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24 Jun 2012
A tale of two conferences: The social and ecological crises of capitalism
by Chris Williams
“It’s impossible!” I said. “No Johnny, we’re impossible. It’s like it always was ten million years ago. It hasn’t changed. It’s us and the land that’ve changed, become impossible, us!” —Ray Bradbury, from the short story “The Foghorn”—
Sometimes, the calendar of international conferences attended by global elites serves up potent lessons for the rest of us, when they shine a spotlight on the deliberately murky affairs of the people who run the system. As the 20 most powerful world leaders deliberate on economic issues in Los Cabos, Mexico for the G20 summit, representatives of the rest will be simultaneously converging on Rio de Janeiro to consider how to follow up on the original Earth Summit, 20 years ago this year.
At these seemingly separate gatherings, we in truth observe the two sides of the capitalist coin. Namely, how can the capitalist elite continue the necessary work of exploiting both humans and the natural world in the service of profit, while cloaking their intentions in the benign language of growth, development and sustainability? Fine words to cover nefarious ends. No doubt, as people’s livelihoods and world decay around them as a direct consequence of the system the elite oversee, and in response the flame of revolt is rekindled from Cairo to Athens, political elites in the two locations will reflect on the fact that it’s not getting any easier. From the other side, critics and commentators of the two conferences are missing an important and significant lesson when they consider them in isolation.
At the original Earth Summit in Rio, it was generally accepted that environmental questions could not be separated from economic ones. This year, the two conferences, occurring concurrently at different ends of the South American continent, bring to light how this thinking has been undermined.
Furthermore, they indicate with geographical and political precision where the priorities of the global elite lie. While the most important world leaders hot-foot it to Mexico to discuss global economic development, they send low-level delegates to Brazil to discuss issues they deem less vital; to be exact, planetary ecological crisis.
Indeed, so desperate were the Brazilian organizers of Rio+20 to cajole the British premier to attend, they changed the date of the conference so as to avoid conflicting with the much more important and worthy 60th anniversary celebrations of the Queen of England’s ascension to the throne. An attempt that proved ultimately and embarrassingly futile, as British Prime Minister, David Cameron, chose to cling to the coattails of President Obama and other G20 leaders in Los Cabos, as they calculate, connive and concoct the further dismemberment and disenfranchisement of communities of workers and peasants around the world.
In a further sad irony, to enhance attendance at Rio, Brazil is providing flights courtesy of the Brazilian air-force to those countries too poor to send delegates. It’s hard to imagine that the countries who can’t afford to send delegates to an environmental conference will have the financial capacity to take action to preserve biodiversity and a stable climate without international funding and technology transfer. But the concept or even use of the word “transfer” is exactly what the United States delegation is trying to excise from any document emerging from Rio+20.
In Los Cabos, 20 people wielding enormous economic power gather to ensure that nothing stands in the way of the international accumulation of money by their respective corporations; that capitalist growth continues, uninterrupted by paltry considerations such as democracy. Scheming and plotting in Los Cabos, the 20 leaders will huddle, concerned that their plans have been exposed by the people of Greece.