Preparing for the People’s Summit at Rio+20

* Essay: Another Future Is Possible.

Draft forwarded by Silke Helfrich. This working document, in preparation for the seminar of May 9 and 10, 2012, pulls together the proposals set out in the texts produced by the Thematic Groups of the Thematic Social Forum that was organized in Porto Alegre from January 24 to 29, 2012. These are excerpts from the beginning of the document. There is a more complete version here.

Caution: this is an incomplete and draft version. Request an updated version from Silke.Helfrich at

We are going to reinvent the world at Rio+20

The political moment offered by the Rio+20 Summit constitutes a unique opportunity to bring into sight the deep and many transformations sweeping through our societies and to spin and weave the various threads and proposals for the necessary task of “reinventing the world,” the historical, unprecedented, and incontrovertible task of conceiving a transition to a fair and sustainable world. Although it is legitimate to try to weigh upon international negotiations such as Rio+20—marked by the fact that that the principles previously agreed upon at Rio 92 have been neglected and by how weak the past years’ international agreements have been—we should have no illusions about the power of this effort to set off a virtuous cycle of significant compromises to deal with the deep problems humankind is facing. Basically, what the peoples and the world community are requiring is that a new paradigm be built for social, economic, and political organization that will be able to make social justice progress and provide humankind with continuity in its destiny, and life and the planet with sustainability.

Global geopolitics has been changing rapidly and forcefully, moving away from the permanence of the current power structures and ideologies. On the one hand, the rich countries are being hit by the economic crisis that arose in 2008 and they are entering a lengthy stagnation period, while corporations and speculators continue to accumulate profits, and the majorities of populations have to suffer austerity policies and unemployment, increasing inequalities, and rising waves of conservatism and xenophobia. On the other hand, the large “emerging” countries are continuing to expand their economies along the lines of global capitalism, stimulated by the constant growth of China and other blocs, where hundreds of thousands of people are entering mass-consumption society by consuming more and more natural resources and seeking to reach the way of life that Western capitalism has exported as the ideal for happiness. The improved living conditions of millions of people in Asia and Latin America notwithstanding, economic expansion is exacerbating inequalities and concentrating income, making work and social services precarious, and deteriorating the environment. All of these processes are having strong repercussions on the global environmental crisis and deepening social inequalities, all of which is generating new humanitarian crises.

Four years after the worse global economic crisis since 1929 bringing with it a huge rise in the prices of commodities and food, and after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of the necessity for an urgent transition to a low-carbon economy, the large majority of problems are still dragging on with no solutions in sight. With no other civilization paradigm to challenge them, the dominant groups are trying to seduce with empty promises that all the problems will be solved through technological innovations, and to corrupt democracy with the power of money, going even as far as suppressing it so no threat to them can come about: today, coups d’état are being authored directly by the markets.

These past few years, the peoples and citizens in outrage in several parts of the world have invented unprecedented forms and responses to rebel against this situation. In 2011, we witnessed an unusual level of emergence of social movements and a vigorous unleashing of peoples’ struggles that have been able to change a few national and regional political frameworks. The dynamics of these anti-systemic forces are still fragmented, heterogeneous, and disarticulated, not only among the continents but also among the countries of a same region. Nonetheless, the deep questioning they raise about the architecture of power and social foundations clearly shows a break with the past and a need for in-depth change of the current economic, social, cultural, and political systems.

We understand that this outlook for transformation can only be materialized with common guidelines and by the greatest variety of social actors: networks and nongovernmental organizations, social and environmental movements, rural and urban workers, women, youth, grassroots movements, native peoples, discriminated ethnic groups, solidarity-economy entrepreneurs, etc., starting from the multitude of innovations and from experiences in struggles, and also from the fact that the material and technological conditions to establish new forms of production, consumption, and political organization are already here.

No matter how discouraged or threatened the negotiations in the UN framework,, the Rio+20 Summit offers the peoples and civil societies an opportunity to meet and raise their proposals, to place hope on the horizon of the advent of a future that is not the dead end in which capitalism is enclosing humankind and the planet in this early twenty-first century.

We have set out to move forward in the task of articulating the breakthroughs, guidelines, and proposals around four interdependent central themes:

I. Ethical and philosophical foundations

II. Rights, peoples, territories and defending Mother Earth

III. Production, distribution, and consumption: access to wealth, the commons, and transition economy

IV. Political subjects, the architecture of power and democracy

We are presenting below the different proposals related to each of these central thematic themes.

The following proposals, originating in different thematic groups, do not constitute an exhaustive program and should be supplemented with the groups’ discussion reports and full documents. They naturally need to be deepened. This consolidation mainly aims to present the lines of force that are consistent with an alternative civilization paradigm, different than the current one underpinning neoliberal globalization; it aims to delineate the horizons of an economy, a society, politics, and culture that have not yet come into existence as attempts to discern another possible world than can capture imaginations, mobilize energies, drive struggles, and stimulate convergences.

Introduction: Subjectivity, domination, and emancipation

In not-so-distant times, the challenges raised by major social dilemmas could be met by social struggles and major political disputes. Nonetheless, this view, which guided almost all of history’s progressive mobilizations, is not sufficient. Capitalism is much more than a mode of production, it is a social and political rationale that runs through the entire social body; it is a totalizing form of civilization with an enormous reproduction capacity. The current socioeconomic system is not only built on the basis of institutions and power centers, it is also internalized by most populations as domination, an ideology that several philosophers have called “voluntary slavery.”

