The Two Big Conferences in Brazil

Some Strong Seeds in Degrading Soils


View from Fort Leme, Rio de Janeiro

(June 14 through June 17, the “World Congress of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability” and June 18 through 23 the “United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development” organized by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and associated events hosted by many others.)

First, the bad and the ugly…

You have undoubtedly heard by now another major UN conference bit the dust, this one on sustainable development in the gorgeous, even extravagantly beautiful natural setting of Rio de Janeiro. Stewards and stewardesses on airplanes radiating outward from Rio around June 24 must have noticed an unusual scattering of glum faces.

Among the representatives of cities and city issues, however, we did alright. Ecocity Builders I think I can say with some assurance provided among the brightest contributions and this time – we were at Rio in 1992 with both booth and a few talks – for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. I was also at the Stockholm UN environmental conference back in 1972 – I seem to be stuck on giving the UN a chance. In Rio again a week ago, we figured in, in shall we say, a medium major way that could lead to major positive advances. Kirstin Miller, our Executive Director had grabbed the UN conference bull by the horns and managed, in ten months ranging from Oakland to New York to Bonn, Germany to Nairobi, Kenya to work us and our issues, especially our International Ecocity Framework and Standards, into several different venues, workshops and tours, some fairly influential. Meantime inter-national progress continued de-progressing.

Now the question is, can we strengthen our side, the positive side, the side where cities take the initiative and influence the nation states which are doing all they can to ignore the world’s largest environmental and development – read “sustainability” – problems? A few positive ideas emerged from the conference. First though the broad strokes which most conscientious environmentalists and sustainability advocates see as more than a little discouraging. Then a few details, from my ecocity/ecotropolis/bioregional point of view of course, some of which amount to promising new ideas.

Crimes of state


Leida Rijnhout of the Northern Alliance for Sustainability out of Brussels, Belgium representing the “Organized Partners of the Major Groups” of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at the Rio+20 Summit identified several glaring omissions in the outcomes of the official deliberations of nation states.

She started out like this: “It feels amazing to be sitting in this room among all the world leaders, and feeling all this power around me that can shape the world. We all know the threat that is facing us, and I do not need to repeat the urgency. Science is very clear. If we do not change in the coming five to ten years the way our societies function, we will be threatening the survival of future generations and all other species on the planet.”

And what did she say the representatives of nations had done in Rio?

1.) Failed completely to mention planetary boundaries, tipping points or the Earth’s carrying capacity as if nothing was learned from the continually advancing science of ecology since before Earth Day 1970,

2.) silently continued the subsidy in 100s of billions of dollars to the fossil fuel industry, the most profitable industry in the world whose main products’ byproducts are throwing off the planet’s atmosphere and climate balances,

3.) failed to give a clear mandate to even start negotiating an agreement to stop the Wild West abuse of the high seas,

4.) failed to address women’s reproductive health issues,

5.) missed opportunities to start new global treaties on civil society participation and sustainability reporting,

6.) didn’t make a peep about armed conflicts, the war budgets and arms trade around the world, and,

7.) omitted reference to nuclear energy – particularly noteworthy after the Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan during and following the Sendai/Fukushima Tsunami of March 11, 2011.

And much more.

George Monbiot, author of “Heat – How to Stop the Planet from Burning,” copyright 2006, eloquent as usual, speaking through the publishing auspices of the Guardian in the UK added these points noting in particular the role of the United States in “savaging” the Earth summit’s draft declaration. “The word ‘equitable’, the US insists, must be cleansed from the text,” Monbiot notes. “So must any mention of the right to food, water, health, the rule of law, gender equality and women’s empowerment. So must a clear target of preventing two degrees of global warming. So must a commitment to change ‘unsustainable consumption patterns’ and to decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources.”

That’s what he wrote looking at the draft outcomes document going into Rio + 20 Conference. After the conference on June 25, he wrote, again in the Guardian, an article titled “After Rio we know. Governments have given up on the planet.”

