Rio+20 = Politics Minus Democracy

by | Jul 3, 2012

I have a story on Spiked-Online today.

Rio+20 was presented as an opportunity to determine ‘the future we want’ as though there was a free choice to be made. The next moment, the ugly truth was revealed: choice had been excluded. Science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’ – the ‘Limits to Growth’ thesis revised for the twenty-first century – which, with the imperatives of ‘sustainable development’, had already decided what kind of future we should be allowed.

A lot is expected of ‘science’. However, the failure of Rio+20, like the failure of many global conferences to produce agreements, such as the meetings at Durban, Cancun and Copenhagen, reveals once again that the real function of ‘science’ is a fig leaf for their delegates’ bad faith. One of the first to reflect on the failure of Rio, for instance, was UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who called the agreement produced by the conference ‘insipid’. He should know – before setting off to Rio, he wrote in the Guardian that ‘developed economies must not sacrifice long-term sustainability in the name of short-term growth’, that ‘national governments [must] broaden their understanding of wealth’, and that ‘Rio must set out a plan for the future’.

The most obvious thing to say about Rio is of course that it failed. But the failure of these huge environmental conferences doesn’t seem to limit their number or ambition. It’s almost as if the failure of things like Rio are what drives the process ever further from normal democratic politics. We hear often from the green camp that climate change may be too big an issue for democracy — that by representing people’s interests and desires, it fails to respond to things which are beyond individuals’ understanding.

What I also wanted to show was how the ‘ideology’ of environmentalism — its political culture, its presuppositions and prejudices, and so on — now consists of more than just the claim that humanity’s relationship with the natural world, it now makes claims about humans. So the claim that democracy cannot cope with the problem of environmental degradation now has a (pseudo-) scientific premise that our brains are too limited. A couple of paragraphs on this point didn’t make it into the final version of the article:

And nowhere is environmentalism more protected from scrutiny than at conferences such as Rio+20. They are held well beyond the reach of democratic politics, and far from critics. Yet some are not convinced that such institution-making is put far enough outside our control. Just as the basis for political environmentalism is seemingly justified on ‘what science says’, resistance to environmentalism’s political projects is explained by its advocates in pseudoscientific terms. The failure of Rio+20 was, according to George Monbiot, the result of a politics dominated by the ‘[pursuit of] the dopamine hits triggered by the purchase of products we do not need’ — consumer society, to which we are ‘addicted’. We have ‘stone age brains equipped with space age technology’, said Paul Ehrlich — our minds and bodies are built only to respond to the limited pains and pleasures of hunter-gatherer lifestyles, not to advanced technological society.

No doubt Ehlrich, Monbiot and the mob at Rio would protest that their primary concern is for humans and their interests — that they are therefore ‘humanists’. But this ‘concern’ amounts equally to contempt. If their outlooks are ‘humanism’, then it is a form of humanism equivalent to animal husbandry, which would lock us in kennels, and entitle us to no more than subsistence. Theirs is a ‘metabolic humanism’, in which humans are seen not as subjective agents capable of rational thought, and determining our own ends — the premise of any sensible definition of humanism — but on the contrary, mere machines  hardwired to consume beyond satisfaction. Thus, rather than escaping or criticising the shortcomings of consumer society, Mobiot and Ehrlich assimilate its vile logic in its entirety, to view humans as merely consumers. The only difference between the consumer society they offer and the one they criticise is that theirs is one characterised by scarcity, rather than the promise of abundance.

Once you take the view — as Monbiot and Ehrlich have, and which is implied by the very premise of the Rio meeting — that humans aren’t capable of making decisions even about what to eat and buy, let alone about decisions about how to organise society, you allow yourself to make decisions on their behalf. World leaders ‘seem more interested in protecting the interests of plutocratic elites than our environment’, moaned Monbiot, when it was revealed that Rio was doomed to fail. Yet the protection of elites is what conferences such as Rio are all about. The real reason Huhne couldn’t build  ‘environmentalism in one country’, is because nobody in that country wanted it. The only alternative is to establish a basis for political institutions internationally, away from such troubling concepts as democracy.

There are three orders of scientific claim in currency here. First, there are the claims made about the world as it is — temperature changes, and their consequences. I.e. there are observations. Second, there are models, models and more models about the interaction of natural processes — the functioning of the entire planet. And third, there are these arguments about individuals’ capacity to understand the problem, and their predisposition to ‘ignore evidence’, and carry on consuming. While we can have (some) confidence about the first category — observations — the second and third are presupposed. As useful as observations are, they point to an imbalance or antagonism between our minds and the ‘biosphere’, only if we presuppose the second and third categories. in other words, it’s only if we hold with a ‘strong Gaia’ hypothesis and contempt for stupid humans that we get ‘unsustainability’ out of the calculation.

1 Comment

  1. ilma630

    The main Rio+20 conference delegates were also out of reach of the other attendees, locked behind closed doors, with access barred and little news/press releases (h/t to Christopher Monckton, who was there).

    In regard to individuals ability to understand the issues, they are plainly frightened of that, as then they won’t be able to push through the agendas they want to. It’s normally said that “knowledge is power”. For these little dictators, that too has been reversed, in that the less knowledge we have, the more power they think they can grab and impose.

    Democracy? My foot!!


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