Rio +20 makes no fresh, green breast of the new world
Like The Great Gatsby, this summit failed to measure up to the challenge of a new world, preferring to recreate the failures of the past
The Christ the Redeemer statue is reflected on the windows of a building during the Rio+20 Earth summit. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images
"And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
The words of Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece of the American dream, have enraptured London audiences for the last few weeks, replayed on the stage in Gatz. Carraway describes, in allegory, the extraordinary opportunity open to Gatsby – the chance to make himself from scratch. But that chance that was lost because Gatsby – and, we are to understand, America – failed to measure up to the challenge of a new world, preferring instead to try to recreate the failures of the past.
The same could be said of the Rio+20 summit, which ended in Brazil on Friday. Unlike the original Earth summit in Rio in 1992, which produced agreements on preserving the climate, the biodiversity of the world and its oceans, this retread produced nothing of substance and no commitment to preserve the fresh green breast of this world.
Brazil had it all wrapped up by Tuesday, three full days before the conference ended. The hosts did so with an ingenious use of typography. In international negotiations, squared brackets are the great signifiers – they denote passages of the text of a proposed agreement that are not yet agreed upon. At summits, environmental and otherwise, the focus of negotiations is teasing out these thickets of square brackets into words that can be agreed by all.
Brazil cut this Gordian knot by simply sweeping out of the text nearly every phrase captured within square brackets. It was a master stroke of diplomacy – every item of controversy was simply removed. As a result, there were no discussions of any substance because there was nothing to discuss. The text was so anodyne there was nothing in it which could be disagreed. So the talks fell, in tumult, to a lifeless ocean.
It was a shameful betrayal when you consider the problems Rio was intended to address: the poisoning of our air, the emptying of our seas, the filth and wastage of our water, the exhaustion of our soils, the vanishing of our trees, the degradation and forced misery of our people. Any one of these could threaten our very existence – we seem determined to push them all well beyond our world's limits.
Rio was quite possibly the last chance that we will have as a world to correct these terrible failures. Unlike those old Dutch sailors, we have no new continents left to be revealed to us – we have conquered and soiled every one, possibly terminally.
Why did the Brazilians behave so? Because their fear of failure was greater than their desire for success. They were most terrified of repeating the experience of Copenhagen in 2009, when a UN summit hailed as the last chance to save the climate ended in chaos and discord. Desperate to avoid this, they preferred a meaningless harmony to the telling of disagreeable truths.
But the Brazilians were not alone in conspiring for this defeat – they were joined by the politicians and officials from more than 130 countries, by the activists and by much of the media. All conspired to ensure Rio+20 would produce nothing.
The problem began when world leaders refused to come. Without the leaders, the only ones with power to make meaningful decisions, there was no possibility of a strong outcome. They refused to come because of the fear that the talks would descend into Copenhagen-style chaos, for which they would be blamed. What stoked this fear? The fact that in advance of the conference the activists and the media who were led by them were already damning the potential outcome, predicting a certain failure months before the marquees were even set up. Certain that whatever happened they would be excoriated for not doing enough, the leaders stayed away. So these fears and damning criticism fed off each other in a downward spiral that ensured that nothing of substance could come of Rio+20, and that will surely do the same to any future environmental meeting.
Much of the reporting of Rio reflected the profound cynicism that was the only emotion on offer. We read articles on the hotel rooms, on traffic jams, on the security. What was lost was any sense of what was truly at stake – our future on the only planet we have. Many media outlets largely ignored Rio; in others, the most important environmental conference in 20 years was reduced to a lifestyle feature.
At Rio+20, we had the meeting and the outcome we deserved. Instead of showing the world as it is, commensurate to our capacity for wonder, this rotten recreation of the original Rio showed how far we have fallen in two decades. It showed only cynicism – the cynicism of the politicians, the cynicism of some of the activists and the cynicism of much of the reporting - and that cynicism has overtaken the whole of public discourse. Where the original Rio showed a true romantic readiness, an ability to grasp the enormity of our damage to the planet, this ersatz reproduction has been a victory for the vacuous, for the Tom Buchanans of this world – who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
The original Rio in 1992 came barely 20 years after humanity saw itself truly for the first time – when we saw ourselves from the moon, a blue, white and green globe spinning in infinity. It was the last time in history that we came face to face with something commensurate to our capacity for wonder. That image of the fragile glory of the planet, its beauty and freshness, was the central image of the original Rio Earth summit – where a sense of wonder rising from that vision, a sense of awe and responsibility led to a historic series of decisions designed to preserve this precious life.
We have since betrayed every one of those historic promises. The worst betrayal of all was to pretend in Rio that 20 years later we still shared that original purity of vision and sense of wonder. We left Rio+20 to the politicians, the bureaucrats, the businesses, the journalists and the activists. We made a terrible mistake. We should have sent the poets.