The mood inside the Windsor Barra hotel seemed more buoyant than in many of the over 3,000 other side-meetings taking place parallel to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). Here, at a suburb far from the favelas shadowing Copacabana or Ipanema, CEOs and other top officials from some of the world’s largest corporations patted each other’s back and exhorted each other to be even more ambitious. Speaker after speaker spoke of how indispensable business is to building the ‘green economy’ - the new economic model that UN officials and developed-country governments were aggressively promoting in this conference.
This was ‘Business Day’, a strictly ‘by-invitation-only’ networking opportunity, pep rally, and strategy meeting for ‘green capital’: the vanguard group of businesses, organised with the help of the UN, that have been rallying other businesses to embrace rather than to oppose the goal of ‘sustainable development’.
Organised by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, the meeting admitted only a chosen few of the 50,000 people who descended on Rio for the UNCSD, the UN conference with the largest business delegation in history. Among those invited were CEOs or vice chairs from Phillips, Bank of America, DuPont, BHP Billiton, Unilever, and Dow Chemical, joined by fast-rising conglomerates from the global South, such as the Brazilian mining giant Vale and South African energy company Eskom, as well as high officials from UN organisations, and selected NGOs.
Over the preceding days, most participants also attended other side meetings, with titles such as ‘Green Gold: Financing the Green Economy’, or ‘Why green growth needs to be driven by business’. A common refrain was the need to make the ‘green economy’ an attractive proposition. For as one speaker stressed: ‘Until we make [lowering carbon emissions] a good business opportunity, we’re not going to attract the capital, the entrepreneurship, the leadership, and everything we need in order to solve this’. Among the most oft-cited proposals to make this happen is to put a so-called ‘price’ on nature. And indeed, in a related business meeting elsewhere in Rio, CEOs mostly from the financial sector also launched the ‘Natural Capital Declaration’: a call for banks and other financial companies’ to value and report their use of the Earth’s ‘natural assets’.
Today here at the Windsor Barra, the ‘word of the day’, a speaker quipped, was ‘scaling up’. And the main problem, it almost went without saying for many speakers, was that they are being hindered from ‘achieving scale’. So after rolling up their sleeves for a series of workshops, they agreed to call on the world’s governments - some of the Presidents or Prime Ministers of which they just had lunch with - to ‘unlock our potential’, to put in place the ‘enabling policy frameworks for inclusive green growth’. We need to do more to give business ‘a seat at the decision-making table’, the International Chamber of Commerce had earlier insisted. The day ended with an awards ceremony - one of the few, if not the only, award ceremonies, among the thousands of meetings here.
Many, if not most, of the thousands of speeches heard in Rio bewailed the ‘slow movement’ or the ‘lack of progress’ since the first Rio summit 20 years ago - or even since the first UN-sponsored summit on the environment in Stockholm in 1972. For business, however, the pace of change could hardly be called slow. 40 years ago, the Stockholm summit was convened at the peak of radical environmentalism’s strength, when consumer groups and environmentalist organisations suddenly surged from the margins to the mainstream of political life in many Western countries.
It seems hard to imagine now, but this was the time when these movements suddenly changed the political discourse and mobilised tens of thousands of people for demonstrations much more easily than environmentalists have been able to do in recent years, despite increased knowledge about the threats of climate change. Tapping into widespread concerns about nuclear power, fertilizers, or deforestation, as well as deeper anxieties caused by the end of the long post-war boom, these radical environmentalists clearly identified who they thought were to blame for worsening environmental degradation worldwide: business. As owners of the factories that used up the timber and the minerals from the mountains and spewed waste into rivers, as the main users of the power plants that polluted the air, business was, for them, the villain - the ones that had to be restrained and punished.
And as political scientist David Vogel documents in Fluctuating Fortunes, so successful were environmentalist movements in making the public turn against business during the Seventies that they succeeded in pushing the US government to adopt the strictest regulations on corporations until then. Businesses were suddenly forced to accept limits to their activities and threatened with fines or sanctions - a regulatory stance that saw business as offenders that had to be sanctioned. ‘[N]ot since the New Deal had the American business community felt so politically vulnerable’, writes Vogel. He quotes one executive as saying: ‘At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list’.
Overseas, many newly independent developing-country governments, as well as social movements and NGOs, also vilified many transnational corporations. One government after another began nationalising foreign concessions, while public interest groups pressed for stricter regulation at the international level. Businesses felt under siege and the mood in most boardrooms was far from upbeat: the economy was facing its worst crisis in decades and they were seen as the enemy by a growing proportion of the public. They also still had very few or weak organisations by which to get their act together. To present themselves as an indispensable part of the solution to the world’s environmental problems - rather than as the source of these problems - was organisationally difficult, and would likely have been greeted with ridicule.
