Rio+20: is this the future we want?

by Luiz Coelho

I remember “attending” Eco-92, the first United Nations Environment-related summit in Rio. I was only a child in 1992, but took part of several activities available at the People’s Summit: a big showcase of NGOs and major institutions that took place in Flamengo Park while world leaders discussed the future of the planet in special plenaries on the other side of the city. It was a moment of great excitement for Cariocas (those who were born in Rio). After years of decadence, the city known as some sort of hidden paradise where colonial architecture, forests and beaches lived next to high crime and sprawling slums had been picked to host a major international event. There was also a sense of hope for the planet. So many world leaders were here, discussing about what could be done to save nature from human activity and make sure that future generations would be able to respect and care for the Environment.

Of course a lot has changed. Eco-92 was the first of a series of successful events that turned Rio into a “global city”. It is not clear if such megaevents brought real growth to the city, which led to the reduction of some of Rio’s major problems or if the fact they had been scheduled meant that some action had to be taken, otherwise the city would not be profitable for those who are investing in it. One thing can be said though. This is now Rio Inc., the “corporation city” marketed as the place to be, to build, to party and to do business. It competes to show it’s the best in everything. Unfortunatley, its social problems are still there. Slums still exist. They continue to be plagued by poverty and crime, and they fail to get proper reurbanization, especially in those slums far away from rich, touristic neighborhoods.

Rio+20 is also a different matter. The sense of hope many had back in 1992 is gone. After so many years of endless talks, boycotted agreements, empty documents and unsuccessful round tables, there is less hope in possible change for the planet. For Rio+20, key concepts were “sustainable development” and “green economy”. In practice, both presuppose an inherent ability of exploiting natural resources and using the environment at will. The only difference is that enough should be saved so next generations will be able to do the same. In other words, it’s “business as usual”, albeit with a certain concern for our fragile planet. Too little, too few.

But even this mild concept often gets corrupted. The lack of precise definitions and international agreements on the meanings of concepts like those mean that not rarely services, products, policies and certifications labeled as “green” rely only partially on renewable resources or presuppose a mere reduction on the emission of pollutants, among other measures that do not nearly mitigate the problems that endanger our planet. This is often known as “greenwashing”.

So it is not a big surprise to realize Rio+20 issued a final document that lacks concrete objectives and is regarded as weak in many aspects. The model that is presented to us still relies on an old order of growth mostly economically measured, reliance on big corporations’ good behavior and minor changes in conventional consumption patterns. Such patterns are gradually including more and more people from countries under development, as they become part of a global, consumeristic society. This is actually seen as good, and as a proof of poverty reduction. “Leaving poverty” is a concept often associated with “having purchasing power”.

Real change requires us to rethink this whole model by reducing our consumption of natural resources, decreasing the expenditure of energy and relying more on local, natural and seasonal food sources, among several other measures that would invariably break the conventional order of big corporations and governments competing for global dominance. The difficulty of implementing bolder measures is that the powers of this world are never willing to cede. After all, we are experiencing corporation-cities, corporation-states, corporation-regions and corporation-countries: all competing to showcase they are better, more interesting, more attractive and more desirable for the economic powers of the world. At Rio+20, I was able to learn about several wonderful initiatives that intend to restore environmental enconomic justice to governments’ agendas. Unfortunately, most of the bolder initiatives do not get past the decision-making process. The sad reality is that environmental policies are dependent on a series of factors that go beyond basic ideals of justice and fraternity.

Which is why the Church must have an active voice in promoting change and preserving this world for future generations. First, because all natural beauties that surround us are God’s creation and we must be their stewards. As Anglicans, we have in fact reiterated this concept in several documents and, most importantly, as one of the five marks of mission. But also, as a universal Church (and this applies even more to Communions like ours), we possess an ability of communicating and exerting pressure that goes across local, regional or national borders. The Church Catholic can, and must be an active partner in sponsoring ethical initiatives that help promote socio-environmental balance in this even more unequal world.

Rio+20 has shown there is a clear limit on how much the powers of this world can, and will do. But as Christians, we trust that there is a Kingdom that goes beyond local divisions that make no sense in the heart of God. We are all citizens of this Kingdom. It’s up to us to cooperate with God as we mobilize and work for a better world. But how can we be effective if our churches – both on the local and wider levels – still promote (or tacitly condone) consumerism, greed, unfair competition, unethical divertments and other practices contrary to a Gospel that must be preached to every creature. It is time to boldly proclaim this Gospel, and to act once for all as a body of people committed to making sacrificial changes that will require us to consume less, spend our money more wisely and take part together as an effective partner in decision-making discussions by placing values such as justice and dignity above economic interests. It has never been so necessary to act local and also act global. Or, should I say: act local and act catholic?

Luiz Coelho is a Brazilian Geomatics Engineer, with a MSc in Informatics applied to Environmental Sciences and is pursuing a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning, who currently works as an auditor of environmental and urban planning policies for the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro. He is also a candidate to Holy Orders and was able to attend Rio+20 both representing his job and as an Anglican Christian. His personal website is Luiz Coelho

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