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What Happened in Rio, Stays in Rio. Or Maybe Not…

Contradictions and ironies at the U.N. Rio+20 Earth Summit were as plentiful as the coconuts and Caipirinhas offered at the beachside bars to the 50,000 attendees from around the world who descended on this gorgeous seaside city (talk about eco-tourism!). There was even a contradiction in the numbers surrounding the Rio+20 event - 50,000 attendees representing 193 countries working to save the world’s 10 billion future inhabitants with one document that started off as the “zero draft.” At one point, negotiators were sweating that they wouldn’t get agreement on the document, leading to a sense of crisis because the world’s leaders (except many from the very countries that contribute most to the problems being addressed in Rio) were descending on the Portuguese-speaking country in a matter of days –days! What would happen if these world leaders arrived and they had nothing to work on? As it turned out, negotiators produced a flabby text with plenty of JELL-O-like flexibility; world leaders arrived and… had nothing to work on. So they did what world leaders do – drank Caipirinhas and talked about the various paragraphs in the “zero draft” text. As it turns out, these paragraphs have handy numbers to identify them. This is all well and good, except that it has led to an unfortunate branding faux pas, as in we now have “Friends of Paragraph 47.” Surely, if your friend is a numbered paragraph, you have no need for enemies. There were contradictions and ironies everywhere I looked – or in some cases, smelled. The main meeting hall for the “Major Groups” (a term of sincere affection translated literally as “insignificant ones with no voice in the proceedings”) was put at the end of the Rio+20 pavilion and ringed by banks of noisy, belching diesel generators. Which is fine, except that just the previous week the World Health Organization (another important U.N. body) ruled that diesel exhaust does in fact cause cancer. Speaking of which, the main dining hall for the Rio+20 Summit was so dense with cooking exhaust from the various vendors that it doubled as both a cafeteria and as an object lesson in why it’s vitally important to reduce fumes from cook stoves in developing countries. There were, of course, less subtle reminders of the ironies of all these people jammed together to fix everyone else’s problems. For example, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lectured the attendees on the moral imperatives of environmental protection. Or the woman in line in front of me to buy lunch, clearly not part of the fairly large business delegations at the conference, who lamented in Spanish that the plate of noodles she purchased yesterday was just 17 Reals, whereas today (the main day of the conference) it was 20 Reals – then derisively spat out her summation of the whole event: “Capitalismo.” Sometimes the contradictions and ironies took on remarkably strange twists. For example, Richard Branson holding a decidedly alternative format conference called Rio+Social focused on social media advocacy downstairs in the basement of the Barra Hotel where the Business Action for Sustainable Development was holding an event upstairs attended by numerous business leaders and major CEOs of multi-national companies. This seemed perfectly normal in Rio, whose lush resorts and beaches are ringed by the poorest Favelas. What made it particularly strange for me, however, was that I ran into Branson at the Rio aiport a couple of days later. I had no idea the head of Virgin Airlines flew commercial. Throughout the entire conference, we were skillfully shuttled around by a driver – Jose – who happened to have worked in the very U.S. city where I grew up. Small world, big challenges. And then there is the irony of the conference itself. Hosted by the Brazilians, who are some of the finest, most decent, hardest working and industrious people you will ever have the pleasure to meet, having to save the day by getting agreement to a text that was at best a weak and timid approach to very serious and important problems. These are the same Brazilians who take great pride in a country that has the world’s fifth largest GDP, 14 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves, a growing population, a stable and admirable democracy and that will be host to both the Olympics and the World Cup during this decade. These Brazilians largely admire Americans (something one can’t say of every country in the world). Yet most Americans have no idea where Brazil is, what language is spoken there, or that they are poised to become one of the world’s dominant global powers in the next decade. It didn’t help that President Obama failed to visit the country for the conference. And of course, perhaps the biggest irony of all was understanding that what happened at Rio had everything and nothing to do with the formal conference. Watered down platitudes and recycled language affirming decades old treaties were very much in evidence. But so too was the intense energy and enthusiasm by businesses from all over the world, who recognize that there’s green in going green. They were there to cut deals with others interested in sustainability, to further plans for driving sustainable solutions into the marketplace, and to get going on the business of sustainable development. They weren’t waiting for the 193 governments to act. On the other side of town, hundreds of protestors met to decry the business involvement in Rio and the role of “Capitalismo” as a dark force in society. Interestingly, the business leaders were lamenting the fact that they had little access or influence on the formal proceedings in Rio. How can two groups be so right and so wrong at the same time? Farewell Rio. You will soon be forgotten by a world who will soon be feeling your impacts in myriad ways. As for me, I’ll be busy studying Portuguese.

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