us. And so political leaders and grassroots activists are gathering again in Rio in late June to take up the planet’s most pressing issues. Here are 10 things you should know about the Summit:

  1. What, if anything, will be decided? Rio+20 won’t produce a legally binding agreement, but the outcome document will lay out a so-called “Green Economy” agenda as a new roadmap for sustainable development.
  2. Beware of the slogan “Green Economy.” This might sound nice, but many who are using the slogan in the Rio+20 context are just trying to use the environmental crisis as an opportunity for corporate profits. They say the answer to our environmental woes is to allow corporations to buy and sell our forests, water, and other natural resources, as if they were just another widget.
  3. Value versus price. A big idea being revived for Rio is that if we put a price on natural resources and environmental services (like filtering water), we can manage them more efficiently. But this means the people with the most money get the biggest say in decisions about common resources.
  4. Nature as a new asset class. Wall Street is hoping the Rio+20 leaders will endorse their efforts to ‘financialize’ nature by creating derivatives based on underlying ‘natural’ assets. The biggest experiment so far is the carbon market, which has tanked while failing to deliver the climate pollution reductions or clean technologies promised by its architects. And yet for investors looking for the kinds of high returns they got used to before the financial crash, this is a new frontier.
  5. The risk of turning nature into a casino. A fundamental question our world leaders face is this: Does it really make sense to put the future of our remaining common resources—forests, genes, the atmosphere, food—into the hands of people who treated our economy like their personal casino? The financialization of nature might generate a whole lot of paper wealth for a few powerful people, but it’s unlikely to pull billions of people out of poverty or protect the planet.
  6. Rio needs a reality check. The problem that plagues Rio+20 is a fundamental flaw that underlies most development discussions—that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. We need to return to serious strategizing about limits to growth and ways to meet people’s needs that are consistent with ecological boundaries.
  7. All people are created equal. The fact that the 20 percent of humanity living in North America, Europe, and Japan is gobbling up 80 percent of the planet’s resources means that there’s little left for impoverished countries to meet basic needs without trashing the planet. Rio+20 should reinforce the need to reduce consumption in industrialized countries.
  8. Democracy deficit. The fact that the draft outcome document doesn’t even mention the rights of poor people to land, forests and other commons shouldn’t be surprising. Civil society has had less input into the official process than 20 years ago, and most of the important deals are being brokered in the hallways, where poor people have little to no access.
  9. The real action will be at the alternative People’s Summit. People from movements all over the world are coming to Rio armed with practical ideas to solve the ecological crises. These include commons management of the Great Lakes, keeping oil in the soil in Ecuador, taxing financial speculators to fund green jobs, and getting rid of subsidy handouts to oil, coal and gas companies.
  10. Build the movement! Be a part of the global day of action on June 20th to defend our common future and reject the commodification of life by hosting or joining an event or activity in your community.

The Rio Earth Summit is presenting us with a false choice between environmental protection through private profit on the one hand and state-sponsored green growth on the other. What we really need is a multilateral process that supports local living economies, and public institutions to democratically manage the commons.


Janet Redman Janet Redman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Janet is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies, the country’s oldest multi-issue progressive think tank, where she provides analysis of international financial institutions’ energy investment and carbon finance activities.

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