"We may cry out desperately for time to pause her passage, but time is deaf to
every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of
numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: Too late."
--Martin Luther King, 1968
Next week in Rio, 50,000 of the world's great and good, including 150 heads
of state, will gather to discuss the future of our planet. Under the banner of "the
future we want," the Rio+20 conference will address many of the same issues
discussed twenty years ago at the first Earth Summit.
Times, though, have changed. The heady optimism of 1992 -- the hope that with
the Cold War over, nations could chart a new course to a shared sustainable
future -- is long gone. The reality of 2012 is very different.
The UN led climate negotiations have all but stalled, even as the threat of climate
change accelerates. There is prolonged economic malaise in the West. Tectonic
shifts in the global economy are diversifying the centers of wealth but widening
Today's optimists rely more on faith than facts. We hear soothing words about
how human ingenuity will beget the solutions we need when we need them. We
will find technologies to mitigate carbon. We will develop synthetic replacements
for dwindling resources. We will create enough growth to 'lift all boats' from the
tearful vale of poverty.
Such faith might be plausible if you think the world began with the Industrial
Revolution. But the longer arc of history tells a different story. The extinction of
species and civilizations is the dominant pattern. Anthropologists remind us that
99% of all species that have ever existed are no longer with us.
As Dr. King warned half a century ago, the risk of "too late" is all too real.
Ecosystems are in decline; species are dying at the fastest rate in 65 million
years, when dinosaurs still roamed this planet. And the human species is
suffering profoundly. Every single year, poverty-related causes kill 18 million
people -- equivalent to wiping out everyone in Sweden, Denmark and Norway
combined. Nearly one billion people suffer chronic under-nutrition every day,
although more than enough food is produced to feed every woman, man and
child on the planet.
The great paradox of our generation is that all of this is happening at a time
when our world has never had more wealth. Today, the dollar value of the global
economy is twice what it was in 2000 -- and even with the financial problems of
recent years, global wealth is still growing.
So, where is all that wealth going? The latest World Bank figures show that the
top 10% of people earn 69% of global household income versus under 3% for the
poorer half of humanity. In regard to wealth, inequality is even larger: the richest
8% own about 80% of global private wealth, and the world's 1,226 billionaires
have more wealth than the 3.5 billion people in the poorer half. This month,
after a planned merger, the top executives at mining giant Xstrata are writing
themselves a $260 million bonus check for just turning up at work. Meanwhile,
over a third of the world's population is forced to survive on less than $2 a day.
If we are going to make any progress in Rio, we must confront the harsh realities
of an economic system that creates this type of misery and lack of freedom while
destroying our planet at a pace probably too fast for human ingenuity to reverse.
The truth is the global economy is not working for the benefit of the world's
majority because it has not been built for us. More than just failing to give the
world's poorest people a leg up, many of its basic rules -- on issues like tax
havens, banking regulation, patents for life-saving medicines and agricultural
subsidies -- actively push them down by excluding them from the markets and
opportunities they must access to get ahead.
We often miss the simple truth that so many of these rules are still made by the
few, for the few. Until we change those rules, how they are made, and even who
makes them, we will never change the injustice at the heart of our global system.
The urgency to address these rules will only increase as climate change hits the
world's poor hardest and first. They are least able to mitigate its impact or adapt
to its effects. We must change the rules so that the most vulnerable among us
are protected. We must change the rules to ensure that the industrial nations,
who built their prosperity by dumping their wastes into the global commons,
contribute their fair share to address this emergency.
One reason for the 1992 Earth Summit's failure was its singular reliance on
governments and world leaders. Too many of us assume that government
leaders are powerful agents willing and able to deliver on the public commitments
they make. But even the most well-intentioned leaders are constrained by
powerful blocs that resist change to the status quo -- forces within government
or opposition; corporate interests and donors; media proprietors and other
Changing the rules that skew the global economy will require new sources of
power that represent the interests of the world's majority. Recent events give
us reason for hope. Last year millions of people spilled out onto the streets of
Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain to demand change. Large anti-
corruption movements have emerged in India, Russia and Brazil. The Occupy
and anti-austerity protests in the West are signals of a resurgent public spirit.
The results of these uprisings remain mixed and half-formed. But they showcase
the potential for new forms of collective action using technology and social
networks to create new sources of pressure and power that are distributed,
nimble and effective.
To challenge asymmetric rules that entrench injustice, we will need new popular
movements that harness new technologies to build enduring power across
national boundaries. For the first time, this is possible -- with six billion mobile
phones, two billion Internet users and one billion people with smartphones.
The old model of the benevolent North sorting out the chaotic South has passed.
The alternative, however, is not an angry South whose time has come. What
we need are new centers of power for an emerging majority of citizens to work
together to overcome the injustices, inequalities and inadequacies of our current
system. But we will only redistribute opportunity and power when we redistribute
responsibility and effort.
It is not too late to chart a new course. The story of the next twenty years can
be different to the last. Together we must redirect our energy from bureaucratic
processes to citizen movements, from incremental targets to fundamental reform
of the rules, from waiting for answers to flow down from above to demanding the
future we want.
Alnoor Ladha (@alnoorladha) and Tim Dixon (@dixontim) are co-founders of The
Rules , a global movement to address the sources of poverty and inequality.