Whereas the official pitch for Rio Earth Summit 1992 was "our common future", the Rio+20 meeting in Brazil this June speaks to a negotiating text called The Future We Want. The question of course, is who is this "we"?
Neoliberal class interest
For the network Business Action for Sustainable Development, the "we" is the "private sector".
Multitudes around the world are part of the private sector, whether self-employed, entrepreneurs, farmers or small and medium sized as well as large multi-national enterprises. The private sector generates most of the goods and services that are utilised every day and therefore must be actively engaged to address the implementation gaps that have limited the achievements of sustainable development goals.
It is true that the growth-driven private sector is responsible for the global ecological crisis, but it is not true that business delivers most people's needs. For one thing, the majority of world food growers are women in the global South. BASD's inflated claim subsumes and invisibilises several "othered" economic groupings. It is peasants, mothers, fishers and gatherers, outside of capital and labouring directly with natural cycles, who meet everyday life needs for the majority of people on earth. Moreover, this "meta-industrial" class uses modes of provisioning and "indigenous technologies" that already integrate precaution and sustainability. Theirs are actually real "green jobs".
Meta-industrial workers constitute the very broadest base of what the Occupy Movement names the international 99%. And around two thirds of meta-industrials are actually women, North and South, engaged in life-affirming reproductive labour. If they can achieve a hearing at Rio+20, then a momentous step for global democracy and sustainability will have been made. The significance of this is yet to be grasped by many on the Left. Nevertheless, in principle, the now decade old World Social Forum can serve as an instrument for drawing together worker's, women's, indigenous, and ecological voices. People with meta-industrial skills and values are already active in the WSF – as peasant food sovereignty and indigenous environment networks, as women anti-toxics campaigners and peace activists. And a meta-industrial consciousness is implicit in the critique of biocolonialism developed by the ETC (Erosion, Technology, Convergence) group. As the WSF looks towards Rio+20, its Thematic Social Forum is circulating a strong synthesis of shared concerns in 'Another Future is Possible: Come to Re-invent the World at Rio+20'. Traditionally, each social movement has had it own objectives and discourse, which WSF activists struggle to balance. Now, the rise of Occupy and Indignados may mean a new round of Left self-examination.
Meanwhile, the corporate message of BASD and others is a bid to promote the private sector as key sponsor and "ideas man" for reframing international governance institutions. The technique was pioneered by the Business Council for Sustainable Development in 1992 as it steered UNCED, the first Rio. Today, Elliott Harris from the IMF, announces a GEI (Green Economy Initiative) built on "the strengths of the market-based economy" but supporting this with a more "coherent institutional framework". No surprise that the peasant organisation Via Campesina, a leading strand of WSF and of the worldwide class of meta-industrial producers, reads the Rio+20 Green Economy as
… another phase of what we identify as "green structural adjustment programs" which seek to align and re-order the national markets and regulations to submit to the fast incoming "green capitalism".
Technological innovation will be central to capital accumulation through this Green Economy. But ramping that up means ever more resource extraction, biodiversity loss, and energy pollution. In the words of ETC, advocates for people's science,
The big idea is to replace the extraction of petroleum with the exploitation of biomass (food and fibre crops, grasses, forest residues, plant oils, algae, etc.). Proponents envision a post-petroleum future where industrial production (of plastics, chemicals, fuels, drugs, energy, etc.) depends – not on fossil fuels – but on biological feedstocks transformed through high technology bioengineering platforms. Many of the world’s largest corporations and most powerful governments are touting the use of new [but untested] technologies including genomics, nanotechnology and synthetic biology to transform biomass into high-value products.
Clearly, the Green Economy is a circular and self-defeating strategy from an environmental perspective.
Manufacturing global governance
The key substantive issues for Rio+20 are energy access and efficiency; food security and sustainable agriculture; green jobs and social inclusion; urbanisation; water management; chemical wastes; oceans; risk and disaster amelioration. The greening of the global capitalist system is deemed to be an "integration" of economics and ecology. At the same time, business and the UN argue that "innovative instruments" for financing this must be consistent with "the Doha Development Round of multilateral trade negotiations". The major big-picture initiatives towards this contradictory hegemony are:
— Moves to transform UNEP into a World Environment Organization;
— Moves to assess the feasibility of Earth System Governance;
— Moves to explore a new Global Financial Architecture.
The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the regional development banks, UNCTAD and the World Trade Organization will be asked to consider the ecosystemic implications of their decisions. And in so doing, these neoliberal agents of social dislocation and hardship will gain fresh political legitimation.
With guidance from UNEP, The Future We Want, an agenda also known as the Zero Draft, spells out the terms of reference and potential outcomes for Rio+20. It builds on earlier agreements such as Agenda 21, the Johannesburg Declaration, the Monterrey Consensus, Doha Round, Istanbul Programme for Least Developed Countries, and the Bali Strategic Plan for Technology Support and Capacity Building. The Zero Draft also endorses the 1992 Rio principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" in redefining relations between the affluent global North and so called "developing" South. But while the need to remove poverty from the planet is right upfront in this negotiating text, other critical "p" words are missing. The first such word is "power" and the second is "profit".
