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It's the Rules, Rio

Posted: 06/13/2012 3:38 pm

"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 overall inequality.

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 institutions.

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.

 
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