Youth walk out of the Earth Summit conference. (Photo by Youth Policy.)

The Rio+20 conference is remarkably listless; the energy of 1992 has bled into a formulaic bureaucracy-fest. The text negotiators have agreed to punts on virtually every major issue (one analysis showed that governments agreed to “encourage” and “support” actions 148 times, but only on three issues summoned the courage to say “we will” actually do something).

But it came spontaneously alive for a few hours this afternoon, when a youth-led demonstration turned into an Occupy-style sit-down that in turn agreed to a mass walkout. We’ve just marched out the front doors of this sprawling complex, 130 strong, surrounded by as many cameras and tape recorders.

The youth-led demonstration violated all the U.N. rules — security squads surrounded us at the first sound of controversy, announcing that our gathering was “unsanctioned” and if we didn’t stop immediately we’d lose our accreditation. People discussed the threat through the human mic for a few minutes, and then decided it wasn’t a threat at all — in fact, we were eager to surrender our badges, because then we wouldn’t be part of what had turned into a sham.

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Almost everyone who participated was young (I can attest that there’s a certain age past which sitting on the stone floor for a few hours is less fun than you might think); as we marched we chanted “This is not the future we want.”

That meant a future filled with clouds of carbon — but it also meant a future of sitting through the U.N. process and pretending that it was getting somewhere. After Copenhagen’s failure people felt sad, disempowered. But now people seemed to feel mad — and ready to fight where it counts, out in the real world. Out where we need to change the political dynamic if international negotiations are ever going to matter.

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The first Rio conference was a great jolt of energy, filled with music, art, hope. But that flash blinded us to the hollowness of the promises.

This gathering, by contrast, is dullness defined. World leaders drone on in the plenary; the bulletin boards are covered with flyers for talks with topics like “Ecovision Turkey 2050” or “A Project for Human-based Sustainability through Ontopsychological Methodology.” The once-crowded halls are half-deserted; reporters search desperately for something, anything, to report.

But against that backdrop the actual truth of this bankrupt process shone more clearly. It took, as is often the case, young people to politely point out that the U.N. has no clothes, that behind the curtain there are just small people unable to do much because of the corporate power that dominates their governments. Hillary Clinton will make a speech tomorrow — but young people really said everything worth saying this afternoon.