Just back from presenting paper at International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE) conference in Rio that preceded the main UN Sustainable Development conference that has started today there, the Rio + 20 show. What is going on there is much more than the UN part, which will probably amount to a lot of fine resolutions signifying very little. Demos are going on; we saw a bunch of landless marching, an "Occupa" group in tents protesting an arrest in Uruguay, and in the local paper feminists marching topless and a fancily made up Indian blocking traffic with his bow and arrow.
But the real show is all the other stuff, not just ISEE, but 500 side conferences. I saw a claim that 60,000 people are in Rio for all this, with 1000 of those being CEOs, yes, CEOs. Indeed, in our hotel I saw all kinds of business people, all dressed up and going to conferences. The weirdest were Russian oil men from Siberia. Now that has got to lead to green capitalism! Another guy in a suit was attending a list of alphabet soup I did not recognize, although he did say he works for International Business Phones, whoever they are. Saw a sign for something called ISGIE (could not track down on google who they are), but they were all in suits, and there was a big sign welcoming the Thai delegation for that one. Indeed, for the main event, supposedly there are reps from over 130 countries.
I suspect the vast majority of these are wannabe rent seekers, out to get government subsidies for this that or the other thing. I do not know. Many I am sure have little real interest in improving the environment (see Russian oil men above). OTOH, it does occur to me that when the green movement gets real, it is when one really gets business people doing stuff about it and making money from it. Will any of those there seeking to make money out of all this actually accomplish anything worthwhile? I really do not know. I suspect the vast majority will not, but maybe some of them actually will, and I suspect that they will be the participants there not making any headlines.
As for ISEE, it is an uber green outfit also notable for taking heterodox positions regarding economic analysis, at least its founders and leaders. One of the plenary speakers was the Prime Minister of Bhutan, the place where they first started saying they want to emphasize happiness over GDP. Some of the papers and sessions were simply awful, the sort of thing that I suspect is going on at many other of the 500 side events (and maybe the main one as well), people going on about meta-analysis of how to implement the format for assessing how to discuss sustainability. I am not kidding.
But then there were papers on very specific things going on in very specific places that gave me some hope, such as the efforts to provide credits for reforestation in developing countries through the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Desertification (REDD) UN project. Unsurprisingly the bottom line often gets down to details. Seems to be working in Kenya, mixed bag in Senegal (depends on which trees are planted), not doing so well in Nicaragua because central government grabs 3/4 of the credits, and in West Bengal the better off peasants in upper castes are doing much better out of the program than the poorer scheduled castes and scheduled tribal groups. Messy reality out there, but worthwhile things are actually happening on the ground in some places, even if Nature journal is right that overall humanity deserves Fs on climate change, biodiversity, and income inequality since the last Rio conference 20 years ago.