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Building a better world at the Thematic Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil

Posted Feb. 2, 2012 / Posted by: Ian Illuminato

I had the privilege of participating in the Thematic Social Forum this past week in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Porto Alegre was where the very first World Social Forum took place back in 2001. The difference between the World Social Forum and Thematic Social Forum is not much, just another shade of the same color. There are many meetings throughout the year that feed into the World Social Forum process, and these take place all around the world. The Thematic Socoal Forum is one of them.

However, this meeting was particularly significant as the dialogues and planning that took place over the week will be brought to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) or Rio+20 as well as to the alternative parallel conference called the Peoples’ Summit. The UN meeting is meant to be “a conference at the highest possible level, including Heads of State and Government or other representatives and the United Nations” and is taking place 20 years (hence the +20) after the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).  The UN meeting is focused on building the ‘green economy’ in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, while the theme of the World Social Forum and Peoples’ Summit is ‘another world is possible’ or in other words: let’s reinvent the world and create something other than the current capitalist system, which runs our planet currently fraught with inequality, and consumed by increasing pollution and climate change. Both meetings will take place around the same time in June 2012, yet the ideas behind these meetings are quite different in terms of the actions they propose for sustainability and our future.

Thematic World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, BrazilThe convergence of all of these people and all of these meetings in order to change the world can be overwhelming. Lots of opinions are being spoken and there are plenty of details and documents to read pertaining to these processes both at the United Nations and World Social Forum level. Thousands of people, including activists, social movements, civil society groups, NGOs, unions, universities and fellow Friends of the Earth sister groups from around the world are filling these spaces of change. This is all enough to fill a book, so I’ll stick with sharing my purpose at the Thematic Social Forum and in this process, while encouraging you to dig deep into the rest (everything pertaining to the Rio meetings in June).

Here in Porto Alegre, I participated in the Thematic Working Group on Science and Technology part of the Forum. This is where organizations, networks, movements, intellectuals and citizens gathered into deep reflection, shared knowledge and developed documents and proposals to be presented in future meetings, such as Rio+20. The main question we deliberated was: how should scientific research be conducted, and technologies developed and administered, so as to ensure that nature is respected, its regenerative powers not further undermined and restored wherever possible, and the well being and rights of everyone everywhere enhanced? This is a big question to tackle, yet essential to our future sustainability. The details of our meeting and reflection on this question will be released in a document in the coming months leading up to Rio. However, generally I found most all of the members of this Thematic Group would probably agree that science and technology, in order to fulfill its potential and promise, will need to be guided by policies ensuring that what we create through them is safe and serves the true interest of the public and our environment.

Corporations and venture capitalists have many plans for the world involving science and technology. They have the means to influence universities and governments in order to make their plans a reality without the need to first consult with the public. There is very little law surrounding what they can do and how they will do it, yet often our tax dollars and the money they gather from us through the market is used to develop these projects and technologies.

Thematic World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, BrazilThere are currently companies and individuals who would like to geoengineer our world, in order to take control of our climate and enact sci-fi like projects to conduct business as usual (e.g. pumping different kinds of aerosols into the Arctic in order to block the sun as a means to combat climate change). This is only a small part of the many risky technological developments occurring in our world. We now have tiny intentionally manufactured nanoparticles entering our lives without many people knowing. These are found in a wide range of products, such as cosmetics, sunscreens, clothing, paints, cleaning products, sporting goods, household appliances, surface coatings, agricultural chemicals, food packaging, ‘health’ supplements, industrial catalysts and building equipment. Furthermore, we are also seeing the rise of synthetic biology – a method for creating life from scratch, which can involve the patenting of life forms. All of these scientific endeavours are occurring rapidly and we have very few ways to legally monitor them and ensure they are safe.

I don’t think these technologies are bad in and of themselves, it’s all about how we use technology. If we’re trying to technofix a much deeper problem like climate change without making deeper changes (consuming less, quitting fossil fuels, etc.) then we are merely placing a small Band-Aid on a large wound. If we don’t pursue these endeavours maturely, as adults, we may soon find ourselves with a bunch of broken toys and some pocked out eyes, to say the least...  

