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Subjects of Sustainable Developement?

Are the outcomes from the Rio+20 Summit sustainable?

As we prepared to leave Rio and reflect on all that has happened here this past week, some outstanding images and thoughts will follow me. First of all, it was an incredible privilege to be there. Not because of the sometimes monotonous, sometimes exciting plenaries, nor the government representatives, the heads of state, the dignitaries that each of us has had the opportunity to meet by chance or by democratic participation in the meetings. It was the small meetings that mattered. Riding on the bus to Rio Centre one day I sat next to the Brazilian Minister of Transportation who gave me a break down on the new bus stops around town, as we passed them, and proudly pointed out the bike trails along the road, even as he wagged his head in dismal rejection at the actual progress of the Convention outcomes when I asked him.  Connecting with Jim Willis,  Secretaryl of the Synergies for the Basel, Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions and home of our own UN Safe Planet Campaign was just one of the synchronistic meetings that happened in hallways and corridors at Rio +20, where deals were made and the personal relationships sealed. I like to say that the Food Court, an enormous hall where a thousand people could choose lunches (all on plastic plates, btw, with little or no recycling happening), is where the real action was, with conversations in a 168 languages occurring simultaneously.

The privilege was in being there personally, to experience the Brazilian culture as well as the Convention. While very little of our desired goals for sustainable education were put on paper, other things did happen. The overall commitment to NGO, civil society and grass roots activism, which was heard around every room and echoed in the final documents, indicates some sort of success. It indicated that the elected leaders are at last acknowledging failure in the traditional ways, and that the past 20 years of attempting sustainable development with corporate models has not worked. So it's time to try new ways. There was a general feeling of passing the torch to the young generation, with dozens of side events geared towards Youth.

Visiting the favela of Rocinha last Saturday, the largest in Rio de Janiero, some ideas on this came home. Teeming with anywhere from 150,00-300,000 souls, (although official census records put the number at around 70,000) this community was bustling with life, despite rampant open sewage, little waste control, poor water, and overcrowded conditions. Our guide took us down into the lower caves of the 'alleys', where human existence thrives even without light or sanitation. In a darkened tiny room with only slits through the broken bricks I saw clean laundry hanging; a little girl's wardrobe. Amongst the thousands of motorcycles zooming up the hills were school children waiting for their buses in neat uniforms and tidy backpacks strapped to their little bodies. There was a public library, freshly decorated, with a bizarre facade that echoed the rampant electrical wires that citizens arbitrarily connect to at a whim, since it is free. Government police moved in two years ago to this favela, in a shoot-out that replaced the local drug lords, in an effort to bring down crime. Tourists, like ourselves, now come in to visit, creating a 'witness' situation which has in fact neutralized the violence in past months. And although some streets looked para-military with guards in bullet-proof vests checking documents of delivery trucks before entering certain areas, the general feel was of a lively commerce, a thriving and bustling community. Through education, the children have a way out of the favela, and the general feel of optimism was not diminished by the depressing living conditions we saw.

Walking the favelo streets, something I have long wanted to experience, brought my mind around to Paolo Freire, as it would any teacher involved in transformative and sustainable education. When Freire talks about "problematizing" the natural, cultural, and historical reality in which s/he is immersed, it sets up a dialectic to traditional "problem-solving", to which traditional technocrats are assigned. If we can compare the transformation of the favelas to the stagnation of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, and the incurring watered-down consensus agreements, it might give us the means for creating a social reality of 'subjects' instead of 'objects'. As Denis Goulet says in his introduction to Friere's Education for Critical Consciousness, " to 'problematize' in his sense is to associate an entire populace with the task of codifying total reality into symbols which can generate critical consciousness and empower them to last their relations with nature and social forces'…it thrusts all participants into dialogue with others whose historic 'vocation' is to become transforming agents of their social reality'."

If we are lucky we will leave this conference with not a sense of failure, but with a sense that the way we are "problem-solving" in a technical, objectifying model is an outmoded version of getting things done. But in "problemetizing" the situations, engaging street activities and creativity, working with local people and not using them as statistics on paper, we have the possibilities to move on to a more sustainable planet. TEF and Safe Planet had two such outreach events, away from the closed corridors of Rio Centre. We established community and ties for future exchange. We made the public laugh, read, watch, think and hopefully, feel. As one scientist working in POPs said after our film night, "you know, I work in a lab all day with these terrible statistics coming in (about POPs content in dolphin populations), and I have no way to tell the public about these things. It wasn't until I saw that film (Chris Jordan's "Midway" clip), that I really felt the tragedy of what we are up against." 

Through accessing our creativity and that around us, we do indeed have potential to further transformative education globally. And in a small but significant way, we were able to contribute to that here at Rio+20.

June (Gorman, co-founder of Transformative Education Forum) and I were deeply encouraged by this "unofficial" learning here and excited but what it means for Transformative Education in the future. Working with Leslie Moyer of 5Gyres, Jimena Villaseca on costumes and Jana Prekova with the amazing BEach-Trash entourage for our Carnival, brought home the sense of what a small group of people can do to create change. Reaching out to the public in a foreign land, with a terrific team of dedicated artists and environmentalists, one could not but help feel lucky to be there, now, at the largest gathering of sustainable thinkers ever to assemble. Now, it's up to us to make the Future we Want.

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2012-06-29 - 00:57:00  by barbara

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