REFLECTIONS ON UNCED: A NEW BEGINNING
PCDForum Column #36, Release Date July 20, 1992
by David C. Korten
I am among those who left the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro with a sense of despair. The official debates were accurately described by a European journalist as a feast of hypocrisy. The final documents evaded the real issues and avoided setting serious targets. Stripped of the pious rhetoric of environmental protection and concern for the poor, official UNCED was a gathering of elites from both North and South intent on reaffirming the status quo of elite privilege while maneuvering for maximum financial advantage in the end game battle for what remains of earth's natural wealth.
For those of us who looked to the forces of civil society as humanity's hope for the future, it was easy to find the results of the independent sector meetings held under the banner of Global Forum '92 even more depressing. My time in Rio was devoted to Global Forum '92's main event, the NGO and People's Movements Forum. The agenda of the 2,500 registered participants was to draft a number of citizens' treaties setting forth action agendas to which civic organizations all around the world would be invited to commit themselves as signatories.
The chaos of the treaty drafting process often bordered on anarchy, leaving me with a strong sense of the absurdity of the idea that civil society might generate self-organizing processes of sufficient power to challenge and transform the dominant system. The resulting documents did little to lift my despair. In spite of the enormous amounts of well intentioned energy invested, most of the treaties produced by the NGO Forum were too poorly crafted and inarticulate to be of practical value.
Several weeks of subsequent reflection have led me to conclude that my despair was misplaced. The power of the self-organizing chaos of the ebb and flow of social energies that define the social movements of civil society cannot be measured by the numbers of articulate documents those movements generate. This is a reality that my experience in bureaucratic settings left me poorly equipped to fully comprehend.
Similarly, the true measure of the success or failure of the UNCED process comes in its contribution to amplifying and focusing the social energies of civil society. In those terms it made an immense contribution. First, it turned the world's media into a popular university of the environment. Second, it challenged thousands of NGOs from every corner of the world to rethink their roles and to build international alliances.
In the final days of the Rio gathering, the organizing committee of the NGO and People's Organizations Forum commissioned and distributed a synthesizing document: "The People's Earth Declaration: A Proactive Agenda for the Future." This declaration pulled from the treaty discussions and documents the main themes that defined the underlying consensus of the Forum's participants. In the end, it was evident that behind the cacophony of discordant voices were important elements of consensus that provide a strong foundation for the emergent global movement.
The consensus was strongest in its near universal rejection of the key elements of the dominant development model that the official UNCED debates seemed to uncritically embrace: sustained economic growth as the measure of human progress, consumerism, export promotion, free trade in contrast to fair and balanced trade, market deregulation, militarism, monopolization of intellectual property rights, the concentration of unaccountable economic power in transnational corporations, and the policy dominance of the Bretton Woods institutions.
Two relatively new themes suggested to me important progress is being made toward fundamentally redefining the meaning of development in non-economic terms. The first was the expression of a clear and widely shared belief that there is a great deal to be learned from the world's indigenous peoples about what defines a healthy and prosperous human community living in harmony with its natural setting. The second was the strong sense of the essential role of spirituality in defining who we are and how we live. Together these two themes defined striking advances in the emerging alternative consensus.
With the exception of a few dissident elements who seemed to be caught in an intellectual time warp, the geographical divide between North and South largely dissolved in Rio. Even talk of North-South partnership seemed a bit dated, as people of all nations shared their analyses of the problem and joined in the task of constructing a world in which all people, including future generations, can enjoy a full and productive life.
As a beginning to our collective efforts to redefine our relationships to one another and to planet earth, UNCED served us well.