Why I'm going to Rio

Why I’m going to Rio

Why I’m going to Rio

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In just less than a month, social movements, civil society, Heads of State (accompanied by government delegations), the private sector, and many other groups and individuals from all around the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In fact many are already making their way to Rio in order to begin preparations for the People’s Summit and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20 (20 years after the Earth Summit of 1992).

The People’s Summit and Rio+20 are separate, large gatherings of many thousands, which will run parallel to each other. Both meetings will focus on environmental protection and helping populations in need, yet their structure and proposals are different. The UN meeting is focused on creating a roadmap for the “green economy” in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, while the call of the People’s Summit is “come reinvent the world.” The People’s Summit was created to plan and share alternative ways for ensuring sustainability and equity in the world, via solutions that rely on growing cultures of environmental and social justice awareness and by looking at ways to move that awareness towards action. On the other hand, the UN meetings have often relied on the decisions and influence of industry/corporations to guide and deliver upon the promise of a better world, many of these bodies often putting profit before people and the planet.

These meetings are significant because of the unique political and historical legacy they are a part of and hope to build upon. Twenty years ago in 1992, when I was about nine years old, a meeting took place called the Earth Summit. Some colleagues of mine attended this Summit, having been working on environmental issues for decades. Much of my own knowledge about this history came from their direct experience, which they shared readily. I can’t help but appreciate those who came before me and their efforts — I know it takes lots of courage and dedication to uphold the rights of people and the planet, and clear the path for others to do this type of work. The Earth Summit put forward some important government commitments, principles, conventions and new forms of engagement amongst stakeholders. These included Agenda 21, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Conventon on Biological Diversity, the Precautionary Principle, the Forest Principles and meaningful engagement for organizations like Friends of the Earth. In June 2012, leaders from around the world will participate in Rio+20 and look back on the last 20 years in order to identify the issues we are still dealing with and divulge to the world the reasons why many of the goals set out during the Earth Summit have yet to be accomplished. This exposure, whether brought by governments (unlikely) or civil society, will teach us what went wrong. Our job is to then make the necessary corrections.

The goal of Rio+20 is to build a roadmap towards a global green economy. I think the ETC Group says it best when they describe the circumstances this agenda creates:

“Rio+20 brings us to a crossroads that offers both risks and opportunities. Rio+20’s centerpiece “green economy” is poorly defined and could become a cover for the further commodification and monopolization of nature, the violation of human rights and the deployment of high-risk technologies. Alternatively, the Rio summit could re-set the agenda for diverse, people-centered, local green economies, with policies that protect the environment, strengthen the commons, promote equality establishing a new participatory and transparent multilateral system for technology assessment.”

So here we are…we’ve got a 50/50 shot at success! Not surprising as it seems life always leads to options and choices, usually ending up in two directions: towards good decisions or bad ones.


My main goal in Rio will be to educate people about new technologies (such as nanotechnology) and to promote multilateral technology assessment and regulation. Friends of the Earth U.S. and our partners, the Brazilian Research Network in Nanotechnology, Society and Environment as well as the International Center for Technology Assessment have set up workshops and panels to share research about the risks associated with nanotechnology and to discuss these with the public and other participants at the People’s Summit. Governments worldwide invest pennies into Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) studies for nanotechnology. For example, in the United States only about 5 percent of the overall Nanotechnology R&D budget was spent on EHS. How can we be certain that a technology is safe to use if we know very little about how it interacts with our bodies and the environment? Despite this lack of EHS funding, many studies have surfaced that speak clearly about the toxicity of nanoparticles and their impact on the environment. It’s important for the public to be aware of the fact that we now have these tiny, intentionally manufactured nanoparticles entering our lives with no regulation in place to ensure safety. These nanoparticles are found in a wide range of products, such as cosmetics, sunscreens, clothing, paints, cleaning products, sporting goods, household appliances, surface coatings, agricultural chemicals, food packaging, ‘health’ supplements, industrial catalysts and building equipment and many types of technologies promoted as ‘clean’ and ‘environmentally friendly.’

