Rio +20 and The New Greed Economy

by Pat Mooney

The 1992 Earth Summit produced a Book of Promises called Agenda 21 that included combating desertification, safeguarding forests, confronting climate change and committing the North to transfer sustainable technologies to the South. And the South agreed to a Biodiversity Convention to halt species loss and ecosystem destruction. As part of this last and most celebrated agreement, however, the Summit leaders agreed that governments would have sovereignty over all of the biodiversity within their borders at the time of treaty ratification. Five hundred years of colonial history forgotten…what we at the time called 'Amazonesia'. Anything living – species samples that the colonial powers had already squirreled away in their own botanical gardens, zoos, aquariums, herbariums and gene banks from everywhere in the tropical and subtropical world – was to be considered property of the former colonizers. The South’s diplomats in Rio didn’t realize that the North had not just 74% of the world’s zoos and aquariums but 93% of the world’s known terrestrial and aquatic animal species and that samples of perhaps 85% of all documented plant species were already thriving in the North’s botanical gardens and herbariums. Directly and indirectly, the North also controlled well over two-thirds of the crop species and genetic diversity in agricultural gene banks. In sum, at least 70% of the world’s quantified species diversity was already tucked away in the North.

South governments also accepted that biological materials could, in theory, be patented –including all of the biological specimens scooped up by the North’s collectors. Of course, the South still had in its rivers, forests and savannas the same samples that were sequestered in Kew Gardens or Brooklyn or Berlin, but the North had the know-how, the know-what and the means (and meanness) to monopolize.

Twenty years later, the single most important statistic for venture capitalists contemplating the Green Economy and the financialization of nature is that since only 23.8% of the world’s annual terrestrial biomass has been appropriated – or has entered the global marketplace – the 76.2% remaining is waiting to be monopolized by somebody. The big difference between 1992 and 2012 is technology. Whereas only the part of nature that was known to have value – especially to the agriculture or pharmaceutical industries – in 1992 was worth capturing, today synthetic biology and a host of surveillance and computational technologies can size up, seize and modify even the parts of nature not yet entered into taxonomy’s ledgers. 

Rio+20 governing assumption is that that every social problem has a technological fix: hunger can be sated via biotechnology; the key to health is genomics; the answer to waning supplies of fossil carbon is synthetic biology; the solution to the limits to growth is nanotechnology; Twitter will take care of the democratic deficit and climate change can be calmed with geoengineering. Policymakers no longer need policies; they simply have to subsidize the private sector’s technologies.

New technologies including nanotechnology and synthetic biology allow industry to control the fundamental building blocks of nature. We are told that there are 10 billion different products for sale in cities like New York or Berlin but all of these products come from relatively few materials and just 100,000 chemical compounds that, in turn, come down to fewer than 100 elements in the periodic table. Products derived directly from nature are thought to be simpler still – fewer than a dozen ‘metabolic pathways’ lead to virtually every commercially significant biological product, and just four nucleic acids – A, C, G, and T – pair up to form DNA. Industry sees the control of these fundamentals as the key to controlling all of nature. 

Patents have already been granted, for example, ceding control over about one-third of the elements of the periodic table when they’re used at the nano-scale, and some nanotechnology in patents apply to virtually every sector of the industrial economy from aerospace to agriculture and from pharmaceuticals to plastics. Likewise, patents are being granted to cover segments of DNA found in virtually every higher-order plant and in life processes and metabolic pathways critical to everybody from algae to oligarchs. In 1992, ownership over such things was almost entirely theoretical and thought by most to be fanciful. Now, it is commonplace. When a single patent can apply to radically different sectors of the economy or lock up biomass that can be processed to make everything from petrol and paints to plastics and pasta, we are, clearly, in the last stages of the Greed Economy.

When civil society met in Rio in 1992 we work together to create literally dozens of CSO treaties promising to collaborate to make a better world. We got nothing. Most of us could not conceivably find those treaties now. This time the message to the world's governments must be crystal clear and it is not a positive message it is an angry warning, 'No to the Greed Economy'.


Pat Mooney is the executive director of ETC Group. He has more than four decades experience working in international civil society, first addressing aid and development issues and then focusing on food, agriculture and commodity trade. He received The Right Livelihood Award (the "Alternative Nobel Prize") in the Swedish Parliament in 1985 and the Pearson Peace Prize from Canada's Governor General in 1998.  He has authored or co-authored  several books on the politics of biotechnology and biodiversity, and is widely regarded as an authority on issues of global governance, corporate concentration, and intellectual property monopoly.


Photo: lilyrhoads/flickr