Rio + 20, Spiked

by | May 17, 2012

I have an article up on Spiked today, about the absurdity that is the looming Rio+20 conference.

Forty years on, and those predictions of doom have not been borne out. The average life expectancy of a human has increased by 10 years, and the number of infants dying before their fifth birthday has fallen from 134 per thousand to 58. Thus, the human population has nearly doubled, and global GDP has risen threefold. There are more of us, we are healthier, wealthier and better fed. There is vast disparity between what the advocates of political environmentalism have claimed and reality. So why are world leaders set to meet next month in Rio at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development?

I’m predicting that Rio will go the way of Copenhagen… It will again expose the incoherence of environmentalism, and the self-serving agendas of those present, but will be rescued at the last moment by some kind of fudge, as was found at Durban. But perhaps I will be surprised.

Another thing I think will happen is an attempt to reinvent the environmental scare stories of yesteryear, such as population growth and resource depletion. The climate thing is looking worn out at the moment — not quite a busted flush, but climate alarmism is passé.


  1. Mike Fowle

    Just read the article on the GWPF site. Very well argued, elegant and trenchant. If these things were a matter of factual information, logic and reason the summit would have been cancelled by now but unfortunately……

  2. Alex Cull

    What Mike Fowle said; basically an excellent article.

    It’s not for you or I to decide what ‘the future we want’ will look like by participating in democratic processes. Instead, ‘world leaders’ from governments, businesses and NGOs are to decide it for us.

    The organisers would probably, at this point, refer us to the many references to “civil society” that pepper the literature. However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the UN equates “civil society” to NGOs. Here’s a document, for instance, that sets out the accreditation process for civil-society organisations, so that they can be recognised by UNEP:

    Hilary Ostrov has written some very good posts about the UN and its NGO ecosystem, by the way, such as this one about the UN’s “NGO Relations Cluster”:

  3. Robert of Ottawa

    I am always farful of yet another UN attempt to become a World Government. We used to lock up people in mad houses for wanting to rule the world, now we send them on UN vacations to exotic places around the world.

  4. Alex Cull

    Looking for stuff about civil society on the internet yesterday, I found that the EESC (European Economic and Social Committee) had a conference in Brussels about Rio+20 back in February this year. It had the endearing and succinct name “Go sustainable, be responsible! European civil society on the road to Rio+20”:

    Amazingly, at the end of this 2-day event of debates and workshops, the consensus was that sustainability itself was a meaningless concept, far too much money was being wasted on this sort of drivel and the EESC itself should be dissolved forthwith.

    Ha ha, I just made that up. The actual outcome of the conference (nul points for predicting this, unfortunately) was that the world needs… more sustainability. The link to the conference message is almost as unwieldy as the EU itself, so here’s a tinyurl:

    The EESC is a Euroquango which costs around 130 million euros a year to run, and according to Wikipedia, it is there to ensure “sustainable participation of organised civil society in the European political process” and to take on “a particular responsibility in bringing participatory democracy to life”. I’m sure that those of us who are European citizens will have often made good use of this clearly very important and democratic institution.

    For fellow aficionados, there are some lovely examples of EU robot-speak on that site. Here’s one:

    An active and demanding civil society is the key to achieving the change to a green economy. Any review of the institutional framework for sustainable development has to consider the right governance structures for civil society involvement at global, national and sub-national level. Systems of dialogue and democratic participation have to be improved. Institutions representing civil society, such as the national economic and social committees and the European Economic and Social Committee, and national sustainability councils advance civil society dialogue on sustainable development.

    Did I mention that they really love sustainability? Here’s another PDF with highlights from the conference, where they’ve managed to mention “sustainable”, or variants thereof, 129 times in a document with only 24 pages (just under 2% of the entire word count.) Could this be a record?

  5. Mooloo

    129 times in a document with only 24 pages (just under 2% of the entire word count.) Could this be a record?

    Umm, no. As Rio approaches it gets worse.
    has a rate of 3.3% of “sustainable” and cognates (including footnotes).

    It has been noticed before that the rate of increase in “sustainable” is not sustainable.

  6. Dogstar060763

    Ben, an outstanding piece, summing up all my unspoken anxieties about the upcoming Rio+20 jamboree. I fear useful idiots such as the BBC are straining at the leash to go overboard in uncritical praise of this charade…Please be there to write pieces such as this to provide at least some balance to the almost entirely one-sided arguments on ‘sustainability’ we see rehearsed in the mainstream media day-after-day…

  7. geoffchambers

    Many thanks for this article. The timeline showing how sustainability became central to world politics is particularly useful.
    Wanting to know more, and not quite ready to face the reading list provided by Alex and Mooloo, I had a look at the very long Wikipaedia article on “the History of Sustainability”. The article has been rated by just one reader, who wasn’t too impressed.
    It starts at the beginning, pre-Bruntland, with:

    In early human history, the use of fire and desire for specific foods may have altered the natural composition of plant and animal communities

    the reference for which is a tv programme called Stories from the Stone Age starring men in animal skins with Australian accents.
    (I did learn one imperishable fact though: that the father of modern ecology was a botanist called Eugenius Warming – really)
    This, and related articles on environmental sociology and sustainability taught me one thing: that there is a whole parallel academic universe where humanity is studied with no reference to actual human beings, their culture, belief, desires, or creativity. Social sciences quite reasonably study Man while ignoring his individuality; ecology and environmental sociology study Man as a simple user-up of stuff.

