Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Rio, Co-ops and the many-ringed circus

So here it is: my belated first post for this blog. I had every intention to do it before actually arriving in Rio, but this is probably much more my style.  I'm sitting at a small table in the chilled, flourescent-lit cavern of the convention centre in downtown Rio, taking some time out from "Youth Blast" - the official Conference for Youth engagement at Rio+20 - while noise and activity rises from a disorganised grid of partitioned meeting rooms on the convention centre floor and echoes off its concrete sides. There are workshops on Capacity Building for youth-led organisations, ending fossil fuel subsidies, non-violent direct action, "Buying the Green(d) Economy" and dozens of other topics, led by people from seemingly every country and NGO. Just after lunch Achim Steiner, the head of the UN Environment Program - or UNEP, as everybody calls it - made a surprise appearance at a workshop and drew a big, excited crowd; afterwards people hovered around and posed for iPhone photos with the gracious and articulate diplomat until his minder ushered him away. I had never heard of him until today.

A workshop at Youth Blast. Somehow I missed the snow monkeys

I've been swinging between that sense of feeling out-of-place and overwhelmed on the one hand, and energized, engaged and excited on the other, since I arrived in Rio yesterday. The international summit circuit, and, for want of a better term, the youth empowerment scene, is pretty alien to me, and it seems most people here have a better idea of how the enormous machine works and what all the acronyms stand for.  On the other hand, it's pretty damn inspiring to be in a room with people from all over the world, asking the big questions about the future of our planet, and beginning - with an often impressive level of knowledge, detail and passion - to answer them. And while there has been the odd hint that one could label a few folks here as "youth hacks" - to borrow the term from one self-aware Australian, who apologised to me that her business cards hadn't arrived on time - overall people's motivations and involvement appear thoroughly legit.  Without exception, everyone I've met here is intelligent, switched-on and friendly. Also I'm still pretty jet-lagged, and am yet to fully recover from my 72-odd hours in transit!

But let me step back for a moment, and very briefly introduce my background and interest in Rio+20.  I've been interested in what you might broadly call issues of sustainability since well before my undergrad degrees in Arts (Development Studies) and Science (Psychology/Neuroscience), and have been increasingly active on climate change and other environmental issues dating back to one or two "oh shit moments" a few years ago. Meanwhile, I've been involved with the Canberra Student Housing Cooperative, a student-run housing organization which in the last 9 months or so has seen some rapid growth and success. I've found the latter to be a massively inspiring and rewarding use of my time and energy, and the more I've learnt about cooperatives, the more I've realized there is to them. In fact, looking far beyond our little housing project, it turns out that 2012 is the UN International Year Of Cooperatives, and there are countless examples of how these organisations can secure Wins For People in the face of less-than-ideal prevailing economic and/or social conditions.  Or to quote UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon,

“Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”

I'm interested enough in all this to come back to uni to pursue an Honours thesis on coops starting next month, and when the chance came to apply to go to Rio+20 with the ANU group, I realised that this year might present an excellent opportunity to study the intersection of these two interests: cooperatives AND sustainable development. There is some discussion out there on how this might happen at Rio+20, but in the interest of brevity I should probably leave this for a future post.

So what now?

There seem to be two main parts to the many-ringed circus happening in Rio over the next couple of weeks. 

First are the negotiations over the outcome document (otherwise referred to as "the actual text"), the official declaration on which every member of the United Nations is to agree, and which will ostensibly set the agenda for the "Future We Want".  If you've followed international climate change negotiations like Copenhagen at all, this may sound familiar: the tensions between major powers and blocs of developing nations, the "bracketed" sentences and paragraphs, and the arm-wrestling til dawn over the strength of particular verbs and placing of commas, all seem to be here too.  To me this process is essentially a big cluster of mysteries. I understand a few things: I know that domestic governments each set a bunch of priorities, then bring them to a series of meetings wherein negotiators try, through a long and painful process, to get them into the wording. I know that there are two main areas of focus for the document: the institutional framework for sustainable development, and "the Green Economy". And I know that the first Rio summit in 1992 led to some big, real initiatives, like the UNFCCC (precursor to the Kyoto Protocol) and other major environmental agreements. And so on. Overall though, if I wanted to be glib I might summarise my current impression of the process like this:

1. Countries argue over wording of outcome document
2. Countries agree on outcome document
3. ???
4. Sustainable Development!

Needless to say I'm looking forward to fleshing this out considerably, through observing the 3rd Preparatory Committee Meeting (PrepCom!) from June 13-15, and then the big one: the UN Conference on Sustainable Development from June 20-22.

And the second part of what's happening at Rio? Well, everything else. There is a dizzying range of side events, conferences, People's Summits, actions and protests happening before, during and after the official UN meetings. There are expected to be 50,000 people flying (and a few rad folks cycling) into Rio over the coming weeks for this. Of course, some of this activity is trying to influence what makes it into  the "actual text", while much of it is more about using the momentum of Rio+20 to make connections, spread ideas and build movements for a more just and sustainable global future.  It might be my aforementioned ignorance of UN workings and international law talking, but for me this second part is much more exciting. (Brazilian scientist and policy academic, Gustavo Fonseca, thinks so too.)

So, to cut a very long post short, my aim for Rio+20 is to absorb as much of all this as I can, without getting (too) overwhelmed.  I look forward to better understanding the UN process and its connection to actual human lives and ecosystems, and navigating the side events and summits to learn more about cooperatives and their role in sustainable development. And, generally, to being exposed to and inspired by the staggering wealth of energy, enthusiasm and knowledge that is here, so that I can incorporate it into my life and work.

I'll try to communicate my thoughts and reflections via this blog as best I can, so stay tuned! I'm more than a little worried about future posts: as the volume of things to write about increases, I expect my time to write about them to decrease. I'll certainly need to be much briefer than this (not necessarily a bad thing - thanks to anyone who's read this far!), and I'll try to make use of my twitter account for on-the-go thoughts, reliable Internet permitting. And please, chime in below with literally anything - comments, questions, links, criticism, suggestions! I may not have the time to respond to everything, but I will definitely read it and take it on board!  

Okay then, time to get back out there...

Rio is kinda spectacular, too


  1. Fantastic! I'm pretty excited about hearing more from you as things move along.

    Also can't wait to find out what the '???' turns out to be.

  2. Crikey published an article yesterday that might inform your discussions over there - the pros and cons of Aus staying in Kyoto:


    It's a tangled web, by the looks of it.

  3. great post Tom!
    We should do some fun stuff like go to the beach in the morning. I need sunlight and relaxation.

  4. OBRIGADInyA !!! Iam so so happy for you !!! my worry was that you turn so much "academic" but with RIO my worry blow out ! YOU got "WASTE LAND" I wach again to can see it nd fly over GREAT VIEW !!!

  5. I can.t read until home i printed it . Coop are always create by necessity . & disappear with the need too . World are EVOLUTION ! & EXTINCTION ! ! ! & we work in our own one all species do that. 1 Fight 4 survive 2 success & expansion 3 extinction from in or out . After 72 h transit ! just take so many NAPS ! Be Rio & let Rio Be yours You are a good listener & a chameleon ! Mix rest with ABSORB YOU WILL FIT ! YOU ARE THIS ! & comeback home or scape North FULL in NEW FRIENDS & COLORS ! Conferences are a mix of reality & high fiction good will & show up just connect with the ones that are there 4 what you are too . now I run to Alx GRAD !

  6. Wow it is spectacular. Hope the conference is going well. If you know my sister Julie give her a friendly punch in the arm from me and say good work!