In the past centuries, emancipation, liberation, and the elimination of all forms of exploitation and oppression have been the goals pursued by progressive, socialist, and left-wing movements. Taking up these goals again today, however, requires a lot more than reviving the ideals of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” or getting rid of exploitation of labor by capital. It requires questioning the bases on which were built modernity and European domination around the world, it requires a revolution of minds that will shake up the intellectual infrastructure shared not only by the capitalist élite but also by a good part of the movements trying to combat it.

For this, we need to change ourselves: institutions are made up by individuals, and they are the ones allowing these structures to work. It is impossible to undertake the transition required by humankind and the planet by maintaining consumerism as the ideal of happiness and a way of life based on competition, selfishness, productivism, and the destruction of the vital fluids of life on the planet. “Educators” need also to be educated and the training for this lies in their practical activity, in real, massive, and exemplary struggles.

Many of the dimensions of what can and should be a new form of subjectivity have been taking shape in these anti-systemic struggles and they should be systemized to be consistent if we expect to offer an alternative with credibility. They should be debated and systematized as values, forms of knowledge, world visions, and counter-hegemonic culture.

Foundations for a new civilization

It is an ethical imperative for humankind to reflect on the foundations of a new civilization and to embark on the long process of disarmament and the social reconstruction of culture, of the economy, and of power that this implies. Life, every form of life, has the fundamental right to exist; so do the complex ecological systems that are an integral, regulating part of planet Earth. This is a monumental challenge of both a philosophical and political order because it consists in disarticulating the thinking and action assumptions that have become part of common sense and that, for this very reason, are the pillars of the industrial capitalist civilization—productivist and consumerist, sexist and racist—invading our lives, shaping our heads and ethical values, and organizing the economy and power in society.

To be sustainable, human civilization needs to renounce anthropocentrism as philosophy, ethics, and religion, and to make a radical change in its view of nature and in its relationship with nature. The first task derived from this principle is to disable the current production “machine” designed to accumulate material and financial wealth. The core ethical question is, in this case: How can we replace the values and lifestyle based on “greater having,” producing more and more waste and destruction, with those of “greater being,” with greater happiness, greater solidarity, greater awareness of our responsibilities to regenerate, reproduce, and preserve the integrity of our natural foundation, and to share it with everyone now and with future generations?

Care is imperative for us as humans and in our relationship with the biosphere. A world without care has allowed the colonial undertaking to conquer peoples and their territories. In a world without care, the atmosphere has been colonized by carbon emissions from large economic corporations, companies, the richest, and the most powerful due to their unbridled consumption. Preserving natural species (seeds and animals)—biodiversity—means caring and, at the same time, setting up the conditions for living together and sharing. We need to rescue care as a principle for the de-privatization of the family and the sexist domination that it thrives upon. We need to build the principle of care as a core element of the new economy, the new management of this great home that is the symbiosis of human life with nature, indispensable community life where people live together and everything is shared, territories as a way of organizing to live according to the potential and limitations of the locus we are occupying, the economy and power that this leads to, from the local to the global. Sustainable economy is only possible when based on care, which leads to respect for the integrity of nature, to use that neither destroys nor generates waste but instead renews and regenerates.

It is not enough to color what we’ve got “green” and keep growing, feeding on social exclusion and the destruction of the natural commons. We need to recompose and rebuild our philosophical and ethical foundations in order to build a human civilization where the sustainability of all people—from which no one is excluded now or in future generations—and the sustainability of all of life, as well as of the integrity of the planet are the rule and not the exception.

Never has humankind been as unequal as in the current context of abundance to the exclusion of the many, of outrageous wealth and unbearable poverty, and never has this truth been so evident in the struggle for justice and equality. To face social injustice it is fundamental to face environmental destruction and the injustice inherent to it. It is not one or the other; it is both at the same time.

Rights, as common goods, refer to these two sides of the political relationship of equality. To enjoy rights, everyone needs at the same time to be responsible for everyone else’s rights. This is a shared relationship and as such, it is based on co-responsibility. This is why it is of the essence to bring this theme into the debate on the foundations of a new civilization. The growing awareness of human rights and responsibilities, in societies and in relation to the biosphere, brings to light the fundamental question of interdependence between the local and territorial level and the planetary one. Rights and responsibilities rely on the recognition of ecological and social interdependence as an indisputable condition to reestablish the foundations of the sustainability of life and of the planet.

A diversified culture is what enhances the potential value of the people that constitute it, what makes it possible to envisage the sustainability of life and of the planet. A vibrant culture is a culture of diversity, not the homogeneity imposed by the current overwhelming globalization. Imperialism, nationalism, arsenals, wars, and violence, all of these internalized in our current culture, social structures, and ways of organizing power and the economy, are the supporting points of industrial, productivist, consumer civilization, which feeds on conquests, exploitation, the servility of debt, inequality, and social exclusion on a global scale, and on the intensive use of natural resources. Thus peace is not only an objective for biocivilization, but an ethical condition and incontrovertible strategy policy for sustainability and the continuity of all forms of life.

Biocivilization is not possible without an ethics of peace and democracy. This is an essential condition for all the previously mentioned principles and pillars. Democracy is guided by the principles and ethical values of freedom, equality, diversity, solidarity, and participation, all together and all at the same time, as a basis for democratic action and active citizenship. A methodological basis of this nature can turn everything that was previously stated about the foundations of biocivilization into a possible Utopia. Connected and having recognized our shared interdependence, we can build from the local to the global, with the methods of democracy and in peace, a new architecture of power for biocivilization.