By Malinda Seneviratne –
Rio 2012 is upon us. The word is ‘green’ we are told. I don’t know how the proceedings will be framed on Day 1, but the following thoughts I believe would not be out of place by way of a first word on spoken words and words to follow.
Ten years ago, the Green Network of Sri Lanka wrote a comprehensive status report of the country in terms of sustainability, titled ‘Bitter truths and better tomorrows: People’s report on sustainable development’. The preamble to the document contained the following lines:
‘The ancients say that in the ideal interaction with the natural world the human being should follow the example of the bee: obtaining the nectar of the flower without harming either the colour or the fragrance, while at the same time ensuring the survival of genetic strains by facilitating cross-pollination.’
Why cannot the human being be like the bee? That was the question that was asked, followed by the observation, ‘instead of striving to fulfill one’s basic needs, the human being relentlessly pursues the satisfaction of greed, competing violently with his fellow creatures and in the process brining the entire earth to the brink of irreversible disaster’.
We’ve come from Rio to Rio throughJohannesburg. We came from the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 to the Johannesburg Declaration and a ‘Plan of Implementation’. We’ve come from Green Economy to Black and in the name of efficiency and not necessarily concern for the health of the planet moved to Brown, more in word than in deed. Now we plan to go back to Green, talking down ‘Green’ to countries and peoples who were always Green and were coerced and coaxed to worship Black and Brown. We are back toRio.
We will sit and reflect. We will wonder how far we’ve come and perhaps how far we’ve strayed from roads we planned to take or roads that we didn’t map out but may have taken us from a dismal here to a happier there. The earth has moved ten times around the sun. That’s nothing for sun or moon. It’s a long time for a single human being and long too for nations and peoples and paradigms obsessed with time to the point that it is equated with money.
A lot can be done in 10 years. A lot can be done in 20. A lot of positive things. The interesting and indeed scary thing about time is that a lot more can be undone in a given time-segment than can be done or recovered. The ‘doing’ makes for a lot of ‘feel-good’ but gets obliterated by the undoing. If we look back, we can ask ourselves ‘have we done enough?’ We can also ask ourselves ‘can we do enough?’ Most importantly, we could ask ourselves ‘are we fooling ourselves?’ and ‘who are we trying to fool?’
Twenty years ago, we boldly stated, ‘All states and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty’. We were confident that ‘states shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem’. It was as though we all wished away the gross inequalities that characterize the system of states and the gross inequalities within them. It is as though we took for granted that knowledge of impending disaster alone would obtain cooperation. Maybe we underestimated the greed of the greedy. Maybe we overestimated the commitment of the committed. Maybe we trusted too much. Maybe we thought talk would automatically translate into walk.
These are things we need to talk about, twenty years after ‘Rio’ and ten years after ‘Johannesburg’. We can ask ‘can’t we be like the bee?’ and we can ask, ‘should we ask, “can we be like the bee?”?’
We don’t know if ‘Rio 2012’ will begin with a sober appraisal on the lines articulated above. We don’t know how it would end, but I believe we lose nothing by considering the following as an appropriate ‘End Note’; an end-word then about first words and words thereafter.
If there is one geographical shape that describes the world, its history and ways, it is the sphere, which of course is but made of a multiplicity of circles. The long journey ends at home. We find answers not in fruit but in root. We started ‘Green’, vilified it as ‘backward’ and ‘archaic’, steamed ahead to ‘Black’, got upset with the colour, called it ‘Brown’ and now talk about getting back to ‘Green’, almost as though we are talking of going to another planet.
In the beginning the world was green. Then came ‘development’ armed with black-white definitions, declaring with authoritative voice, ‘this is right’ and ‘this is wrong’, ‘modern is good, traditional is unscientific’, ‘forget the past, look to the market, seek profit’, ‘forget collective, think self’ and so on. And so the world went that way, unconcerned about tomorrow or neighbor, insulting parent and spitting on child. And when the earth began to bleed, the bleeding was theorized and when it became apparent that what the ancients said made sense, the words were borrowed, re-arranged, and marketed back as the brand new products of modernity. Stripped of meaning and substance, of course.
Forty eight years ago, in Geneva, Switzerland, at the plenary session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) the head of the Cuban delegation, Ernesto Che Guevara, spoke about the political economy of trade agreements. The following are two pertinent sections of that speech.
‘If at this egalitarian conference, where all nations can express, through their votes the hopes of their peoples, a solution satisfactory to the majority can be reached, a unique step will have been taken in the history of the world. However, there are many forces at work to prevent this from happening. The responsibility for the decisions to be taken devolves upon the representatives of the underdeveloped peoples. If all the peoples who live under precarious economic conditions, and who depend on foreign powers for some vital aspects of their economy and for their economic and social structure, are capable of resisting the temptations, offered coldly although in the heat of the moment, and impose a new type of relationship here, mankind will have taken a step forward.
‘If, on the other hand, the groups of underdeveloped countries, lured by the siren song of the vested interests of the developed powers which exploit their backwardness, contend futilely among themselves for the crumbs from the tables of the world’s mighty, and break the ranks of numerically superior forces; or if they are not capable of insisting on clear agreements, free from escape clauses open to capricious interpretations; of if they rest content with agreements that can simply be violated at will by the mighty, our efforts will have been to no avail, and the long deliberations at this conference will result in nothing more than innocuous files in which the international bureaucracy will zealously guard the tons of printed paper and kilometers of magnetic tape recording the opinions expressed by the participants. And the world will remain as it is.’
We are not talking of ‘trade’ here. We are talking however of ‘development’. We are talking of and in a world of power and powerlessness, domination and subjugation, the appearance of egalitarianism and the reality of inequality. And we talk in a world which has generated tons of printed paper, kilometers of magnetic tape and innumerable numbers of other storage devices but has for the most part ‘remained as it was’.
And so we’ve come to this moment when it is abundantly clear that where there was green there was collective and when collective was dismantled green bled to brown and black. We can talk the talk, play the word-games that have currency, channel truths through frames that are pretty but make for the sustainable development of systems that scorched the earth. We can do otherwise.
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