There is not much to say about the recent Rio+20 conference. This time, nobody is even pretending anything of significance has been achieved. Two decades after the original conference that was supposed to save the world, countries reaffirmed the commitments they made in 1992 and agreed to agree on some goals in the future. The US lobbied to remove anything of substance from the text. Delegates could not even agree on the seemingly no-brainer proposal to end the $1 trillion spent globally on fossil fuel subsidies (despite a 350.org petition signed by over 1 million people calling on them to do so).
Instead of talking about Rio+20 I want to ask: why are these negotiations failing?
Some commentators argue the reason nothing is being achieved is because of the current economic crisis, but this explanation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In the last 20 years there have been economic ups and downs, but international negotiations have dragged on pointlessly throughout it all. In that time, far from the negotiators’ constant claims that they were making progress, the situation has in fact deteriorated at an accelerating rate. The economic crisis is just the most recent excuse not to act.
It is not that there is a shortage of money, but that money is going to the wrong priorities. Governments are able to find the money for fossil fuel subsidies. They can find money for tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich. And it didn’t take them decades to find trillions of dollars to bail out banks.
Other commentators argue the problem is conflicting national interests. But that explanation is not sufficient either, because at the end of the day we are all in the same boat. The real problem is the positions of too many governments are determined by big business. In particular, the fossil fuel industry has spent decades funding misinformation to discredit the science of global warming and lobbying to neuter any policy intended to address it.
It is tempting to conclude that governments are incompetent at solving problems, but that’s what big business wants us to think. On the contrary, governments are powerless because they have surrendered too much power to big business. Our politics is not democratic government by the people, for the people, but undemocratic government by the corporations, for the corporations. For example, in the US political donations have reached astronomical amounts, and who wins or loses elections is largely determined by who can raise the most money. Business lobbyists have privileged access to the political system, and are using it to block regulations (and remove existing ones) intended to protect the environment, in the name of reducing the size of government.
Of course, these are generalizations; corporate power doesn’t explain everything. The belief in unlimited economic growth runs even deeper, through all traditional political ideologies. We need to change the way we think to recognize the economy is part of the environment and stands or falls along with it. Nevertheless, in today’s world big business is the main political force standing in the way of action on the environment.
We need to reverse the trend toward small government – not to infringe upon the rights of ordinary people, but to enforce the responsibilities of businesses. I’m not advocating authoritarian state socialism (which is just as growth-oriented as capitalism), but a better democracy: greater political equality. We need to find ways to reduce and counter the influence of money in politics. I don’t have a magic bullet solution, but first we must understand and expose the problem.