Sunday, 17 June 2012

Conferência Gigante

Riocentro is the enormous venue for the Rio+20 conference, located in the suburban sprawl west of the better-known downtown and tourist areas of Rio de Janeiro.  It hosted the Earth Summit in 1992 and will be a major venue for the 2016 Olympics. On Wednesday afternoon I took the 1.5 hour air-conditioned coach shuttle out there with Glen (who´s written an excellent post on expectations and context of the summit), to get accredited and acquainted.

Five pavilions, plus another temporary one for Rio+20
It evoked several things for me: first, Sydney´s own Olympic Park from the 2000 Games, with its freshly printed colour-coded signs, marking lanes for herding serious numbers of buses and tens of thousands of people. In a similar way, it also feels like any airport in the (developed) world, with its full-blast air conditioning and sanitised, overpriced food court. And then in another way, there were hints of the showground across from the house where I grew up, where we´d go over and wander around the day before the show started, feeling the anticipation of the Big Event among the mundane final preparations.

But when we took the shuttle out again the next day, I realised that what it reminded me of most was the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida. A sterile piece of vast infrastructure on a flat expanse of subtropical coastline, designed primarily to accommodate Events, rather than people or nature - only a few trees dotted among the carparks.

Trying to avoid any ´failure to launch´cliches...
Without stretching things too far, I think there´s definitely a connection to be made here. Around Rio+20 there is a sense of anticipation, of counting down to something. The TV trucks, Media Centres and Blogging Rooms are a reminder that the world is watching. That for a moment we´re thinking about stuff on a planetary scale.  And maybe - I´ll stop after this one, I promise - there´s also a sense of being on the edge of something momentous, the frontier of oblivion: in a recent example of the kind of make-or-break warnings we seem to have completely internalised these days, Ban Ki-Moon said of Rio+20,
"If we really do not take firm actions, we may be heading towards the end – the end of our future."
Okay then.

Despite all this, the proceedings have a very human character. On the first night of Prepcom (the last pre-meeting before Rio+20), at a big reception put on at the expense of the Brazilian Government, people in business attire chatted, flirted, joked, networked, got drunk - thanks to the very insistent waiters who did the rounds with bottles of wine - and scanned the crowd for beauties or celebrities. (Nate, an agronomy student from Iowa, thought he spotted Jeffrey Sachs, but it just was a lookalike.) At one point, wondering if everyone else was feeling the uneasy sense of anticlimax, I heard an amplified voice booming from the stage nearby: ´WE. MUST. SUCCEED!´ I recognised the voice as that of Sha Zukang, the Chinese Secretary-General of Rio+20 - he´d said the same thing at Youth Blast a couple of days earlier - but this time most people´s attention was elsewhere.

The slightly surreal vibe only intensified when I sat in on one of the negotiating sessions back at Riocentro the next morning. This was the ´Green Economy splinter group´, where negotiators from different countries were attempting to wrestle the text for the ´Green Economy´ section of the draft outcome document down to something they could all agree on. The morning´s focus was on section L, paragraphs 53 and 54 (I think), and a plodding Canadian chairman facilitated as negotiators from delegations (mainly the USA, South Korea and the G77 bloc of developing nations) proposed amendments, deletions and additions, which were projected on a screen in one corner. There were plenty of long silences as the chair and his colleagues (the ´podium´) attempted to write new text that incorporated the delegates´ concerns.  It was simultaneously an eye-opener and an eye-closer.

This, in large part, seems to be how the UN works, but as I sat on the floor in the corner, I couldn´t help feeling like a bored kid under the dining table, listening as the adults discussed Something Important I didn´t quite understand.  As a friend put it, ´people negotiating on behalf of governments on behalf of countries on behalf of people regarding the future of the planet as we know it. Hard not to get a little lost´. (For a more substantive account of the negotiations, check out the IISD´s daily reports. This blog also has a brief and accessible summary to yesterday, and the official participants´ handbook provides a detailed summary of how the whole shebang fits together.)

Believe it or not, this brings me to an actual point, related to my interest in co-operatives.  I´ve been thinking about decision-making over shared resources, an element which is shared by many different kinds of groups. These include the student housing co-operative with which I´m involved, and this particular arm of the United Nations, although obviously on vastly different scales.  In both cases, there is a consensus decision-making process, through which members attempt to reach decisions regarding issues and resources common to them all.  In the student housing co-op it´s early days yet and we´re figuring it out as we go, but so far I feel it generally works. (Recently I helped chair a meeting in which the 15 current members selected seven new ones from a pool of about 23, shaping the process as we went. We finished within an evening, with lives and good will preserved!) In the United Nations, one could easily argue, it doesn´t work quite as well.  I´m in the early stages of thinking about why this is, and have a bunch of ideas, but would welcome your input!

In fact, this connects to one of the major areas of research for the economist Elinor Ostrom, who passed away this week. She won the Nobel Prize for her work in economics, which showed that ´common property could be successfully managed by groups using it´. This can be seen as a response or amendment to Garrett Hardin´s Tragedy of the Commons, a concept familiar to every student of environmental governance, sustainability and beyond. Just before she died, she wrote this piece on Rio+20, acknowledging the importance of the summit but arguing that top-down governance is not the best or only way to preserve our planet.  (If you´re interested, also check out this very good piece by the ANU´s own Matthew Rimmer for more on Ostrom, her work and legacy.)


Okay, time to get back out there. There´s just so much going on - a bit like the negotiators, I guess I´ve got my own challenge of condensing massive amounts of ideas, thoughts, reactions and questions into something manageable on this blog - and I´m ommitting a great deal. For example, on Thursday I also checked out a side event in one of Rio´s favelas, jointly organised by a local community group and Rio´s British School. On the ride back Lara, one of the organisers, told us a little of the fascinating and violent history of Rio´s estimated 1000 favelas, and the recent ´pacification´ of some of them. Oh, and earlier in the week, I met the creator of Captain Planet. I can show you her business card, which of course prominently features the green-mulleted hero.

Today I´m off (slowly, after a visit to Lapa last night) to the IIED Fair Ideas Conference. I´m also looking forward to checking out the alternative People´s Summit at Flamengo, and generally soaking up more of this amazing city. Thank you for reading this far, and please continue to chime in on the comments!

This photo must have been taken on a week night

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic post Tom! I think you have a nack for blog-writing - very readable. Co-ops and the concept of common property are fascinating. I think we can learn a lot here from various indigenous peoples around the world for whom the concept of property is still alien. I worry that perhaps we in the Western world are so far down an individualistic path that we may never come back...