The following strikes me as I sift through my thoughts on the flight home from the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and the People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice in the Defense of the Commons in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 19–22, 2012.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano wrote in Upside Down that poor people cannot eat promises. Galeano also wrote that among all the rights encompassed within UN treaties, the right to dream is missing from the list. Fearing that the climate debate has become overly technocratic and bureaucratic, I leave Rio fearing that by attempting to provide an accurate analysis and accounting of what actually happened there, I might miss big picture themes that demand a different, more nourishing outcome than a legally binding agreement. What about a different way of life, a different way of solving problems than the status quo, or renewed belief that systemically dreamy solutions are indeed possible?

At his booth at the People’s Summit, the director of a Portuguese climate justice organization told me that “our problems are as big as our ignorance. And our ignorance is big. We don’t know ourselves and we’re trying to change the world.” What future do we want? Do we even know how to live our vision, even if the text bound us legally to it? I left the Rio+20 Conference on Thursday afternoon following youth and civil society groups that staged a walk out, chanting, “The future we want is not from here.” As David Nussbaum, head of WWF UK, Tweeted, “’The Future We Want:’ It’s more a case of The Future We’ll Get If We Rely on Politicians.”

“If They Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let Them Sleep.”

It’s virtually certain that my dream of a world that is not only livable in 100 years but that is also equitable and ecological, where laws and policies revolve around the rights of Earth and all of its peoples, will not come by way of an international environmental treaty convened in a machine gun–patrolled pavilion two hours away from the People’s Summit. If not done in legally binding texts, how will the global community implement a shared vision for the future and hold itself (and ourselves) accountable? One way might be through a power shift that reifies imagination as the seat of true power. At Friday’s People’s Summit, one speaker at the concluding session said, “If they don’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep.”

Demands of participants of the two opposing camps—1) the boring and dreary official Conference crowd huddled inside air-conditioned tents in Barra de Tijuca reaffirming old agreements and 2) the crowd at the People’s Summit camp pissing in flooded Porta potties and jumping over mud puddles the size of the buses in the Flamengo Park brownfield dreaming of new ideas—grew increasingly apart as the days went on. Judging from this scenario, the winds of radical behavior change will blow from the bottom-up rather from the top-down. In her role as an Elder advising heads of state during a high-level roundtable, Mary Robinson said “the legacy won’t be the document you endorse but the mobilization of people to create the future they desire.” Former Irish President Robinson concluded by quoting Michelangelo, who said: “The greatest danger is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it’s too low and we reach it.”

Nevertheless, despite the purpose of the UN meeting to promote cooperation and global connection, fragmentation contributed to deep-seated rifts among competing left- and right-brain approaches to sustainable development. I felt, and I talked to others who agreed, meaningless walking around the Conference center trying to pretend that the meeting was important. How could something so meaningful feel so meaningless? Perhaps the real reason why 50,000 people decided to attend Rio +20 was the need to cope and connect with others over the reliable disappointment that the only thing Rio would deliver is the expectation of disaster. Across the city at the People’s Summit, folks were not waiting for governments to act. Expression and dreams were alive, full, and contagiously lovely.

Rio+20 at Heart Shows a Power Shift from West to East, North to South

As one speaker the People’s Summit put it, false solutions must be demystified. So, what about human rights? What role do rights play in sustainability? Any hint of rights-based language proposed in the Rio+20 text was all but stricken by the United States, a country that arguably supports the most robust and developed legal system in the world. It’s looking more important that rights come from dreams not treaties. Maybe then we would live differently, if we stopped waiting for people to speak alive what we in our hearts already know? Maybe the right to dream is more important than pretend rights that exist on paper only. Paper counts for naught, as youth activists at the Rio+20 Conference demonstrated by ripping up the final Rio+20 text in an act of disappointment and defiance.

What might be examples of other false solutions? Brazil (among other countries including India) embedded the right to food in its constitution. But last night on my way out the door to the airport, my Brazilian friend Carlos expressed his view that Bolsa Família, an anti-poverty social welfare program for Brazil’s poor, is nothing more than a vote-buying scheme to keep corrupt politicians such as President Dilma (who apparently have lifelong pensions) in power. In Carlos’s eyes, social welfare schemes thus become yet another platform for leveraging power.