“It is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth’s living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue ‘sustained growth’, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses… governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it.” He adds, “The declaration is remarkable for its absence of figures, dates and targets. It is as stuffed with meaningless platitudes as an advertisement for payday loans, but without the necessary menace. There is nothing to work with here, no programme, no sense of urgency or call for concrete action beyond the inadequate measures already agreed in previous flaccid declarations. Its tone and contents would be better suited to a retirement homily than a response to an escalating complex global crisis.”

As you will see later in this article, many of us distinguished local governments quite clearly from national – but he continues, blaming not just the governments and the enormous corporations and the billionaires pulling most of their strings these days but also the people in mass pretty much everywhere. Where we have freedoms to rise in protest or with clear alternatives, little is heard.

“We have used our unprecedented freedoms – secured at such cost by our forebears,” he says, “ – not to agitate for justice, for redistribution, for the defence of our common interests, but to pursue the dopamine hits triggered by the purchase of products we do not need… The failure at Rio de Janeiro belongs to us all.” This is not to say there is not something wrong with the large political/economic system, “nor is it to suggest that multilateralism should be abandoned. Agreements on biodiversity, the oceans and the trade in endangered species may achieve some marginal mitigation of the full-spectrum assault on the biosphere that the consumption machine has unleashed. But that’s about it.”

And he winds up: “So this is the great question of our age: where is everyone? The monster social movements of the 19th century and the first 80 years of the 20th have gone, and nothing has replaced them. Those of us who still contest unwarranted power find our footsteps echoing through cavernous halls once thronged by multitudes. When a few hundred people do make a stand – as the Occupy campers have done – the rest of the nation just waits for them to achieve the kind of change that requires the sustained work of millions. Without mass movements, without the kind of confrontation required to revitalize democracy, everything of value is deleted from the political text. But we do not mobilise, perhaps because we are endlessly seduced by hope. Hope is the rope on which we hang.”

I think he might be more thorough to say that hope doesn’t imply work; it’s too passive. We need instead to understand where our power lies and use it well, not let hope be an emotional state we can get comfortable with as if it were a goal achieved. Whether we feel hopeful or not isn’t as important as having the best of ideas, the capacity, the determination to work hard and move forward. I for one have little hope but enormous resolve and willingness to work long hours for a better world, and I know a fair number of other people like that. I often think we must count on the rare very positive surprises that pop up historically once in a while. Or we are simply motivated by an existential state of conviction or habit about how to live. If positive surprises come and we are working effectively, we are in any case on the right track and as ready as we can be.

Next, the Good and the Beautiful…

Much of the power latent in all of us finds expression in cities, and yes, even in their governments, though many aren’t using these powers very well, or in some cases, missing the most powerful tools right under their noses yet under their command. I took part in the World Congress of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, which is held once every three years by and for that organization of over 1,200 municipal governments around the world. This event was held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in the four days preceding events in Rio de Janeiro. (Belo Horizonte means Beautiful Horizon and Rio de Janeiro means River of January from discovery of its location by Europeans on January 1, 1502, the opening between where Rio the city now stands on the west side of the entrance to Guanabara Bay and the east side looking much like the mouth of a great river.) Mayors and other representatives of local governments and some representatives of NGOs influential in cities, like our organization Ecocity Builders, held forth sharing tales of our progress and new ideas emerging from our recent experience.

Jeb Brugmann founder of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives — ICLEI —  speaks at the organization’s World Congress 2012

However, the fairly long-standing initiatives such as cities signing on to the Kyoto climate protocols even if their nation states did not, and cities taking the initiative to exceed national standards of clean air, clean water and energy conservation was, as in recent years, inspiring. Some reported on instigating advanced transit systems, supporting bicycling, energy conservation, restoration of waterways and promoting urban gardening and such architectural features as passive solar design and rooftop gardens. The litany of these many good things differed from one city to another as reports followed one on another, each with a somewhat different emphasis and rearranged items on the list of genuinely good deeds.

