The demonstrations on June 20th are part of an intensification of environmental demands that began several decades ago. One of the first warnings of the pervasive effects global warming was voiced as early as 1988 at the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto. At this conference, scientists and politicians recommended reducing carbon dioxide emissions 20 per cent by 2005. At the time of the conference, the CO2 level in the atmosphere was at around 355 parts per million (ppm). By 2005 the rate was at around 386ppm and by the time the Rio+20 Summit started it had risen to 396ppm. This conference remains a testament to the many empty promises made at similar gatherings.
The failure of the Rio+20 summit to truly address the issues at hand is not an isolated case. My generation, the same generation that was born when the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the first Rio Summit, was held twenty years ago, has grown up in a world where the International Community is an expert in crafting ceremonial yet empty conferences, agreements and treaties.
Our governments, the UN, and various environmental NGOs have not been able to save humanity from its own destruction mainly because they have not dared to see beyond the status quo. World leaders have tried to stop climate change and alleviate environmental pressures following the capitalist agenda that stands in direct contradiction with the environmental agenda. The capitalist society in which we live not only prides itself in individualism and over-consumption as moral compasses. It takes these values as the very essence of its existence. As such, resolutions written at summits like Rio+20 never attempt to challenge these two components of a depleting society. There has been no substantial alleviation to our environmental ailments because our leaders systematically overlook individualism and over-consumption, and in turn the capitalist agenda, as the root cause of the earth’s environmental problem.
It is under this framework that our generation has been instilled to learn and use more and more buzzwords with less and less meaning. “Sustainability”, “green”, and “eco-friendly”, are amongst the many concepts that continue to portray green capitalism as a viable option when it is not. Saving the planet requires more than adopting a few so-called green policies; it calls for a complete overhaul of the way in which we consume, and how we interact with our natural resources and each other.
As a first measure, affluent societies and nations have a duty to curtail their consumption habits; the extent of over-consumption has reached unprecedented levels and it has started to directly infringe upon the well-being of less fortunate people. People in richer nations are consuming at the expense of their less fortunate counterparts. Thus the current disproportionate use of resources is not only important for the environmental struggle; it is also directly tied to the struggle for social and economic justice. Of similar importance is the end to natural resource commodification, a phenomenon by which our natural resources are becoming privatized, making it harder for society to manage them ethically. When nature is privately owned it becomes impossible to control its depletion – and we leave the future of the environment in the hands of a small group.
For this reason, we need communal action as a second measure. The pervasive individualism entrenched in capitalism does not allow for compromise in the use of our resources. We live in a time where the only solution to the earth’s environmental problems is to think and act collectively, but our self-centered instincts work against aligning humanity’s common interests. A real solution involves a drastic transformation of our legal and economic institutions, thus fixing skewed incentives brought about by over-consumption and extreme individualism.
When the fact that an environmental summit like Rio+20 has failed is no longer “big” news, we know our efforts for environmental conservation have hit a low. But we cannot afford to become cynical and give up any hope at rescuing the environment; it is our duty to look for alternatives to green capitalism. On June 20th we took small steps towards doing so. The Rio+20 People’s Summit is an example of people reclaiming hope for environmental preservation. The People’s summit grew as a space to foster alternative solutions to the crisis as it hosted a wide range of groups, including anti-capitalist, indigenous and rural workers’ groups. But the People’s summit was also a channel to express discontent at our leaders’ failure to eliminate poverty and protect biodiversity. And this is why the organizers worked to establish June 20th as the International Environmental Day of Action.
We are constantly told to use social media and the Internet to raise awareness about the earth’s environmental degradation. However, we must step back and look beyond awareness for the sake of awareness and realize that it is time to take action. Our governments tell us to use the economic and legal channels within the capitalist system to save the planet. However, it is time to drastically change the environmental discourse and seek alternatives outside of the established economic and social order. As this generation is handed down the responsibility of leading the world in the coming years, it is up to us to decide if we are committed to saving this planet or if we want to stick to the empty promise method our current leaders have perfected.