Rio+20: a tyranny
of green do-gooders
The latest ‘save the planet’ shindig provided yet another chance for political poseurs to dictate our future.
Some 50,000 delegates and 100 world leaders met at the Rio+20 ‘Earth Summit’ last month to settle on ‘the future we want’. They failed.
‘Let me be frank. Our efforts have not lived up to the measure of the challenge’, said UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, at the opening ceremony. What ‘we want’ turned out to be the opposite of what he thought we wanted. Ban continued: ‘For too long, we have behaved as though we could… burn and consume our way to prosperity. Today, we recognise that we can no longer do so. We recognise that the old model for economic development and social advancement is broken… Our global footprint has overstepped our planet’s boundaries.’
Rio+20 was presented as an opportunity to determine ‘the future we want’ as though there was a free choice to be made. The next moment, the ugly truth was revealed: choice had been excluded. Science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’ – the ‘Limits to Growth’ thesis revised for the twenty-first century – which, with the imperatives of ‘sustainable development’, had already decided what kind of future we should be allowed.
A lot is expected of ‘science’. However, the failure of Rio+20, like the failure of many global conferences to produce agreements, such as the meetings at Durban, Cancun and Copenhagen, reveals once again that the real function of ‘science’ is a fig leaf for their delegates’ bad faith. One of the first to reflect on the failure of Rio, for instance, was UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who called the agreement produced by the conference ‘insipid’. He should know – before setting off to Rio, he wrote in the Guardian that ‘developed economies must not sacrifice long-term sustainability in the name of short-term growth’, that ‘national governments [must] broaden their understanding of wealth’, and that ‘Rio must set out a plan for the future’.
Rio+20 was the ideal marketplace for such bland pieties. It’s not as if economic growth, short- or long-term, is a problem the UK enjoys. Politicians and ‘thinkers’ who lack the ideas necessary to produce positive change – growth – turn the concept of growth into the enemy. The anti-growth lobby congeals at events such as Rio, where there’s ample opportunity to swap ideas about how to turn their own mediocrity into a worldwide political project under the pretence of ‘saving the planet’. In reality, the desire for powerful global political institutions owes much more to politicians’ own domestic crises of legitimacy than it does to any real threat to the world’s rivers, trees and oceans.
This fact of environmentalism’s political utility to disoriented and useless politicians was epitomised on a recent episode of the BBC interview programme, Hard Talk, in which the former secretary of state for energy and climate change, Chris Huhne, said: ‘All through human political history, you have had governments that have tried to set up particular objectives and have realised they can only go so far so fast without the rest of the world going along with them. For example, back in the bad old days of communism, you had the whole argument about whether Joe Stalin could have socialism in one country. You can’t have environmentalism in one country.’
By winning whatever passes for the hearts and minds of the political establishment, environmentalism has been installed throughout political institutions without ever having won a democratic contest of its ideals. Such is the extent of this insidious colonisation that any public debate about the future, especially of energy policies, is already prefigured according to environmental precepts. Party-political debates about the environment in the UK have consisted of no more than oneupmanship: who is taking the climate issue most seriously.
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Similarly, debates in the wider public sphere consist of little more than terrifying stories about our imminent demise. Opportunities to challenge the premise of such alarmism are limited to discussing, for example, energy as an end in itself – which means of generating power is the least problematic – rather than as a means to solve human problems of scarcity. The rights and wrongs of political environmentalism – its designs for political institutions, the reorganisation of economic and industrial life, and the management of lifestyles according to environmental diktats – are rarely, if ever, exposed to discussion.
Nowhere is environmentalism more protected from scrutiny than at conferences such as Rio+20. They are held well beyond the reach of democratic politics and far from critics. Yet some are not convinced that such institution-making is put far enough outside our control. Just as the basis for political environmentalism is seemingly justified on ‘what science says’, so resistance to environmentalism’s political projects is explained by its advocates in pseudoscientific terms: that we are all addicted to consumer society.
This assumption that the masses are suffering from consumption addiction allows world leaders to step in and make the big decisions about the future on our behalf. Yet conferences like Rio+20 are not about protecting us plebs; these shindigs are really about protecting the elites. The real reason Huhne couldn’t build ‘environmentalism in one country’ is because nobody in that country wanted it. The way around such stumbling blocks is to establish a basis for political institutions internationally, away from such troubling concepts as democracy.
NGOs are only too happy to help. As I have argued previously on spiked, environmentalism has comprehensively failed to establish itself as a popular movement. Instead, environmental NGOs – a pale imitation of mass movements – were given access to political institutions to overcome the disconnect between political elites and the public. As ‘pressure groups’, they pretended to be holding governments to account, but by raising the issues the government wanted to identify with, NGOs were actually doing governments’ bidding.
This supranational institution-building needs its own legitimising basis: environmental crisis. And this is where the science is recruited. Scientific organisations all over the world plan for years to produce the most ghastly predictions from measurements of our relationship with the natural world. Most notably, the Royal Society began its quest to investigate ‘the links between global population and consumption, and the implications for a finite planet’, published shortly before the Rio conference two years ago. The reality of The Science is, however, that ‘planetary boundaries’ have no more been detected than have the mechanisms which supposedly reduce politics to a search for the expression of neurotransmitters associated with pleasure. Boundaries are presupposed rather than discovered.
The desire to organise society according to ‘scientific’ principles inevitably treats humans like trash, without exception. Prejudices are smuggled under cover of science.
A proper perspective on the context of Rio gives us many more clues about what it is really intended to achieve than The Science does. Hollow politicians escape their domestic problems to pose in front of cameras as planet-savers. Morally bankrupt and self-serving NGOs appoint themselves as the representatives of non-existent future generations and the poorest people in the world, while campaigning for a form of politics that puts political power beyond the reach of democratic control. Sociopathic public-health control freaks and weirdo Malthusian scientists – the rightful heirs of the eugenics movement – get to parade their anti-human hypotheses as virtues. A supine media, in search of drama, declares this the final opportunity to save us from ecological Armageddon.
It would be easier to swallow the claim that science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’, and that it was necessary to create certain political institutions to deal with the problem, if the claims stopped there. But instead of stopping there, environmentalists have developed an entire ideology, premised on the idea that humans are incapable of reason, and concluding that powerful institutions are necessary to contain our impulses. That framework is expedient to the current mode of politics: the endless construction of historically illiterate technocracies that lumber from crisis to crisis, to the extent that they now need crisis to legitimise all the lumbering.
But what about The Science? If there really are problems with humanity’s relationship with the natural world, then what really impedes an understanding and solving of those problems are these anti-human precepts that dominate at least half of the calculation. It is no surprise that, when you take such a low view of humanity, you discover that things are ‘unsustainable’.
Ben Pile is the convenor of the Oxford Salon. He blogs at Climate Resistance.