This question - of how business should be viewed and handled - has not only been a concern of the PR departments of corporations. It has arguably been at the heart of international debates over how to respond to environmental problems, dividing governments, civil society and social movements, as well as scientists since the first environmental summit in Stockholm. Businesses after all make most of the decisions that affect what environmentalists and governments have sought to limit or control: how much of the Earth’s resources to extract, how much gases to emit, what source of energy to use, etc. They also often wield enormous economic and political power to determine whether regulatory proposals can be passed and how they can be implemented.
For many of the government officials, experts or activists who have been involved in the negotiations that I have so far interviewed, the question ultimately has been: How do we most effectively compel business to do what we want them to do: by treating them as guilty, recalcitrant ‘sinners’ that need to be reined in and brought into line or as innocent ‘saviours’ that need to be wooed and rewarded? How business has been mobilising - and succeeding - in convincing governments and many in the public to treat it as the latter instead of the former is a story that has yet to be fully documented and explained.
Part of the answer may have to do with increased capitalist cohesion since the 1970s. At least partly in response to the unexpected success of radical environmentalism, business executives within and across industries moved in the 1980s to revive or form new political vehicles for representing and promoting their shared interests. Corporations and conservative foundations also increased their funding of anti-environmentalist think-tanks and movements. Inside this united front, however, a critical split subsequently ensued, as business officials debated how best to respond to environmental concerns reawakened by the ozone hole issue and then climate change.
One section insisted on questioning the evidence and blocking any agreement. The American Petroleum Institute, the think-thank known for spearheading the corporate campaign against climate action, for example, insisted on challenging climate science, saying that accepting it could result in industry ‘appearing to be selfishly concerned with its narrow economic interests’. Others would subsequently break away from denialism, however, and move to a strategy of actively trying to shape the agreements.
Regardless of their internal differences, most would converge on what has become business’ core set of demands in intergovernmental negotiations: that emphasis should be put on ‘self-regulation’, that any commitments should be ‘voluntary’, that they be given as much ‘flexibility’ whenever possible, that they be provided ‘incentives’ such as subsidies or tax breaks to comply - demands that are ultimately premised on a particular moral claim about the kind of people that they are: ‘responsible’ actors indispensable in the fight to save the environment, rather than offenders that should be taught a lesson. The word that they seem to like most is ‘partners’, implying a yearning to be treated as moral equals, to not be told what to do or be ordered around by those they want to partner with.
But another part of the answer also has to do with the desire to engage with business - or the fear not to antagonise it - on the part of many government officials, as well as intellectuals and activists from certain sections of civil society. As Steven Bernstein has shown in The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism, intellectuals and other ‘policy entrepreneurs’ lodged within organisations like the OECD or the UN were quite instrumental in conceptualising the notion of ‘sustainable development’, the phenomenally successful catch-phrase which countered the dominant radical environmentalist view of the 1970s by arguing that environmental wellness didn’t have to mean stopping growth - and thus, clipping those who are thought to propel it: business.
By the first Rio summit in 1992, the idea that business should have a seat at the table - rather than be kept out of the room because offenders typically don’t get to have a say in making decisions - had become so institutionalised that ‘Business and Industry’ was even designated as one of the so-called civil society ‘Major Groups’, alongside those that struggled for a seat because they have been historically marginalised or under-represented, such as women, indigenous people, youth, and farmers. In subsequent negotiations, many government officials and NGOs would carefully take into consideration the business sector’s possible reaction to any proposed policies - without needing to be ‘lobbied’.
Hence, for example, moderate environmental NGOs such as Environmental Defense Fund would push for market mechanisms like carbon trading and US officials then aggressively pushed for them in the Kyoto negotiations because they thought these would be resisted less by American business than the fines or sanctions that many developing countries and NGOs sought to impose on them. Many developing-country negotiators claim they held their noses and agreed to compromise only because this was the only way to prevent the US from walking out.
Even before the thousands of participants could land in Rio, UN bureaucrats and other government officials were already telling the media not to expect too much from the inter-governmental negotiations. The main achievements of the conference would come, they said, from the ‘voluntary commitments’ that would be pledged and the ‘private-public partnerships’ that would be forged outside the official meetings - precisely the route preferred by businesses and a number of developed-country governments. Speaking of the side-meetings for forging these partnerships, one US government official, would later be quoted as saying that: ‘These events are not side events, these are the main events’ - a line consistent with the US position that nothing much should be expected from ‘top-down’ negotiations at the UN since much of the action should come ‘bottom-up’, i.e. as decided by businesses themselves.
