Rio tells us something we need to learn

I cannot recall an earth summit which, as Rio+20 did, brought with it so little interest or glimmer of optimism. Nobody except the insanely optimistic expected anything significant to happen at this event. Most developed world leaders stayed away altogether. Others were focused on what seemed to them to be the main issue of the moment - economic growth and their need to get their hands on some of it.

We can join in the blame game, if we like. The hosts were 'heavy handed' in how they managed the conference. Unseen corporations had clearly influenced the agenda. Take your pick of whoever you want to blame.

If the human race goes down, it will almost certainly go down to the sound of a million people pointing fingers and blaming each other. And probably fighting each other, come to think of it.

Instead, there is a core problem we face here. Focus on the issue of sustainability has - worldwide - gone off the boil. It's done so because of two things, I suspect. First, the economic situation has put a lot of people back into the mindset that says that environmental sustainability is less important to them than money in the pocket. We know the flaws in this thinking, but it is a powerful mindset and you don't have to believe in evil people in order for it to completely play its part in messing things up.

The other is that the issue is no longer new. It seems trivial, but people aren't capable of maintaining a sense of urgency on one issue for an extended period of time unless the threat that it poses to their well-being is increasingly visible and progressively worse. If it is worse but not visible, they stop paying attention to the message that it's getting worse. If it's visible but not worse, they gradually adapt their expectations to fit their new reality.

Remember, if we are to achieve sustainability it has to be forever. It can't be at the mercy of one particular political party being in power, or one particular type of company being dominant in the marketplace, or one particular international bloc of countries being dominant on the world stage. It has to be a rock-solid consensus on the principles, with room left only at the margins for squabbling about the details of implementation.

We are back to playing a long game. We thought we were in a 100m sprint, but just before the finishing line, someone changed the rules and we're now running a marathon.

There is such a thing as too late - and maybe we have already passed that point. But if we don't want to take the counsel of despair, we need to cut the blame and get very focused on what are the actions over the next five to ten years that could seriously deliver change.

Amongst others, I think of the following:

Progressive corporations pull out all the stops to bring innovation to bear in areas where we have problems to solve - particularly in clean energy and the sustainability of the oceans.

Those same corporations seek to influence the political and business consensus in favour of change. Not in a partisan way, and not in the manner of the campaigners with the noise and 'look at me' self-indulgence that they often bring with them.

These foundations need to be laid so that when the moments of potential change occur - as they will do as we increasingly see the consequences of our impact on the planet - we will be ready to take decisive action whilst there is a good chance of achieving political will and citizen agreement.

The alternative can be seen in the uprisings in different parts of the world against so-called "austerity". The principle of not spending more than you have should be a pretty straightforward proposition - but because of the genuine hardship caused and the lack of feeling of common ownership of the problem ("they" did it - the bankers, the political elites) people will pursue ultimately destructive positions that someone is prepared to tell them is an easy solution. In this case, it's old-style growth, which is precisely what got us here in the first place.

Rio+20 was a waste of time. A conference held because the length of time since the last one had reached a round number - truly a ridiculous reason to have a summit. We need to focus on getting agreement in various places about what needs to be done BEFORE the summit. And maybe the model of 'global change by the UN convening lots of parties' will be seen to be an outdated model when it comes to getting things done.

There is everything still to play for, but time is running out and we haven't got time for the self-indulgence of blame.

Posted on: 22 Jun 2012

Tags: Rio+20 climate change sustainability blame


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