Such a litany can get a bit boring after a while even if at the same time encouraging. So my mind wandered to what was missing that might make a really big difference. It appeared in a flash: money; cities tend to tax very little. They leave this power mainly to the national governments. In these difficult economic times they are always scheming and begging for crumbs from the feds. Citizens have grown used to the big tax collectors being in the higher orders of government, perhaps because they have the bigger guns, literally, the power of final force. Nobody I heard complaining about budget problems while delivering the good sustainability news mentioned anything about the taxing powers as related to the dearth of money to get yet much more powerful sustainability results. I mean it’s nice to talk about all the green bits and pieces accumulating but the fact is the world is still on an expanding car buying and city damaging binge still far stronger than advance for sustainability; the sustainability trends could use much more power on their side.

Side slide over to a parallel issue also present in both conference cities, Belo Horizonte and Rio: protests of the military budgets of the world and offerings of how better to spend that money on genuine projects for peace and sustainable culture and nature.

At Belo Horzonte City Hall where ICLEI had set up their registration and information tables and in which many of their meetings were held, I met a man named Pol Heanna DHuyvetter from Belgium. He has the somewhat ponderous and ungrammatical title of “International Development Director and Executive Advisor Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation” of the Mayors for Peace Vision Campaign. But the ideas he represented are important. In another sidetrack, he mentioned his group had built a “bread tank,” a tank of the big gun variety with thick steel plating and tractor treads instead of wheels for locomotion. He handed me a press release announcing its schedule of appearances at events in the next week’s Rio+20 conference where I later had the pleasure of seeing it. I’d once built a vegetable garden car, in 1979, removed the top with an acetylene torch, gutted it of engine and seats, filled it with dirt and planted a thriving garden representing the source of food, being in fact a source of food. The arty ensemble represented the cars’ violence against cities, energy reserves, climate and people’s lives in accidents and air pollution diseases, with all that being redirected to producing healthy nourishment, perhaps for the mind in this case, as well as body. His group’s vehicle illustrated the end point of production of food to feed the hungry and outright violent war to conquer and control other people and their resources. In both cases the point was to think through and do much better managing transformations to a healthier future.

But what this all brought to mind for me was the anti-war movement’s tactics back in the years of the American War on Vietnam. One was tax resistance. With serious pressure to get active – or get drafted and have to kill people and stand a good chance of getting killed yourself, or having your children or friends face such a fate – many did get active either to protect one’s own body, or a loved one’s or the those of the Vietnamese who did nothing to deserve such insults. And one form of protest with real teeth in it, or more literally, one to take the teeth out of war, was to not pay war taxes. Such protestors in the 1960s and early 1970s calculated the percentage of their federal taxes that went to burning, punching holes in and blowing up and tearing people to pieces in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Then they subtracted that amount from the taxes they paid the Federal Government. The government was then forced to come take the money out of your bank account – and its agents usually did – but it was a delay, an inconvenience and an embarrassment of realities, that is, having to confront the truth of their grizzly actions across the globe in someone else’s country. Not by itself of course but in concert with many other tactics and with people finally grasping the horror and injustice of it all, the war ended.

George Monbiot seems somewhat stumped that few are turning up to resist the present world war of human against nature. But the war-makers did learn two important things from their Vietnam debacle relevant here: 1.) hide the reality, that is keep the media out or keep it embedded and compliant, never showing the gory detailed realities and 2.) don’t have a military draft, that is, convince people they are not personally targeted. Everyone wants to be at least somewhat comfortable and not knowing the truth helps that, especially when a crime is being committed in your name, either against people or nature. Certainly every young male (and female in Israel) facing death eyeball to eyeball, meaning when likely to be drafted in a time of war, is more likely to think hard and get organized to resist than when no such awareness exists or no such pressure exists. That’s why those making money making war on nature as well as other people now can continue in their game: people don’t generally want to know, actually don’t know, and feel no personal pressure to resist unless they go to some real effort to get past the advertizing that everything’s fine in the hands of the rich, powerful exploiters of the world.

And so, if we could catch on to the realities and threats of the current war against nature, realizing we are part of nature ourselves and so also threatened, we might just decide to withhold the portion of national taxes that go to making war plus the share that goes to subsidizing the fossil fuel industries. Then, if we really believe cities are in many ways on the right track when the nations states are not, voluntarily write checks to our local governments in equal amount to that withheld from federal government. That would enormously help crucial work close to home, that is, in our physical collective home that is our cities, towns and villages.

On the policy level that could take the form of proposing and supporting a program of reducing national military budgets, say 10% a year, which is the suggestion of Pol Heanna DHuyvetter’s group. In addition, not part of his group’s plan to my knowledge, the direct idea here would be to go beyond just that and craft a strategy to shift all sorts of funding from the federal to the local level for the specific purpose or reshaping our cities for sustainability. The United Nations, and especially when dealing with issues of development, should be the logical place to place such a challenge so that pressure would be on all nation states at the same time to move in that direction, not just for peace but for building a more sustainable infrastructure of cities, towns and villages as well. Yes but, the skeptics would say that the nation states would never go for it no matter how much the cities might want it. But wait a minute – it is the same voters who elect both governments, so the consciousness would be across the board and therefore have at least a chance. Those voting for tax redistribution toward the city level for uses determined by the cities would be those thinking through the total security picture on a national and global level and they’d be paying essentially the same amount of taxes either way.

So that to me is a “Big Idea” latent in the good molecules that were bouncing about in the Brownian motion of the Brazil conferences when and where people representing cities were involved.

Zoning is powerful!

Another powerful and unacknowledged tool besides taxing and spending to build the right thing is zoning. Though dozens of speakers celebrated the superiority of local governments over national when it came to environmental and sustainable development issues, I didn’t hear anyone specifically mention the power of zoning to shape cities for sustainability. Yet national governments have left almost all zoning prerogatives up to the cities and in addition, zoning is at the foundation of all the details of their particular exemplary policies and projects about which they were reporting. In all cases zoning stood silently by as solid as law – of which it is a form – facilitating or discouraging success. The speakers all acknowledged the importance of compact, mixed use development, a product of zoning, but eschewed any discussion leading to a “whole systems” major change in the situation regarding zoning influence on levels of success – or failure.

I happen to know the reason why, and again it’s the problem Monbiot identifies in our failure to turn up present and ready to work and think for the revolution on behalf of life. More specifically it’s the desire for stable comforts and/or fear of change on the part of the NIMBYs, the not-in-my-back-yard folks who will work energetically, angrily and self-righteously to kick the politician out of office who dares to actually propose a zoning change that might move from low density car dependent sprawl to bicycle and transit-friendly land use arrangements. They simply have a rigid wall in their minds preventing the flexibility needed to resolve zoning issues to everyone’s benefit. Change requires compensation for those who lose something, which can be arranged as it was done for people who moved out of the way of freeways when cars were thought to be the God given agents of a happy future. Full real estate value of the property removed for the grading, concrete and asphalt was paid out, moving expenses and frequently several months of income for the displaced. The operative legal principle on the positive side is called “just compensation” and on the negative side, preventing a “taking” in which the community gets something without compensating the property owner. In any case those forced to move, as well as those happy to move, were usually and should always be justly compensated with the money to then take advantage of a move, often in a new environment thought to be better for all. But it will take even more thinking that mixes zoning design for sustainability with social fairness to make the transition to a genuinely sustainable city from the city we have now – which is genuinely unsustainable. If that isn’t one of the most important issues in attaining sustainability in the future I can’t think of what to put in a higher place. Knowing what to build and writing the rules to make it possible are the ultimate name of the game.

Richard speaking at ICLEI’s Global Town Hall Forum

In the Brazil forums, the subject was taboo – other than in my talks and implied in the talks by others representing ecocities there in Brazil, which included talks by our Chinese and Canadian colleagues. In my talks I even presented our “ecocity mapping system” that can act as a guide to transforming zoning to transform cities from structures for cars on rubber and gasoline to structures for human beings on foot and breakfast. A key element is identifying areas where car dependence is extreme, where biologically rich features such as waterways, shorelines and ridgelines are obliterated by ill-advised development where in the healthy city there should be natural areas or a return of agriculture. In step with the eternal growth religion of economics, not wanting to rock the boat overmuch and get singled out for retribution by the powerful, what the sustainable urban activists have tacitly signed up for is that we should be building higher density mixed uses around transit centers. They in other words agree we need to grow, and in a particular way, in those locations, that is augmenting the areas of most vitality with more vitality and a more balanced mix of all things that hold community together. As far as that goes I agree with that kind of growth and that location for it.

What the sustainable city representatives, boosters and fans have to date feared to embrace is the corollary that we also need to withdraw from destructive development patterns that cover too much land, use too much fuel and generally promote the many harms of car-based urban design from climate change to auto accident carnage. When the sustainable city people can get that far, we will finally have a balanced approach that sees and can work with the total picture instead of only the growth half of it.

You might say this subtractive part of the needed zoning has to be embraced along with growth of a particular kind (generally mixed-use in centers of already existing vitality – or designed into new towns). The subtractive part is the particular part of the zoning transformation missing in the current debate that would complete the picture and write a credible story for transition from today’s car cities to tomorrow’s ecocities. This is the part that brings back nature with all it’s “ecological services” and agriculture to serve as a vitalizing element in local economies.

This theme of transforming cities using zoning and investment (though I had not thought of the tax shifting from national to local governments as a source of money until I got to Rio) in building the physical infrastructure of ecocities, from the land use pattern and architecture on up and out to all the details of associated technologies of transit, recycling, conservation, solar energy, etc. and life styles was part of the message Ecocity Builders brought to Brazil. Kirstin Miller and I and our teammates from Canada and Detroit put forward a complete package of ecocity ideas including a system we call our International Ecocity Framework and Standards to help guide and assess cities’ progress toward becoming high achieving ecocities. You can read their reports elsewhere in this newsletter.

The excitement of being in Rio

View of part of Rio’s panarama from the Christ the Redeemer overlook

Part of the excitement of being in Rio is the stunning juxtaposition of the city and the enormous rocks rising precipitously out of ocean and bay. There are two kinds of city meandering the valleys, the dominant car and bus city with typical wide streets and big buildings and the pedestrian city of the favelas with their narrow streets and shorter but very high density buildings. Both wash up the lower slopes of the rocks like foam from a surging sea, and arching from one immense rock to another there are the sparkling beaches so much a part of life there. Our friend and past speaker in earlier International Ecocity Conferences, Professor Suzana Gueiros, of the University of Rio de Janeiro arranged for two meetings, one at the beginning and the other at the end of our conferencing in Rio. The venue was located on top of one of those rocks, this one called Morro do Leme, in a small fortress with a stunning view up Copacabana Beach and to the iconic Rio massifs of Sugar Loaf on the other side and Corcovado with its famous Christo of outstretched arms in the middle looming high overhead. Four enormous guns are implanted there in pits and the thick concrete walls that created an artificial underground labyrinth of small rooms and tunnels served as a site to display our ecocity imagery on walls and to hold a half day long seminar with a dozen speakers. A high point was a choral group of young people with their beautiful voices reverberating through the “underground” fortress. I spoke at an event organized by our friend from China Liu Haifeng from the organization called the Global Forum on Human Settlements where I also received a prize in recognition of my efforts for ecocities, along with Mr. Lin Xeufeng, Director of Tianjin Eco-city. At another event I gave a talk with the CEO of Tianjin Eco-city Tong Yen Ho of Singapore at the main venue for the meetings organized by UN DESA and, once again, ICLEI. Kirstin organized and participated in a workshop and tour with people from one of Rio’s favelas and organized a seminar featuring speakers specifically on issues central to Ecocity Builder’s mapping project and the International Ecocity Framework and Standards. We were honored at that event to have Dr. Joseph Alcamo, Chief Scientist of the United Nations Environment Program and also speaking Ranan Dontac, Governor for the region in France in which we find Nantes, the city hosting our next International Ecocity Conference, September of 2013. The subject at this meeting featuring our mapping work: “Building Ecocities – GeoDesign and Citizen Participation, with participation of representatives of computer/Internet software designers Esri from San Francisco and Ushahidi from Nairobi, Kenya.

View from Forte do Leme

Holistic Management and a “Combined Synergistic Biological CO2 Sequestration Strategy”

But this article is mainly about particular ideas with a particular pattern shaping up and to complete the suite of ideas that seemed to be organizing themselves there in Brazil. Pursuant that, I unfortunately missed a talk I very much would have like to have attended. That didn’t mean, however, that that key component has to go un-integrated into the whole shaping up from my experience there. The talk I missed – I was speaking elsewhere at precisely the same time – was all about “holistic management,” the work I featured prominently, in some detail and I’d say even lovingly in our last newsletter, the work of Alan Savory and his colleagues. That body of work was represented there in Rio by Dr. Constance Neely, Savory Institute Associate Consultant and Educator, the subject “Re-greening for Resilient Landscapes.”

But the concept is not just re-greening by use of herding techniques for large herbivores – cattle mainly – but the profound revitalization of the soil that results when these animals are clustered closely together managed so that their fertilizing manure is well mixed with seeds and soil, hooves and their heavy bodies admirably accomplishing the job. The results, modeled in nature by lions herding wildebeest and zebra in Africa and wolves herding closely spaced bison in the North America of old, go far beyond something as prosaic as implied by the term “re-greening.” The resulting water-holding capacity, the results for the grasses and flowers that spring forth from the perfectly co-evolved mix of soil and fertilizer not only prevents run off, regenerating ground water and bring up the water table, often high enough to recreate streams lost through human poor herding practices and decimation of native animals, but also the plants put down deep and accumulating roots, read organic accumulation and therefore carbon sequestration for real. Says Alan Savory who developed this method of managing livestock “holistically” by closely observing how the prey, predators and plants interact in natural circumstances in his home country of Zimbabwe, this may be the only serious means to actually sequester massive amounts of carbon, removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Thinking about it a little more and exploring some, I quickly came up with similar properties for the great peat lands of the Earth which can lay down carbon-rich organic matter virtually indefinitely, building up thicker and thicker soils. What about oceans?  Forests? Other environments?

The notion that appeared for me in this context there in Rio was that we could possibly imagine millions of square miles of landscapes and perhaps even seas that, with management of the sort recognized by Mr. Savory – holistic he likes to call it – we might be able to finesse natural organisms to play a role, all run on free solar energy, and reproducing and increasing their numbers, until we actually created the natural “techno-fix” deployed to vast areas of the surface of the Earth to turn climate change around. (This of course could be paired with serious moves toward reshaping car cities into ecocities.) I’d found the building of machines for such a task to seem so full of energy gobbling and massive materials consuming paraphernalia as to be almost ludicrous and stuffed with so many problems I could only think of it as another fantasy thrown up by the fossil fuels industry to keep making money, a smoke screen and diversion from things we might do that actually make sense. Now I’m beginning to think we might have here, all natural if with little tweaks from us humans, a means to make enormous healthy progress we might think of as a “combined synergistic biological CO2 sequestering strategy.”

So that about winds it up for Rio from my point of view: 1.) shift taxes from national to local governments, from war and exploitation to sustainable ecocity type development, 2.) use the power of zoning forthrightly to reshape cities, towns and villages in the manner suggested, and 3.) re-empower the people with a sense of responsibility and the realistic realization that it is not going to be easy but it is very much worth it: save the low hanging fruit for the children. Our adult strategy has to be hard work for sustainability with these sorts of tools. To move forward from Rio, who could ask for anything more?

 Richard Register is Founder and President of Ecocity Builders. He can be reached at If you would like to have Richard as an ecocity speaker at your event, please contact Ecocity Builders:

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