Our Thematic Group is emphasising the need to ensure the Precautionary Principle is upheld in the world of science and technology. Rio-1992 helped bring the Precautionary Principle to the attention of the world, what better time than now to reaffirm its importance. We furthermore outlined that (a) knowledge can be and always has been gained under a range of methodologies and practices that is much wider than that usually recognized in scientific institutions, (b) that this range includes a great deal of ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ knowledge, and (c) that knowledge-gaining and innovating practices are not always the special preserve of scientifically trained professionals; and that we need to give priority to gaining knowledge and supporting innovative practices that could positively inform projects aiming for social transformation that serve the interests of sustainability and social and environmental justice.

Beyond my work with the Thematic Working Group on Science and Technology, I organized a couple of workshops on nanotechnology, specifically about the environmental and human health issues pertaining to the technology, and the need for public engagement in its development. I presented at these workshops along with colleagues from universities and NGOs here in Brazil.

Thematic World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, BrazilIn addition to sharing details about nanotechnology and our campaigns, I wanted to communicate some bigger picture ideas about public engagement and technology. I feel democracy is not just about everyone getting to give their two cents on an issue, it’s about people having access to information and knowledge that allows them to connect with truth and what that means to them, in order to make informed decisions and demands. I want to live in a world where we all take an interest in our future and have a willingness to learn and explore in order to do so impeccably, so that we may speak words and ideas we can fully stand by. I try to remember the importance of research and learning at every step of the way as I carry forward in my work, there’s more to learn all of the time and this dynamic of knowledge shapes my advocacy from one day to the next. Every day it seems I become more and more committed to reading everything I can get my hands on (including literature that is not necessarily in line with my opinion).

If encouraged to push forward in their knowledge of technology and science issues, I hear some people say, “the issues are too complicated, it’s too hard -- I can’t be bothered.” I have to admit, sometimes I feel the same way, but what I am certain of is that no matter what walk of life we hail from, we do have the potential to learn, create, and understand beyond our wildest dreams. Science tells us that we use only a small percentage of our brain’s potential. Our brain is learning and making billions of connections whether we are conscious of them or not, we just need to push further in order to gather this potential. We have to want knowledge and give it everything we’ve got! 

When it comes down to it, we are all scientists. Imagine all of the calculations that our body makes, which we are not always conscious of...breathing, walking, laughing, loving, these are all a science that we wield and the sooner we acknowledge our abilities and join with others to collaborate for a better world, the sooner we may get to see a better world emerge.

Beyond workshops and Thematic Groups, people gathered during the Thematic Social Forum in a large protest that crossed the city. While the thousands who came together in this protest fell short of the 80,000 people I saw march at the first World Social Forum I attended in 2009 (Belem, Brazil), this was still a powerful exhibition of people’s desire for change.  

Thematic World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, BrazilOne of my favourite parts of these events is when we take to the streets, and this time it was a very unique experience. About a half an hour into the protest, rain began to fall like, well, a waterfall. The winds picked up and many of the soaked protesters then began to dance and play in the rain. It was so much fun. The pictures you will see here are the last my little camera took -- I forgot while I am waterproof, my camera is not. After the rain, towards the end of the protest a giant rainbow crossed the entire city. Who knows how many were aware of it as it was behind us while we walked on to the river, yet I saw it clearly and took it as a wonderful omen.

I leave in the morning for my long journey home. I’ve learned so much here in Brazil, most of all I’m left with a feeling that in order to succeed with our dreams for a better world we have to work together. I mean all of us, the politicians, the activists, the teachers, all of us. Too often I see so many opinions and arguments arise, even within the NGO community. I believe discussion and the sharing of different ideas amongst people is a healthy part of life, but I hope that our opinions never hold us back from the true promise of what is possible when we move some of our differences aside and put working together first.

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