That governments should not be the main actors in pushing for sustainable development seemed to be so taken for granted that it seemed quite reasonable for someone at a ‘stakeholders’ side-event here to say, that, perhaps, governments should just be considered as just another ‘Major Group’ - to just be one of the ‘organising partners’ of the conference, at the same level as business and civil society.
Even officials from the European Union, widely seen to take more ‘progressive’ positions than the US, tended to defend the increasing role of business in the negotiations. ‘I think there are still too many people who can only think in terms of working against each other, not with each other’, replied Karl Falkenberg, the European Commission’s Director General for the Environment, in an interview when asked to respond to criticisms of the ‘green economy.’ ‘In the green economy we will need companies, we need enterprises…’ This also seemed to be the general attitude of many scientists and intellectuals who were holding their own side-event at the Pontifical Catholic University near Ipanema.
In what often sounded like a sales pitch to funders, various science bureaucrats and academics showcased their research initiatives to convince policymakers and business executives that they (the scientists) can help them understand and ‘manage’ what they called ‘G.E.C.’ – ‘global environmental change’. Consistently lamenting the lack of funds or respect for research, speakers then appealed to governments and the private sector to deepen their ‘partnerships’ and to join them in ‘co-designing’ and ‘co-producing’ their research. In response, Blackberry’s CEO spoke approvingly of the need for ‘actionable research’, then warned the scientists against the perils of ‘ideology’.
While there were a few critical voices, many participants echoed the financial sector’s Natural Capital Declaration’s claim that only by ‘pricing’ nature will people conserve it - thus, implicitly endorsing the reasoning that, if corporations have ever abused nature in the past, that is only because they were previously ignorant of its value, not because they were driven to do so by the need to make profits.
Social scientists were no less eager to be ‘partners’: while some spoke out strongly against the ‘power elites’ or the ‘systemic carbon interests’ blocking the changes required to achieve ecological balance, none spoke of a need to confront or challenge these elites or interests. None proposed anything that could scare potential ‘partners’. ‘We shouldn’t see the power elites as the enemy’, stressed one anthropologist. ‘That is not constructive…I don’t think we have time for political change. We need to engage with them. There is no other way’.
Far beyond Rio, this language of non-confrontation was also being amplified in the airwaves. At the same time as the Rio+20 was going on, media giant CNN, for example, advertised a special series on sustainable development, showcasing what it called the ‘battle to find solutions’ - a fight where everyone seems to have the same goal, a fight in which there are no villains.
From their beachfront hotel, business delegates shuttled between their side-meetings and the official UN conference centre called Riocentro located just a few miles away, past luxury condos with names like ‘Bora Bora’ or ‘Villa D’Italia’. Here, inside cavernous halls just across the road from the expo-like pavilions of multinational corporations and governments showcasing their ‘sustainability’ projects, negotiators continued fighting yesterday’s battles: Developed and developing countries were still basically struggling over who is ‘responsible’ for Earth’s environmental problems and what this means in terms of what countries should be obliged to do to address said problems.
In this round, developing countries were forced to defend what many thought they’ve already won. Rekindling an increasingly fraying sense of solidarity, they fought off what they and many observers saw as a determined attempt by the US’ and other developed countries to dump the so-called ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR) principle - arguably the most oft-quoted but also most controversial principle enshrined in the first Rio declaration of 1992. Insisting that most of the world’s environmental problems have been caused by developed countries, many developing-country governments have constantly invoked this principle over the last 20 years to argue that richer countries should do more than poorer countries to clean up the environment, help the poorer countries avoid environmentally-destructive growth and cope with the effects of what the richer countries have wrought.
Fearing that they were being forced to take on more of the burden, developing countries also resisted developed countries’ demands that they commit to transforming their economies into ‘a green economy’. Many saw this as just another pretext for forcing them to accept ‘structural adjustment’-type conditionalities. Many also voiced their suspicion about what moving to a ‘green economy’ entails, especially since proponents seem to equate it with putting prices on nature and on ‘ecosystem services’ - a term strongly supported by the US but resisted by some developing-country governments and many social movements because it could accelerate what they see as the ‘financialisation’ or ‘commodification’ of nature.
Developed countries eventually accepted the South’s proposed compromise: of promoting ‘green economy policies’ instead of moving into ‘a green economy’. Developing countries believe this could at least give them more flexibility, but with developed country-governments essentially deciding whether, how much, and whom to give funds to in pursuit of this objective, they could still eventually wield enough power to define what ‘green economy policies’ mean in practice.