Rio+20 spins into view with networks, promo agencies, think tanks, websites, and conferences. The Canada based IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development) offers itself as a comprehensive "knowledge management project" in preparation for the impending "innovation culture". Proposals are coming online from serious bodies like the New Economics Foundation and World Future Council. The feminist network Women in Europe for a Common Future is engaged; ministers from the Congo call for a new intergovernmental architecture; global policy meetings are conducted by facilitators with buzzy names like Bright Green Learning. In London, A Planet Under Pressure gathering is held under the auspices of the Royal Society. Described as giving scientific leadership for Rio+20, plenary positions go to the World Bank, a Shell Oil Company Vice President, and the UK's Chief Scientist. Attendance registration is set at GBP 400 per head. Elsewhere, Lund University in Sweden, the Australian National University, and Tokyo's UN University are being funded to host conferences on Earth System Governance.
But thinking publics are paralysed in a maze of acronyms such as IEG (International Environmental Governance); 10YFP (10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production); CPR (Committee of Permanent Representatives); EMG (Environment Management Group); IPBES (Intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services); GLISPA (Global Islands Partnership); ISFD (Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development); SAICM (Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management); UNON (United Nations Office at Nairobi) and even COW (Committee of the Whole). Could human words be more mystifying and more disempowering?
If Rio+20 achieves nothing else, it will forge a new and homogenising discourse of international governance, a shared set of social and material expectations across nations, classes, and bodies. Yet market logic like "carbon trading", "geo-engineering", or "climate smart agriculture" cannot restore broken life-support-systems in nature. – The World Watch Institute calculates that 60% of nature's "services" have been destroyed by industrialisation since World War II. The trouble is that economics describes an abstract idealised realm of human assumptions, whereas ecology describes an actual living material realm. There is a profound cognitive disjunction between the two disciplinary lenses. International consensus on an incoherent totalisation like the Green Economy will do little for sustainability – or democracy. Rather, what a Green Economy designed by free traders will do, is deepen the unequal exchange already existing between global North and South. In fact, this GEI is simply the next stage in the history of eurocentric colonisation.
Social, embodied, and ecological debt
For the system of capital accumulation can only continue to function as long as it draws on a surplus provided by others. Thus, capitalism is built on a social debt to exploited workers; an embodied debt to unpaid women for their reproductive labour; and an ecological debt to peasants and indigenes for appropriating their land and livelihood. So too, history has shown that this process of extraction from the living peripheries of capital relies on the development of a comprador class, groomed with incentives by the coloniser. This is the real meaning of "development" and such power relations are enacted today through the UN machine, through the business world, and through universities. High-level consultations for Rio+20 are currently taming a managerial class of scientists, academics, and bureaucrats. Usually, such intermediaries come from marginal populations or poorer regions, but not always. Neoliberalism reaches into unexpected quarters … For this reason, the Occupy movement's call to the 99% is an inadequate analysis of class interests.
For example, women internationally are especially vulnerable to the privileges of comprador status as they strive to climb out of oppressive patriarchalisms, and to obtain better conditions for their communities. The World March of Women and other feminist groups thus face something of a political double-bind when responding to a Zero Draft that announces:
We call for removing barriers that have prevented women from being full participants in the economy and unlocking their potential as drivers of sustainable development, and agree to prioritize measures to promote gender equality in all spheres of our societies, including education, employment, ownership of resources, access to justice, political representation, institutional decision-making, care giving and household and community management.
This gender mainstreaming seems benign enough, yet the criterion for equality is "the masculine universal" – an idealised image of the emancipated woman as one who lives like a white, middle class, man. Women's material embodiment is neutralised – often with technological help. In this way, the unique skills and integrative insights that women learn from reproductive labours are diminished and "contained" as a valid source of alternative life-affirming values.
To illustrate this centripetal tendency: at the 56th session of the UNCSW (Commission on the Status of Women), UN Deputy-Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro endorsed the fact that rural women constitute a quarter of the world’s population; grow the majority of the world's food; and perform most unpaid care work. There is no doubt that their situation merits political attention. But financing for water infrastructure and renewable energy, biodiversity protection, and climate change mitigation and adaptation, may well provide more benefits for donors than recipients. Likewise, UN-Women's Executive Director Michelle Bachelet pointed to barriers in women's empowerment and called for more gender sensitivity in national budgets and in business. To carry these things further, a high-level meeting is planned for June, hosted by Brazil. However, like micro-credit schemes, these newer measures will quietly recruit women as players in the capitalist system.
In the preparatory dialogues for Rio+20, "civil society" is used persuasively and often. Yet the term essentialises social differences and dissolves a myriad of grassroots struggles under the bland formula of citizenship and deliberative democracy. Worldwide, people see their national parliaments swept into the revolving door of suits – and find they have nowhere to go but the streets. This is why the World Social Forum formed following the Battle for Seattle. It is why the Occupy Movement for direct democracy broke out across a thousand plateaux following the second financial crash in 2011. And it is why, at Rio 2012 just like Rio 1992 before it, the People's Summit will be located for security reasons a good distance from official UN and government proceedings.
