Friday, 22 June 2012

Rio+20, The End of the Road

Six years ago I started university - the meeting places for great young minds, where those around you are not yet cynical and jaded, where ideas flourish and where youthful enthusiasm means anything is possible.

I was fortunate to stumble upon some of the most switched on and passionate of these minds and realised that young people could make the world a better place, idealistic though this may sound.

I became an ’activist’. Every meeting, protest, or angry letter – count me in, the more the better.

I was arrested for protesting against the wasteful and dangerous renewal of my country’s renewable weapons system. I was stopped and searched by overzealous police operating under laws created by a paranoid government, simply for protesting at the expansion of our already expansive airport. I was hauled into the Dean’s office of my university for questioning an annual careers fair dominated and sponsored by giant multinational oil and arms companies.

I was absolutely convinced that if you shouted loud enough, those in power would listen. I was wrong.

We replaced our nuclear weapons, committing future generations to decades more anachronistic cold war politics and power relations based on military might. Heathrow got its extra terminal and is responsible for 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year; at a time when scientists agree on the need to drastically reduce such emissions. The corporatisation of universities, schools, and public spaces continues unabated. Even Rio+20 is sponsored by Coca-Cola.

Cynical and jaded, burnt out, and exhausted, I looked for another way. A way that I, we, could still effect change. As a lawyer, I thought that maybe this was the answer. I thought that binding international laws could be agreed that would steer us in the right direction. If all nations see the problem, and we fairly distribute the responsibility for solving the problem, everyone will be happy, right?

Wrong again.

A few more years later, and we have only regressed. There is no successor to the Kyoto Protocol, countries are shirking existing commitments so that they may utilise evermore hideous ways to exploit my planet, rapid economic growth continues to be the purported Holy Grail for human societies, and continues to be predicated on the cheap and abundant supply of fossil fuels and ever-growing global inequality.

In short, our failure to act with the required urgency is plunging our planet into potential catastrophe. And we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to think that we could ever fully understand the complexity of the impacts our actions have on our environment.

Rio+20 was an exciting prospect. An opportunity to enunciate the future we want and agree on a way to get there. Instead, the vast majority of world leaders, with notable exception, have settled for the lowest common denominator, bedded down for an endless talkfest, and condemned my future children to inherit a planet in crisis.

We must do better.

I now realise that I was once again misguided, but fortunately we learn from our experience. Let us all learn from our experience and not make the same mistakes twice.

The self-serving, vapid and non-committal show and tell that Rio+20 has become is a signal to me, and a signal to youth and civil society across the world, that if we want a more just, prosperous and sustainable world, we are going to have to do it ourselves.

Rio+20 is the end of the road. I refuse to speak up when I am not listened to. I refuse to engage with bureaucratic processes that promise everything and deliver nothing. I refuse to be drawn into negative battles against so-called ‘leaders’ that are incapable of leading, and would happily see my planet trashed and its people in poverty, so long as they have their creature comforts.

Engaging with flawed processes does not work. Endless protesting does not work. Radical and verbose mutterings will put even the most liberal and dedicated of us off.

No. Instead let us dictate the future we want, not have a substandard future forced upon us. It is time to start shaping a future that we can be proud of, positively develop a vision, and bring our skills, knowledge, and hopefully youthful enthusiasm to bear.

My faith in law as a tool for change remains, though at a different level. International agreements are not the answer, but we can develop and implement strong national frameworks that can make our positive vision for the future a reality.

We can argue for rights for nature, to enshrine respect for the systems that sustain our very lives. We can stop obsessing over GDP and demand governments deliver based on metrics that assess our happiness, not our economic output and consumption. We can learn from indigenous peoples all over the world that thankfully never lost their deep connection with their natural environment.

These ideas are not radical. They are not new. They are just the beginning.

Let’s reject passive engagement in processes destined to fail. Let’ use only positive means for effecting change, and abandon negativity and fear mongering. Let’s not strain our voices shouting in the face of those that will never listen. It is time for us to not listen to them.

It is time to talk to each other, develop a positive vision behind which we can all rally, and create the future we want for ourselves and future generations.

It is our obligation, our immense challenge, and our privilege, to be a generation of young people that could change the course of the history of our species. Let’s start now.

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