by Kennedy Graham
Rio + 20 is probably the most important gathering of humankind to date. The fate of the Earth hangs in the balance. Earth will endure, albeit in degraded form. Once were beauties, but the warriors turned up.
There will be those who will say the G-20 in Mexico trumps it. True in short-term; wrong in long-term. G-20 is powerful but self-selected. UN is weak but universal. Legitimacy smiles, eventually, upon the latter.
We did our best, at Rio – those who showed. Our guy couldn’t make it, but he wouldn’t have made the difference.
Humanity operates now in two parallel universes. There is the establishment. This is composed of the current leadership – political/diplomatic and business. For them, the challenge is immense, but it is simply a matter of pulling together harder – renewing our commitment two decades after we said we would. Time simply got the better of us. No new paradigm, as the NZ submission sternly said.
So our UN documents and ensuing national decisions, or non-decisions, are composed of phraseology. Words matter, but they take time to affect action.
In the Establishment Universe, success is defined by the existence of a document, not its content.
So, in the Establishment Universe, we did not fail in the sense that our world leaders strove to play their part. They generally are capable enough and, well, by definition, they have leadership qualities. At least they don’t get shouldered in by coolies any more. They simply sweep in, behind dark glass, tucked inside rolling wagons that sleekly contribute to the problem.
So did the rest of us – contribute, that is. Even as we trundled in by bus, we’d spewed avgas into the heavens. Offsetting our consciences, we head for the halls and the corridors, earnest in pursuit of our aspirations and hopes.
We, in our innocence, are the counter-establishment. This includes some, not all, of civil society, some few opposition parliamentarians (around the world), and above all, the scientific community. I include the scientific community because they engage in the scientific method, they deal with facts, to the extent humanly possible, and they acknowledge contestability. As a result, it is they who are catatonic with alarm.
And I count the youth in, separate from civil society, for they are proving to be the most potent group for change. But they may not get the chance.
I include myself in this other universe as in political opposition – not only electorally but philosophically. The counter-establishment is not the anti-establishment. I am not anti-establishment. I understand the strengths, weaknesses and constraints of government – it absorbed much of my working life. But I / we offer an alternative philosophy, and seek to attain government on that basis.
The Counter Establishment Universe does not begin, or end, with phraseology – that which is coming to resemble mediaeval canonical dicta. We begin with the science. And the figures. And their extrapolation. We become catatonic, too, then consumed with a steel-like resolve.
The phraseology of our UN documentation would look very different. A UN declaration would start with a section of fact: the nine planetary boundaries and the Ecological Crisis, based on the ecological footprint analysis – the overshoot – and the inequality and the inertia. We would reason our way from there. We would finish with a call to action. The action would be qualitatively different.
That is the philosophy. There is also the institutional dimension of global governance. We did not succeed at Rio – and Copenhagen before it – because we fail to establish the preconditions of success. Like the eternal addict, we know we have a problem. Deep down, we recognise, there is a deep problem. We know there’s a way out, somewhere.
And the door, the door to a collective redemption – we can see it. We can even see through it, to the other side. For the door, unlike the rolling wagon, has clear glass. We can imagine, we can even perceive, the future we mightwant. But the door — we cannot open the door. For it appears to be locked. The key. That damned key. We try to remember, whether we even had it.
Two preconditions we decline to meet. Because we’re not prepared to front with the deposit.
The first is the Selfish Gene. It has been around a while. We know ourselves well enough – homo adverarius. But we cannot get rid of the gene. Rio ’92 called for common but differentiated responsibility. Through, inter alia, sustainable consumption by the rich. Well, you can forget that. The Nordics made a pass at it. The rest of us refused. The phrase faded from the UN documents, like invisible ink.
Call the second Democranoia. This is new. I have just coined it – an ugly word, unerringly descriptive. It signifies a paranoia – a deep and abiding lack of confidence – over entrusting ourselves to a degree of democratic legitimacy at the global level.
The highest institution we entrust ourselves to date, after five millennia, with political and military power, is the nation-state. We are developing beyond that at the regional level, and not just in Europe. But we stop short at the global level. We squabble too much. We think too differently. At least we think we do.
So the global institutions become arenas, not cabinet rooms. In the arena we compete, fight to the death even.
But technology leapt ahead, stealing a march over political evolution. So nationally, we confront global problems and, as individual nations, we court death together.
The Ecological Crisis, and the Global Governance Crisis. Problem, failed solution.
A global problem requires a global decision-making unit. It won’t do, ladies and gentlemen, to address a global problem with 193 squabbling decision-makers, each aspiring to maximise the national interest, each suspicious of the others’ motives and ploys.
I guarantee that, within coming months, we shall be witness to ringing declarations in the House of Representatives that New Zealand punched above its weight. If not at Rio over sustainability, then in Qatar over climate change or through the TPP over trade and investment.
A 21st-century formula to ponder: 193 nations punching above their political-economic weight guarantees global ecological overshoot.
It is logically impossible to solve a global problem through the competitive pursuit of national interests.
So our diplomats, labouring through without clear-eyed direction or delegated sense of urgency, fudge the phraseology with constructive ambiguity, and produce a boondoggle.
And our leaders, our erstwhile leaders, eyeing the media back home and nervous of courting failure, come for a finite number of hours, and sign off with a quick flourish before the airport lounge mercifully receives them back.
At least those that had bothered to show.
And so it goes.
[P.S. They aren’t really global leaders at all. They’re national leaders. Politicians, even. Humans.]