The Great Chain of Being
At the pinnacle of the Aristotelian hierarchy of Rio+20 stands conference Secretary General Sha Zukang, a Chinese career diplomat. He may be less hands-on than Maurice Strong, the Canadian businessman who brokered UNCED in 1992, but he is pushing a Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, as well as women's and indigenous rights. It is envisaged that after Rio+20, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (SD) should be upgraded to Council status – CSD becoming SDC – and ECOSOC (United Nations Economic and Social Council) will have a strong coordination and outreach role. But for now, as per the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, UNEP remains the motor of Rio+20 under Executive Director Achim Steiner.
As UNEP's One Planet magazine explains, getting the Rio event up means orchestrating three kinds of humans – intergovernmental, governmental, and nongovernmental. In the governmental sector, state ministers or their stand-ins meet under the rubric of GCSS-12/GMEF – that is to say, the UNEP Governing Council / Global Ministerial Environment Forum (Special Session 12). These national representatives are deployed to spell out a mix of new Green Economy models "tailored to different local and national conditions"; at once "pro-growth" but based on a measurement of well being that goes beyond GDP. Governments are asked to configure the Millennium Development Goals into their policy with a view to realising these by 2015. In undertaking this work, the UN requires that states listen to both intergovernmental and nongovernmental inputs. A rehearsal for Earth System Governance is underway.
The nongovernmental sector is marshalled under the UN acronym GMGSF-13, which stands for Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum, currently in its 13th Session. Here a designated space is made for Women's groups, Children and Youth, Indigenous Peoples, NGOs, Labour and Unions, Business and Industry, the Science and Technology community, and Local Authorities. There is also scope, possibly ad hoc, for regional opinion makers. But with no acknowledgement of the dynamics of "power" and "profit" as economic levers of capitalism, there is likely to be a good deal of sociological fudging in the Rio+20 consultations. Coordinators of the Stakeholders Forum, like Felix Dodds, will have to keep an eye on this, as WSF participants certainly will. Preliminary arrangements give a nod to "vulnerabilities" such as gender and ethnicity, but class analysis is absent. Instead, business delegates follow the UK's New Economics Foundation in talking about "joining the dots", enabling integration of "the three pillars" social, economic, and environmental. But a very skilled transdisciplinary analysis would be required to tease out the complexities and contradictions that inhere in such a crude functionalist agenda.
UNEP believes that the views of Major Groups and Stakeholders will readily converge on the global Green Economy theme. Meanwhile, the corporate sector is being urged by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to sign on to a Global Compact, circulating as kind of individualistic rights based credo of 10 principles. The ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) agrees with the Green Economy approach and the idea of a new architecture of global governance. In addition, ITUC prioritises procedure – access, right principles, concrete targets, and accountability. Likewise, the ICS (International Council for Science) wants clear definitions and measurable implementation. But it needs to be emphasised that if the concerns of Major Groups get tied up with operational matters at Rio+20, then capitulation to the status quo will happen by default.
It seems relevant to the political identity and future direction of WSF and Occupy, that the only Major Groups reported by IISD as expressing material alternatives are people whose labour involves the hands-on reproduction of natural processes.
— Women want their unpaid domestic contribution valued;
— Indigenous peoples want secure land rights;
— Peasant farmers want attention to local food sovereignty.
To reiterate: it is these meta-industrial workers whose local economic provisioning and care giving already exemplifies commoning and sustainability. Inhabiting the domestic and geographic peripheries of capital, meta-industrial labour is largely ignored, even by many on the Left. Yet in an era of environmental crisis, the notion of a meta-industrial class is powerfully integrative. It broadens the classic socialist preoccupation with productivist industrial workers. It transcends the divisive idealism of "identity" politics like feminism or indigeneity. Meta-industrial labour is materially grounded in the reproduction of embodied and ecological processes. In maintaining the humanity-nature metabolism, this activity is trans-cultural and in principle ungendered. That said, for historical reasons, women around the world – right at the bottom of the Great Chain of Being – still undertake far more unvalued reproductive-metabolic-ecological labour than men do.
Meta-industrials v technocrats
Meta-industrial labour already models the "green jobs" that the UN, private sector, and unions hope to "generate" out of thin air. Meta-industrial workers already meet human needs without destroying ecological cycles. Keynotes and committee chairs at Rio+20 should be drawn from this class. On the democratic count they are a global majority and on the sustainability count they are skilled managers of "nature's services". But where are these meta-industrials in the GEC (Green Economy Coalition) forming around UNEP? Led by Oliver Greenfield, GEC associates comprise Vitae Civilis, Consumers International, International Institute for Environment and Development, WWF, Biomimicry Institute, International Trade Union Confederation, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Ecologic Institute, The Bellagio Forum for Sustainable Development, Aldersgate Group, Philips Global, Development Alternatives, the International Labour Organisation, SEED Initiative, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Global Footprint Network, Ethical Markets Media, The Caribbean Natural Resources Institute, The Natural Step, and Eco Union. In truth, even if meta-industrials did score a seat at this table