The Rio+20 conference has come to its third day of negotiations and parties seem locked behind geopolitical concrete. ‘There is movement at the station’, as Banjo Patterson might say, but is looks like this horse is getting away from even the most tireless rider. The text is getting weaker and negotiators are falling deeper down the rabbit hole of no return. There has been progress for sure. But the light at the end of the tunnel is splintering through cracks in a bilateral cave mine pile up.
So what needs to happen to turn the future we want into the future we have?
I tend to see these negotiations as the coming together of a big global family. There are brothers, sisters, twins, cousins and the annoying uncles and aunties that no-one wants, but have to deal with every birthday and Christmas time. And in any family, there are those who tend to fight over long-held grudges that divide even blood ties from each other. But the one thing that brings people together – gifts. Even if it’s just socks and undies.
This is actually a long-held belief in the field of anthropology. Some of the most famous anthropologists of all time have argued that social interaction both within cultures and across them has been the key determining factor in forging peace.
Last year I spent some time with Indigenous Larrakia elders in the Northern Territory. They described to me how they would traditionally carve totemic gifts to the gods of island neighbours as a symbolic offer of peace. Even if they didn’t believe in them, it was this symbolic compromise that made all the difference.
So what is the symbolic lesson to be learned here in Rio?
Well, there are no gifts on the table. In Durban, at the last UN climate negotiations, the big gift that made agreement on the Durban Platform for Action possible was the Green Carbon Fund. It was what allowed compromise to trickle into the negotiations late into the night. It was the carrot that pushed parties beyond their castle walls. But possibly more importantly, it was in the creative language that forged an ‘outcome with legal force’ that allowed the G77 and the US to emerge united from the negotiating huddle.
There is no money available for the taking here in Rio. But it doesn’t mean there can’t be gifts. As the Larrakia remind us, gifts can come in all shapes and forms. They might even be a gift of creative language. What they must do however is show the other party that they not only respect, but empathise with their desires. That without conditionality they want to make friendship and mutuality a reality.
And this gift exchange needs to happen soon. I can’t say what it might entail. But I can say who it needs to come from.
This conference is all about sustainable development. Many countries are still developing, some have been developed for a while. Almost no-one is sustainable. Everyone is able to offer something. There is definitely the chance for an exchange. But like any Christmas party, the first offer of peace has to come from the family leaders. In a global family, this means the global leaders.
If Rio+20 is going to be saved, it’s time for the first offer of peace to unfold.
About the authorChris Wright
Climate researcher, political ecologist, activist and an award-winning slam poet from Australia.