On Rio+20 and the Environmental Imagination in Climate Change Diplomacy
Anthropologist Paul Little described the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, a United Nations (UN) conference on sustainable development, as a mass ritual where more than one hundred heads of state and 30,000 credentialed participants built atmospheres teeming with documents, images, and information. Although observers and participants noticed at the time that such spaces failed to produce legally binding agreements capable of transcending the juridical order of that time, Little argued that, in ritual terms, the Earth Summit was still a partial success.
According to Little, the sheer size and quality of the performances at the Summit allowed participants to hope that future events of this kind would gradually create a new, more coherent pattern of international law—and therefore a more coherent “cosmos” in which capitalist growth would be conducive to environmental conservation. Rio+20, the UN conference on sustainable development that convened last June to celebrate the 1992 event, offered us an opportunity to study how climate change diplomacy encounters have changed in the last two decades. With 40.000 credentialed participants and more than 300.000 people attending unofficial side-events, this last summit offered us a mass ritual whose atmospheres elicited little hope of cosmological coherence even among its most ardent participants, leaving instead a stunning trail of nihilism.
To make sense of Rio+20 we might begin with the UN Secretary General’s opening act of the conference: He played Welcome to the Anthropocene, a computer-animated video that introduced to the delegates the hypothesis that we live in a new geological epoch in which humanity has become the dominant geological force. The video opens with an image of the earth floating in space. Against a
drone music background, a soothing, English-accented female voice that could belong to a spaceship’s computer: “This is the story of how a species changed the planet.” The two-and-a-half minute piece begins on the side of the earth shadowed by night—the dark stage on which we are told a rather Eurocentric story of the origins of current global environmental crises. “Brilliant inventions” the voice says, appeared in England and “ignited the industrial revolution, which spread like wildfire.” The screen shows a flash lighting up the night in Manchester and the subsequent spawning of a network of lights (providing a view of Earth reminiscent of NASA space imagery of contemporary human settlements at night). The rest of the video depicts the global expansion of this “fire”: a beautiful, irregular cascading network of lights—cities, roads, air and sea travel routes—progressively spreading across the globe as it illuminates Earth’s night. In the video’s last few seconds, the mass of the planet—continents, oceans and the atmosphere—gradually fade out. Nothing remains but a diaphanous sphere of anthropogenic lights floating in space. South America’s iridescent traces are visible as we float over Japan.
Sheila Jasanoff has argued that images of the earth seen from space are as close as secular societies come to having an icon, “a universal common property with shared meaning and, for many, spiritual resonance.” However, the images she had in mind as she wrote these lines were “Blue Marble” photographs of the earth seen from space in which no traces of humanity are visible—the visual opposite, therefore, to anthropocene imagery. Blue Marble iconography was at the center of heated debates in Rio92. Delegations from the global South, for example, were highly suspicious of an icon that portrayed a global “We” that bore no traces of colonialism or capitalist exploitation. Scholars have similarly criticized the Blue Marble, arguing that such earthwatching risks enshrining Northern experts as “ecocrats” (Arturo Escobar) who bear the responsibility of managing the planet. Although such issues remain central to discussions of global environmental law, new lines of contention are emerging around Anthropocene imagery.
Hours shy of the end of Rio+20 and, in the heat of a discussion, Isabella Teixeira, Brazil’s Minister of the Environment, shouted into a microphone: “I am going to read what the press is writing.” She held newspaper transcripts in one hand and angrily quoted from them: “The conference finishes leaving only promises.” She paused briefly, dramatically, and then continued. “A tone of disappointment characterizes the closing speeches at the conference.” Another short pause. “The conference ends in failure.” Having finished reading, Teixeira held the transcripts over her head, exposing their content to the audience. “You know what news are these? News . . . newspapers from 1992!” Her voice grew louder with every word. “The truth is here! Those of us who fight for sustainable growth have had to endure these obstacles since before 1992!”
Teixeira was responding to two Brazilian activists who had disrupted her discussion panel, in which Brazilian and European experts argued that Brazil’s environmental policies were an exemplary success in sustainable development approaches. The demonstrators interrupted this unlikely chain of reasoning and forcefully reminded the audience about highly disruptive infrastructure projects in the Amazon; about new national laws that scaled back environmental regulations in Brazil; and about the exclusionary character of Rio+20 which, like the 1992 summit, was held in a remote and highly secluded compound and was heavily criticized by social movements in a march that had effectively paralyzed Rio de Janeiro the day before. Significantly, Teixeira did not reply as an “ecocrat” who would place herself above her critics—at Blue Marble height—where she could lecture about securing the earth’s harmony and balance. Rather, she submerged herself in the heat of the debate and, in a deeply emotional argument as boisterous as that of her opponents, she presented herself as a leader who was capable of working in an impossibly imperfect world where success was redefined as the capacity to endure failure.
My main informants at Rio+20 were NGO officials who had worked closely with Teixeira for years in a complex but generally supportive relationship. Like the Minister, they shared her commitment to move away from policies oriented towards protecting “Nature.” They thought that such policies wrongly defined environmentalism as the creation of universal rallying points that transcended—but did not deal with—differences between North and South, rich and poor. My informants assumed that in a world fragmented along economic and geopolitical lines, some degree of environmental degradation was unavoidable. Moreover, they focused on two goals. First, delaying and managing severe environmental disruptions (an adaptation approach); second, building global markets on which competing stakeholders could come together and define the price they are willing to pay for preserving and destroying environmental services (a public-private-partnership and “green economy” approach). In pursuit of such objectives, my informants produced and mobilized precise visuals of current and future environmental degradation over which stakeholders could negotiate. Although by embracing the anthropocene imagery my informants had abandoned Blue Marble ideals that were so dear to conventional environmentalism, they hoped nevertheless that the progressive articulation of global environmental markets would slowly produce some degree of cosmological coherence. That is, new legal and ecological patterns were expected to emerge through failure.
By Rio+20, however, my most senior informants had lost confidence in their own strategy. “Unlike those who were obsessed with deforestation thinking it was the end of the world,” a renowned environmentalist told me, “we were hoping to delay a tipping point . . . but now . . . now we don’t know.” After providing climate change diplomats with strategies that allow them to work through failure, to bargain over the possibility of future catastrophes, my informants witnessed how climate change diplomacy had failed to produce any discernible patterns—only a continuing unraveling of our common worlds. As if, while trying to avoid the violence associated with ecological transcendence, we had reached the point at which iconoclasts frequently arrive: the sanctification of violence as a transcendental horizon.
David Rojas is a PhD candidate at Cornell University. He works with environmental scientists and peasants who live and work in the Brazilian Amazon’s deforestation frontier and who take part in global environmental management initiatives. His current research includes ethnographic research at United Nations conferences on the environment.