The same argument can be made against calls for a “green economy.” How important was the “green economy”—considered by Gro Harem Bruntland and many other top western officials to be the Conference’s defining issue—to the sustainable development debate? At the People’s Summit, people chanted, “Nao economia Verde!” holding signs saying, “We reject the GREED economy.” Under the green economy, the world becomes merchandise. Women become merchandise. Rights, even, become merchandise. Probably the most powerful expression rejecting the calls for a “green” economy was statement by a representative of NGO Focus on the Global South who replaced the concept of sustainable development with a new maxim. “The objective,” he said, “is of sustainable redistribution, not sustainable development. We can’t grow forever.” Meanwhile, back at Barra de Tijuca, the United States crossed out any reference to “common but differentiated responsibilities” that would require wealthy, industrialized countries to work harder than poorer countries to remediate their ecological footprints.

However, Nick Clegg, the head of the UK delegation, picked up on the telltale signs of a power shift from west to east. “We no longer live in a neocolonial world where a small number of governments can get together and write a text and say to the rest of the world[,] you have to accept this. The developing world is much more assertive.” (Adam Vaughan, “Rio +20 Summit: The Final Day as it Happened,” The Guardian, June 22, 2012.) Clegg went on to say that “[t]he political significance of Rio is that the G77 nations are antagonistic to our European ideas on the green economy. They were worried about some of the process issues around the [Sustainable Development Goals].” (Id.) Rio’s focus on the green economy interpreted sustainability to mean sustained growth, which is the opposite of sustainability.

Is Happiness Replacing Human Rights?

Impending questions circled like hawks around whether Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] will work on a parallel track with Millenium Development Goals [MDGs], or whether this new focus on a green economy will drive a wedge between the environment and development? Secretary General Ban Ki Moon expressed his hopes that the two tracks will merge. The expectation is that SDGs and MDGs will be fully complimentary, but we must wait and see while a small working group of  states hammers this out. Also, despite that the UN Charter and the Stockholm Conventions both recognized the right to a healthy environment, the Rio Principles do not include the right to a healthy environment. We are going backwards and forwards at the same time.

Although some gains were made on operationalizing Principle 10, a remnant of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that emphasizes procedural rights to participation in environmental decision-making at the national level, Principle 10 doesn’t go far enough to address substantive global issues like climate change. As one UNEP official said to me, the rights to a healthy environment continue to be considered 3rd generation rights. A healthy environment is a precondition to the full realization of the entire suite of human rights, so the right to a healthy environment should be—by order of common sense—a first generation right as important as voting and freedom of speech. First generation rights protect that which is essential to human life and dignity. The right to a healthy environment is a core right, not a sideline right that should be relegated to the bench. My fear is that all the talk at Rio+20 about measuring “happiness” (Gross National Happiness Index) as an alternative to GDP is replacing talk about human rights. Human well-being, and the rights essential to realizing human well-being, are essential. Yet with out such rights, what’s next? Happiness? I don’t think so.

So Why Go?

It’s so easy to be cynical and to find a problem in every answer. Perhaps the deep seated frustration will motivate people to work outside the UN process to fill in the gaps left by Rio+20, as Mary Robinson suggested during her roundtable comments. Perhaps lawyers and judges can work on a parallel track to ensure the implementation, compliance, and enforcement of  conventions on biodiversity and climate change at a national level. While judges do not see themselves as advocates for international action on the environment, lawyers can play the role of ensuring that citizens have access to justice in order to hold governments accountable.

So, what’s the point of attending these meetings when you don’t expect much out of them? What’s the value of your dissent if you’re an insider playing pretend? The problem is that you don’t expect much out of the process, and it doesn’t expect much out of you. As Guardian reporter Jo Confino put it, “Watching the heads of state at Rio read out their prepared statements, one after the other in a seemingly endless procession, is far worse than watching paint dry…. You literally feel one’s life force being sucked out.”

That said, one benefit of attending was being present to the pain and excitement of it all. Another was feeling the satisfaction that comes from refusing to participate passively from the convenience and comfort of home. As Malcom Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker, “the revolution will not be tweeted.” The question I, and many others, are left with is: Rio plus what? Let’s unleash the power of dreaming, imagination, and innovation. As my former boss at Ecotrust, Spencer Beebe, has written in Grist, “When we look at the world through the [local] lens, we see reasons for hope that have been building these 20 years. Looking back through that local lens, we see what is possible, not what has failed. We see what can happen when you release the energy of people working at home, rooted in its particularities, drawing on the immediacy of local self-interest in improving the health and resilience of the community and ecosystems upon which people depend.”

My eyes are wide open after walking through the air-conditioned tents at the official Conference one day and hopping muddy puddles the size of busses at the People’s Summit the next. Now I am exhausted. I am home. Rio plus what? = now. What will I do with this knowledge? I will dream.


~Thanks to Dean Chahim for introducing me to Eduardo Galeano.