  8. Josh Curry

    Interesting and thought provoking article.

    While I agree with the assertion that the concept of ‘sustainability’ is indeed a useless concept,and the UN has been exceptionally poor at achieving its aims, I don’t think that it necessarily follows therefore that the current economic model is the most efficient at delivering aims such as poverty alleviation and increasing living standards. Sustainable development is effectively ‘developing in a manner which is the least unsustainable’ (Arturo escobar).

    However, stating that poverty is a result of a lack of natural resource extraction is a simplistic analysis of the problem and is only relevant if viewed under the prism of the current economic paradigm. I would suggest that is actually the disproportionate use of natural resources by a small elite at the expense of the ‘hoi polloi’ which has resulted in the current inequalities in wealth currently seen.

    While it is indeed true that the alarmist tones made by neo-malthusianisms have been proved wrong, it does not necessarily follow that the substance of their argument is invalid. Continued increases in populations and living standards continually result in environmental degradation. While it is possible that this could be offset by technological advancements, we would require the rate of technological advance to massively increase that witnessed today. Recoursing to the belief in the capitalist system to provide these through innovation runs counter to the current situation.

    On the UN, I fail to see how anything which is trans-boundary in nature or indeed something which involves a zero-sum game can be resolved without recourse to international regimes. I agree that the UN has been utterly useless in acheiving concrete commitments by gov’ns, but I appreciate the reason for its existence in attempting to enforce and construct international law.

    In terms of lack of democracy, I fail to see how governmental officials ( and more often than not directly elected government officials) coming together to represent their country is not democratic? Sure, its not the most localised form of governance where every citizen gets a token contribution, but its a realistic constraint on attempting to address international issues.

    People may not be marching in the streets asking for ‘lower living standards’, but they are increasingly asking for an alternative development paradigm. Perhaps this is what you allude to when you refer to ‘changed attitudes and opinions?’

  9. Ben Pile

    Josh, you raise too many points at once to answer completely. It seems that you’re agreeing that the UN and its emphasis on sustainable development are ill-conceived, but then rescuing them on the basis that i) a sensible definition of ‘sustainability’ may exist; and ii) there are conceivably some issues that are easier for supranational governance than national democracies to deal with.

    I argue that the more concrete the definition of ‘sustainability’, the less useful it becomes. There has never been a programme of deliberate ‘unsustainability’. The debate about what is or isn’t ‘sustainable’ has only really consumed the minds of prognosticators. And the deeper they look into the future, the more hopelessly wrong they get it. This much is self evident. It should hardly need pointing out.

    Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter how robust the definition of ‘sustainability’ is; the purpose of the ‘sustainability’ agenda is to transform politics, as I explain in the article: The truth of ‘sustainability’… is that it is not our relationship with the natural world that it wishes to control, but human desires, autonomy and sovereignty.The anti democratic impulse begins with the conception of ‘sustainability’, not in the fact of supranational organisations.

    There is nothing democratic about leaders of countries determining ‘what we want’ for us. You seem to be concerned about a ‘the current economic model’ and problematic ‘development paradigm’, as though the UN had nothing to do with affairs as they are. That strikes me as naive.

  10. Mooloo

    However, stating that poverty is a result of a lack of natural resource extraction is a simplistic analysis of the problem and is only relevant if viewed under the prism of the current economic paradigm. I would suggest that is actually the disproportionate use of natural resources by a small elite

    The last sentance is a staple of certain political thinking, but it pretty muddleheaded IMO. It’s confusing ownership of wealth with use of the resources.

    Rich people don’t really use many more resources than the rest of us. They tend to have much nicer things, but that’s quite different. My family has two cars. A richer person would have two nicer cars, but the difference in resource consumption is tiny.

    Resource depletion, if it is a problem, is not from a small amount of rich people hogging all the cars or houses. If you got rid of the top 1% of the rich in the world, you wouldn’t have many more resources to share around the rest — especially the key resources like food, water and shelter.

    In many ways the rich don’t use government’s resources — sending the children to private schools gives more education for the rest of us.

  11. Alex Cull

    @ Mooloo, agreed – and it’s the rise of the global middle class (defined very loosely, I suppose, as people who have moved beyond a hand-to-mouth existence and expect/want a steadily rising standard of living) that are the real worry for the neo-Malthusians. In David Suzuki parlance (re his 1972 TV footage) it’s not the few tenth level maggots that are the problem but the wriggling hordes that aspire to more than first or second level maggot-dom.


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