In Rio we’ll also hold our 6th Annual Nanotechnology Summit. The Summit will bring together civil society, the public, academics and unions with the goal of strategizing ways to encourage our governments to take urgent action in order to protect consumers from harmful nanotechnologies. We also hope to inspire governments to pursue meaningful public engagement to allow for deliberation on the social, ethical and safety aspects of nanotechnology.

Beyond nanotechnology, we’ve got many other new forms of technology to deal with, including geoengineering, synthetic biology, and biotechnology, which if left unregulated could create far more problems for our world than solutions. It’s crucial that we support policy measures based upon the precautionary principle while encouraging only the safest and most effective technologies. We must also acknowledge that alternatives to techno-fixes exist and need to be researched and better understood; I like the idea of low-tech, community-owned solutions providing effective solutions in a much simpler and safer package. As humans we are pretty ingenious and I think if we were determined to find solutions that were simple and didn’t involve such a gross manipulation of the planet, we could find ways to instead work with the planet as many indigenous cultures have taught us. And we can all do our part to make lifestyle changes that reduce consumption and waste. Another important factor is ensuring that all technologies are regulated through systems that make certain they will be shared equitably amongst peoples and nations.

Technology transfer and development are important components of the Rio negotiations and form part of the roadmap for the green economy contained within documents produced in the lead up to the Rio conference. The basic idea is to ensure that all nations have access to technologies that the richer northern countries create and usually get first dibs on. A good question people are asking is: who will then own these technologies? Currently, the private sector has ownership of these new and powerful technologies and will continue to hold this power unless Rio+20 devises ways for ensuring technologies are managed equitably and free from the impulse of profit driven corporations, while offering independent monitoring of the technologies. The last thing we need is for the private sector to force unregulated, unsafe and ineffective technologies upon nations in order to further an agenda that puts people and the planet second to profit. Since 1992 the UN and various governments including the United States have done away with programs and offices created to monitor and study technology. Now is the time to reinstate and improve upon these programs.


Technology is only one piece of the Rio+20 negotiations. There is an agenda being driven that seeks to privatize nature by further deregulating industry and handing our common resources over to companies for profit. Other elements at stake include protecting human rights to food and water. All stuff that to most people seem like basic unquestionable rights, yet it’s amazing to think that there are individuals who want to take these essentials away from us and sell them back in dirtier and more expensive forms.

As I write, an article from the Guardian shows that the United Nations Chief, Ban Ki-Moon and other officials are stating that the Rio negotiations have been “painfully slow” and that they don’t believe Rio+20 will achieve breakthroughs like in 1992. These are the very reasons why gatherings like the People’s Summit take place — because of the lack of powerful change and leadership in the UN meetings. Despite this bleak situation, I’m thankful for the opportunity to participate both in the People’s Summit and the Rio+20 meetings. So many resources have been invested in these meetings: people’s time, energy (in many forms), money, hopes, dreams and desires to name a few. I feel strongly that we need to make the best out of what we’ve invested and take advantage of the opportunities that surface when we gather as many diverse movements in order to shape the future of our world.

I understand the frustrations of many when it comes to these meetings. The UN is ‘high-energy’ and you can really feel peoples desires, which can be overwhelming. Sometimes I wonder where all of the adults have gone. Sure, everyone is wearing suits and speaks with a bold tone, but not many leaders project true responsibility and encourage bold changes. I wonder why those in power are acting like children versus making mature decisions.

No matter what the outcome of Rio+20, we will have lessons from this experience and we will continue to push forward towards a better world — no matter what. People’s voices can only be disenfranchised for so long, the bullies of the world and their attempt to overrun these types of gatherings with greed are ephemeral in the end, and cannot be sustained. In the spirit of the People’s Summit, I’m going to Rio to “reinvent the world.” Here’s hoping to report some good news in June.

Photos (from top to bottom):

Rio de Janeiro, photo credit: Mike Vondran, 2006

Ban ki-moon, photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum

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