Developed countries also eventually agreed to retain references to CBDR. But, as before, they also refused to commit to what many developing countries have always insisted the CBDR principle requires in order to be operationalised: real, verifiable actions on the part of the global North and the provision of more funds and the assurance of technology transfer to the global South.
Now, as then, the US and other developed countries held that it is not the obligation of rich-country governments to ensure these actions or provide the resources or technology the global South was demanding. Meeting this obligation, after all, could require forcing business to pay more in taxes or breaking their ‘intellectual property rights’ - something developed-country governments had always resisted doing and which many developing-country governments are loath to do themselves anyway. Businesses, for them, can no longer be coerced or penalised; they now have to be coaxed, persuaded, lured with rewards - in short, treated the way they want to be treated.
In the end, the anticlimactic final declaration asks little of developed-country governments and more of the private sector, and organisers pressed to talk about the meetings achievements were quick to highlight the hundreds of ‘voluntary commitments’ made mostly by business during the summit. This prompted one business insider, Malcolm Preston of multinational tax consulting and accounting firm PwC, to comment that the world’s leaders have effectively transferred the responsibility for building ‘a green economy’ to business. But, as the text also makes clear, the world should only relate to them a certain way: they are only to be ‘invited’ - and thus they are always free to decline or to accept the invitation any way they want - or ‘encouraged to contribute’ - so that when they fail to contribute, that would not necessarily be their fault; they may just not have been given enough encouragement.
The day the UNCSD formally closed, most of the other ‘Major Groups’ expressed dismay at the final outcome, but the representative of Business and Industry Major Group said: ‘We’re extremely pleased…that business is part of the solution’.
As usual, much of the post-conference analysis has centred on what words or phrases got mentioned or were omitted in the final document, thus missing what can only be read between the lines: how it cements businesses’ preferred moral self-image - something they have fought for since the 1970s - as the ‘savours’ of the environment rather than its despoilers. The absence of stronger, more compulsory language is not just proof of a generic ‘lack of political will’, as the usual criticism goes, but the expression of the institutionalisation of a particular kind of relationship: one in which the powerful are accorded deference and respect, rather than disciplined and punished by the weak.
40 kilometres away from Riocentro, around 3,000 people marched to the downtown offices of the Brazilian mining giant Vale - whose CEO was at Windsor Barra. It’s a ‘bloody company’ for dispossessing peasants and destroying nature, protesters said, so they pelted it with eggs and red dye. The activists, many of whom belonged to the international small farmers’ federation La Via Campesina, had marched through the city centre 10 blocks from the People’s Summit camp, a collection of large, white tents by Flamengo beach, where hundreds of open side-meetings were also being held in connection with Rio+20, this time organised by social movements and more radical NGOs. Unlike Business Day, the UN was not a co-organiser. Here, the predominant dress code was not dark business suits and shoes, but just shorts for men, blouses and hemp skirts for women, and multi-coloured feathered headdresses and beaded accessories for everyone.
From across Brazil and other places far away, hundreds of indigenous peoples were camping here because, as one speaker shouted in a plenary meeting, they were not being heard by those who claim to represent them in Riocentro. ‘The authorities talk about us as if we were bandits’, complained one speaker. Others lamented how the activities of corporations were destroying their livelihoods and their communities. Many spoke of how they had been expelled from their lands as a result of the ‘green investments’ being feted elsewhere. Most agreed that what was being hailed as the ‘green economy’ elsewhere in the city is just really ‘green capitalism’, an attempt by capitalists to prevent the kind of structural changes needed to solve the world’s environmental crisis. ‘The transnational corporations are murderers’, one speaker shouted. ‘They destroy our lives and they pretend that they have the solutions.’
Numerous speakers then offered recommendations that they thought could really bring down emissions or avert deforestation, but few had the scientific credentials of those who pitched their solutions at the Catholic university. Just like at the Windsor Barra, there were also many debates over how to move forward, but few appeals for ‘partnerships’ with governments and business, or for ‘managing’ what scientists at the Catholic university call ‘social transformations’. One of the more concrete initiatives launched was a global campaign to challenge the ‘impunity’ of corporations, to hold them accountable for their ‘crimes against humanity’. Because the official process has been ‘co-opted’ and ‘corrupted’ by corporations, organisers of the campaign said it is now up to the world’s civil society ‘to build the foundations for an international mechanism to judge the ecological and economic crimes of corporations and impose sanctions’.
At one point in the programme, young activists stage a skit: blindfolded peasants are chained, crawling on the floor, dragged around by two men wearing shades, their green overalls emblazoned with the logos of some of the corporations who’s CEOs were having lunch with Presidents at the Windsor Barra. The peasants take off their blindfolds, break their chains, and chase away the men in green.
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Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus