CitNet and the Earth Summit

Time for Change book.jpg

“The U.S. Citizens Network prepared this guidebook to help American citizens and organizations understand and participate effectively in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, an unprecedented 'Earth Summit', at which heads of state, individuals, and groups from around the world were to consider how to balance development pressures with an increasingly imperiled global environment.”

- Hal Kane with Linda Starke, Time for Change: A New Approach to Environment and Development (1992)

Citizens prepare

The Citizens Network for Sustainable Development began in October 1990 as the U.S. Citizens Network on the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) -- the result of a meeting in Washington, DC of 200 NGOs. Many of these groups believed the upcoming UN meeting in Rio to be one of the most important gathering of its kind in our time. Since this launch, the Network has worked with hundreds of organizations around the United States to raise public awareness and understanding of this event and to draw the US government's attention to the range and importance of issues to be addressed.

This process followed from the UN General Assembly resolution 44/228 of December 20, 1988 calling for a global meeting that would "elaborate strategies and measures to halt and reverse the effects of environmental degradation". The resolution listed nine areas "of major concern in maintaining the quality of the Earth's environment and especially in achieving environmentally sound and sustainable development in all countries".

At that time concept of "sustainability" was relatively new if not completely mystifying for much of the American public. Although  the country had already suffered a range of environmental, social and economic catastrophes rooted in unsustainable practices and policies, some saw "sustainable development" as simply another constraint on business, arguing that economic growth is first needed to fund environmental protection. On the other hand, within the nonprofit sector, many groups saw it as just another name for environmentalism, competing for funding and media attention.

Frances Spivy-Weber, then Chair of the U.S. Citizens Network's administrative committee, pointed out tht "the division of our thinking, and our institutions, into discrete categories called energy, industry, population growth, transportation, women's issues, housing, health care, and so on is one of the major impediments to a sustainable future" (Time for Change: x)

UNCED also had a meaning for small, grassroots organizations. As Vernice Miller then put it,

"The Earth Summit was not about environment and development; these are just convenient words to use for extremely abstract concepts, rather what the Earth Summit was really about is economics, resources and power, and how and who will be controlling those resources and using this economic power, today and into the next century....We decided that we needed to take our place, along with other local community based activists from around the world, at their negotiating table."

- quoted in McCoy and McCully, The Road from Rio: An NGO Action Guide to Environment and Development, 1993: 13

The Global Forum

While government delegates and accredited representatives from business and civil society attended the official conference, lobbying in negotiations around the text we know as Agenda 21, thousands of others were expressing their concerns and views in a location and event nearby known as the Global Forum. As the late Michael McCoy described it:

The great majority of the tens of thousands of activits who converged on Rio never made it out to the three aircrdaft hanger-like buildings of the RioCentro. Most concentrated on the '92 Global Forum, 40 kms away in downtown Rio...Co-ordinated by the Centre for Our Common Future, the International Facilitating Commitee and the Brazilian NGO Forum, [the Forum] was billed as a 'series of simultaneous events that provides an opportunity for all sectors to express their independent views at the time of the Earth Summit.' The hundreds of stalls and tents set up in the beachfront Flamengo Park were the focus of the Global Forum...

From the point of view of media coverage, the Global Forum was a disaster for the NGOs. The minority of journalists who reported on the activities in the Flamengo Park tended to focus either on the photogenic praying and meditating...or else on the visting celebrities and politicians... [The Forum also] attracted complaints from NGOs because of its distance from the RioCentro and its apolitical nature: in the words of one activist 'It was planned so that we could make a lot of noise, but send no message.' Marc Cooper wrote of a 'political trap' -- activists had been 'lured into a venue designed to dilute their alternative message.'... Certainly the little serious press coverage which the Forum received was dominated by debts, financial scandal and its showbizz money-raising efforts: apart from its opening ceremony these were the only Global Forum stories to reach the front pages of the two main conference newspapers.

However, serious political discussions did take place under the umbrealla of the Global Forum. The International NGO Forum (INGOF)...a coalition of several hundred NGOs, organizations and social movements, organized a series of workshops, press briefings and debates...Most of the time and energy of the INGOF participants was expended on drawing up over 40 NGO 'treaties' on subjects ranging from climate change and marine pollution to poverty and racism. Over 2000 people are estimated to have participated in 'the treaty process.'

- Michael McCoy and Patrick McCully, The Road from Rio:
An NGO Action Guide to Environment and Development
, 1993:73-75

Legacy of Rio

The idea that sustainability could represent not just another issue but a vision and strategic approach focused on the interdependency of different issues and concerns was for many a new way of thinking, which has over the past twenty years slowly evolved into a much more widespread understanding -- yet still if even more of a serious and urgent challenge.

In 1993 the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was established to monitor and provide a vehicle for governments to discuss their progress and efforts to implement the Agenda 21 blueprint for action. The Citizens Network has in turn organized consultations with the UN government and citizen delegations to the UN to participate and provide public input into these annual sessions.

Also in 1993 the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) was launched as a national advisory body to develop a national sustainable development strategy for the United States. Diane Dillon-Ridgley, representing the Citizens Network,  was appointed by the president as a member of the Council. In turn, CitNet members participated in PCSD task forces and working groups and in turn held parallel citizen events coordinated with the PCSD town meetings held around the country.

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