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Rio +20 makes no fresh, green breast of the new world

by Fiona Harvey

Like The Great Gatsby, this summit failed to measure up to the challenge of a new world, preferring to recreate the failures of the past,

"And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

The words of Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece of the American dream, have enraptured London audiences for the last few weeks, replayed on the stage in Gatz. Carraway describes, in allegory, the extraordinary opportunity open to Gatsby – the chance to make himself from scratch. But that chance that was lost because Gatsby – and, we are to understand, America – failed to measure up to the challenge of a new world, preferring instead to try to recreate the failures of the past.

The same could be said of the Rio+20 summit, which ended in Brazil on Friday. Unlike the original Earth summit in Rio in 1992, which produced agreements on preserving the climate, the biodiversity of the world and its oceans, this retread produced nothing of substance and no commitment to preserve the fresh green breast of this world.

Brazil had it all wrapped up by Tuesday, three full days before the conference ended. The hosts did so with an ingenious use of typography. In international negotiations, squared brackets are the great signifiers – they denote passages of the text of a proposed agreement that are not yet agreed upon. At summits, environmental and otherwise, the focus of negotiations is teasing out these thickets of square brackets into words that can be agreed by all.

Brazil cut this Gordian knot by simply sweeping out of the text nearly every phrase captured within square brackets. It was a master stroke of diplomacy – every item of controversy was simply removed. As a result, there were no discussions of any substance because there was nothing to discuss. The text was so anodyne there was nothing in it which could be disagreed. So the talks fell, in tumult, to a lifeless ocean.

It was a shameful betrayal when you consider the problems Rio was intended to address: the poisoning of our air, the emptying of our seas, the filth and wastage of our water, the exhaustion of our soils, the vanishing of our trees, the degradation and forced misery of our people. Any one of these could threaten our very existence – we seem determined to push them all well beyond our world's limits.

Rio was quite possibly the last chance that we will have as a world to correct these terrible failures. Unlike those old Dutch sailors, we have no new continents left to be revealed to us – we have conquered and soiled every one, possibly terminally.

Why did the Brazilians behave so? Because their fear of failure was greater than their desire for success. They were most terrified of repeating the experience of Copenhagen in 2009, when a UN summit hailed as the last chance to save the climate ended in chaos and discord. Desperate to avoid this, they preferred a meaningless harmony to the telling of disagreeable truths.

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