By Christy Rodgers for Climate Connections
18 June 2012 – Rio de Janeiro. The Peoples’ Summit opened this weekend with what is likely to be the highest level UN visit all week: by Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Program (UNEP). Steiner is perhaps the single person most responsible for the “green economy” model being touted as the best path to global sustainability. He was invited to speak – or rather listen – to the concerns of a broad array of social movement organizations that have been highly critical of this market-dependent strategy and what it means for the world’s people and ecosystems.
The mainstream US press, when it pays any attention at all to the official UN “Earth Summit,” seems to fret mostly about bureaucracy and obstructionism by poor countries. The concerns of hundreds, if not thousands of organizations and networks of peasant farmers, trade union workers, corporate watchdogs, indigenous peoples, and many other groups worldwide are quite different. They see the main problem is that the UN, like many member states, appears to have been functionally captured by the private sector. In the lead-up to the summit, major corporations positioning themselves to benefit from the market mechanisms being promoted have launched a greenwashing onslaught beyond anything the movement groups have seen before—which is considerable.
At the heart of the issue is the idea, fundamental to UNEP’s 2011 Towards a Green Economy report, that everything in nature must be assigned a monetary value—because that’s the only way we’ll take care of it. This is the logic that Steiner was in the unenviable position of having to defend at a Saturday session in one of the big white tents lining the Rio waterfront where the Peoples’ Summit is taking place. It is a pleasant, and far more accessible location than the remote business park twenty-five miles outside of town where the official negotiations are going on. Strolling the waterfront you initially get the feeling of a large, vibrant, and diverse county fair—Brazilian style. But inside the tents, named for the heroes of previous social struggles: Chico Mendes, Emma Goldman, Oscar Romero, Toussaint L’Ouverture – there is a sense of collective mission and outrage that seems to be missing from the official process and its various side events.
Steiner, who looks a little like Peter Sellers’ rendition of the befuddled President Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, sat on a dais with representatives of peoples’ organizations from Canada to Argentina. In turn, they presented him with variations on a seemingly obvious theme: assigning forests, water, organisms, etc., a monetary value is basically to open the door to a planet-wide scramble for the last shreds of the natural commons—the web of life—by private enterprise. And private enterprise has no obligation to protect these living systems, only to profit from them.
Steiner pleasantly, if with unavoidable condescension, made initial pleas for understanding and cooperation, avowing the UN’s (and his report’s) limitations.
But his pleasant demeanor and air of rationality faded as evidence of the deficiencies of capitalization programs already in use, like the forest-focused REDD, was presented to him by people who have direct experience with them. Pat Mooney of the technology watchdog ETC Group also pointed out that the green economy idea relies on the very same interests responsible for the current financial and climate chaos to somehow solve the problems they’ve caused—without anything more binding than an appeal to their better natures. The idea that the foxes are not only going to guard the henhouse but provide it with solar panels would be patently absurd if it wasn’t being promoted by the most powerful people in the world.
So when Pablo Solon, former ambassador to the UN from Bolivia, called Steiner “dishonest” for saying that assigning a monetary value to something didn’t necessarily mean that you were ever going to buy or sell it, the UNEP director lost his cool. He called the participants “Luddites,” and told them to “get real.” “Sorry, guys,” he kept repeating, in English, as if to say that their cause was hopelessly lost, and the express train of history was just going to move on without them. He was roundly booed, and the meeting ended with any initial goodwill dissipated.
There was perhaps a bit of grandstanding in some of the critiques. Voices were raised. But the tragedy is that people far from the seats of power know from experience that they have to shout to be heard at all. And being heard is not really even the key issue. As one of the panelists told Steiner. “We don’t just want to be listened to—we want to participate, to be able to negotiate these things.” But there is no place at the Earth Summit table for them, even though the stakes being played for are their lives.