This month’s Changing the Atmosphere column features a guest report on the recent Rio+20 conference by anthropologists Myanna Lahsen and Colleen Scanlan Lyons. Lahsen is an associate researcher in the Earth System Science Center at the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE) in São José dos Campos, Brazil, and editor of the WIREs Climate Change online journal domain entitled “The Social Status of Climate Change.” Scanlan Lyons is a research associate at the Institute of Behavioral Science and the Center for the Study of Conflict, Collaboration & Creative Governance at the University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as the director of research and faculty for CU’s President’s Leadership Class. We really appreciate having the opportunity to learn about the conference through their experiences, as well as considering the implications of this event for anthropological research on climate change.
Experiencing Rio+20 through the Lenses of Anthropology and Climate Change
By Myanna Lahsen and Colleen Scanlan Lyons
Capturing the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—known as Rio + 20—is a difficult task. The conference was simultaneously inspiring and frustrating to participants from around the world who flocked to the gorgeous Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro during the official conference from 20-22 June 2012, and to the innumerous events during the two weeks leading up to it. The original Earth Summit meeting in 1992, which gave rise to concerted international treaty-making for environmental protection, was already faltering ten years ago, when world leaders in Johannesburg retreated from the more ambitious statements made in 1992. This led some to speak of the “death” of “Rio environmentalism,” referring to the efforts initiated in 1992. Rio+20 was not expected to yield large results either. At Rio+20, the “death of sustainable development” was declared as a proposal for an inverse paradigm for our future. Since “development” hasn’t been able to successfully incorporate social and environmental needs, we should try the inverse: social and environmental realities should be prioritized and incorporate development within the framework of their efforts instead.
Along with the conference came protests by civil society. Many environmental and other engaged groups objected to being listed as supporters of the pallid and unambitious formal document produced by diplomats as an outcome of meeting—ironically titled “The Future We Want.” Some twenty thousand environmental activists, rural and urban workers, students, professors, native peoples and other groups gathered in protests the streets. The peacefulness of the demonstrations perhaps reflected best the general attitude towards Rio+20, which brought some advances but fell far short of the challenges, representing a huge loss of an opportunity to address urgent planetary problems.
Aside from the weak outcome, one great frustration of attending Rio+20 was also a reflection of its upside: the amazing concentration of interesting people, events, and discussions. It was impossible to take advantage of more than a small fraction of the richness offered for free—many sessions simultaneously—in spaces scattered all over the city. The events addressed elements of the conference’s guiding themes of sustainable development and a green economy. These vast topics were often subdivided into related thematic areas, such as poverty eradication, gender inequity, conservation of natural areas, and mitigation of/adaptation to the realities of climate change, reflecting the particularities of their organizers’ agendas.
At the Humanidade event and exhibit structure mounted on the grounds of the Copacabana Fort, for example, social entrepreneurs academics, NGO leaders, and governmental officials debated concrete actions toward sustainable business development, while citizens of Rio waited up to five hours to tour the impressive exhibit that highlighted aspects of consumption and production while posing questions for our future.
At the Ford Foundation’s event on women and climate change, the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, eloquently conveyed the central challenges that Rio + 20 highlighted—especially the need to transform the actions that lead to the harsh realities felt by people around the world. As she addressed women activists from many developing countries, she pronounced: “The face of climate change is an indigenous woman or a woman farmer—and she is hurting.” She continued, “we need to change our lifestyles – we need people to help the vulnerable communities.”
Following the announcement of the winners of the year’s Equator Prize, a free and fancy evening event sponsored by United Nations Development Program and the World Bank-led Global Environmental Facility’s Small Grants Programme featured the world-renowned Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil. The audience applauded leaders of small-scale efforts at reconciling sustainability and development, some nevertheless with a measure of discomfort as community leaders, efforts and problems in complex urban settings were conspicuously absent, creating a feeling that the most central voices of the world’s environmental threats were at most marginally addressed.
These drivers were generally timidly addressed, although it was widely recognized that the needed transformation depends on deep cultural change. An event at the People’s Summit earlier that day had explicitly called for culture to be included as a fourth pillar of sustainability. People gathered in a circle to share examples of how culture had been central to sustainable development initiatives around the world.
The many street protests didn’t help the city’s traffic, which already was an obstacle to attendees. The diplomatic negotiations took place in the conference area called “Riocentro.” Unlike what its name suggests, Riocentro is about as far from the center of Rio de Janeiro as one can get and still be within city limits! The negotiations and various side events took place in different parts of the city; it could take hours to get from one event site to another. Participants rode busses and spent small fortunes on cabs as they scrambled to get to events and find the proper buildings, rooms, tents, and myriad cultural venues that promised meaningful engagement around pressing development issues. One had to be well-connected, very lucky, or highly organized to know where to be and where, and to actually manage to get there in time.
Aside from traffic and protests, an obstacle was the lack of signposts to find events at the large “People’s Summit.” The “People’s Summit” took place in tents scattered over a large area along the green grass bordering the beach near the center of Rio de Janeiro. Many—including the two of us—wandered for hours, unsuccessful in finding scheduled events. The only thing making up for it were the spectacular views of the beach front and other interesting people and cultural elements, including the many native-clad Indians who walked and danced around the area.
The difficulty in getting to events certainly worked to minimize attendance, and with it, popular mobilization. Perhaps it was simply poor organization, and perhaps civil society itself was to blame, but it brought to mind the careful design of public spaces under Brazil’s military dictatorship, intended to discourage public gatherings and upheavals.
The anti-climatic feeling resulting from the fact of missing so much only grew upon hearing the emptiness of the diplomats’ green rhetoric in the absence of real commitments to change. In Brazil, President Dilma spoke dramatically of how sustainable development already is a reality, but her rhetoric seemed somewhat disingenuous considering the large-scale effort under her government to water down Brazil’s strong environmental laws. In the streets of Rio, thousands of activists marched against the nature- and culture-destroying dam constructions in the Amazon, the dams being one of the reasons for Brazil’s relatively green energy matrix. This context yielded resignation and disappointment, which also kept excitement about alleged green achievements and plans in check.
Civil society groups took to the streets in protests, feeling marginalized throughout the document’s drafting process. There was also general dissatisfaction and resignation with regard to the official outcome document from Rio + 20 drafted by delegates at RioCentro, which turned out to be a watered-down agreement devoid of commitment to significant actions to address the realities of climate change. Special interests managed to erase any reference to women’s rights to control their reproduction, among other efforts widely deemed critical to any effort to achieve environmental sustainability.
Substantive issues about the intersections among development, economy, society, and culture debated during side events were distinctly absent from the final document. In response, a subset of civil society groups drafted a document called “The Future We Don’t Want.” Signed by thousands of civil society groups as well as prominent leaders like Marina Silva, Brazil’s former Minister of the Environment, and social activist Vandana Shiva, among many other prominent non-governmental leaders, the document was presented on the final day of the official negotiations to convey dissatisfaction with the governmental negotiations and a sense of urgency that many things must change—and soon—to avoid global environmental and economic catastrophe.