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Rio+20: “The Future We Want”? Let’s hope it’s better than that

16 January 2012

Fiona NunanFiona Nunan is a Lecturer in Environment and Development in IDD, specialising in environment and natural resource management and governance, including fisheries governance and management, poverty and the environment, and impact evaluation methods and approaches. She convenes the module on Transforming Development for Sustainability and co-convenes Critical Approaches to Development and Making Policy on campus and via distance learning.

Drafting outcome documents from international conferences must be no easy task! Just how can you summarise the complex negotiations that have taken place, the diversity of views and interpretations of terms, and the range of commitments, or lack of them? There are just five months to go until the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, marking twenty years after the 1992 Earth Summit, also held in Rio. A couple of days ago, the ‘zero draft’ of the outcome document, “The Future We Want”, was released.

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), 3-14 June 1992

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, President of Haiti (at podium), addresses the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), or Earth Summit, 12 June 1992. Photo credit: UN Photo 281533.

The 1992 Earth Summit produced an array of impressive conventions and commitments, including the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21 and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. However, in reading the Zero Draft of the outcome document for the 2012 conference, you get a strong feeling of frustration that progress since 1992 has been slow and piecemeal and that what is really needed is action based on the 1992 agreements rather than yet more new concepts, ideas and targets. Swiftly following the preamble, the second section is entitled “Renewing Political Commitment”, recognising that this is what has been lacking, but are there really any indications that there will be a major change any time soon?

The flyer for the Conference suggests that Rio+20 provides a chance to “move away from business as usual”. Whilst the flyer sets out some innovative approaches that have been taken in moving towards more sustainable development, the draft outcome document doesn’t embrace the same spirit of opportunity. It gives little sense of the urgency or the scale of change required to respond effectively to the major environmental and social challenges faced.

Two key themes have been set for the Conference:

Sha Zuzkang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, speaks at the launch of “Rio+20: The Future We Want”, a campaign enabling people around the world to contribute to discussions on sustainability, the world we want in 20 years and how that vision is achieved. The “global conversation” comes ahead of the June 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Sha Zuzkang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, speaks at the launch of “Rio+20: The Future We Want”, a campaign enabling people around the world to contribute to discussions on sustainability, the world we want in 20 years and how that vision is achieved. Photo credit: UN Photo 495393.

The ‘green economy’ agenda is solution-oriented, looking for green business and employment opportunities, but, is there a danger that the Conference could be taken over, or perhaps has been already, by concerns about global recession and the need for economic growth, without sufficient attention to the state of our planet’s resources and equity in access to those resources. What happened to increasing interest in ideas such as “Prosperity without Growth”, wellbeing and quality of life? Where is the intrinsic value of nature recognised in the Zero Draft Outcome document?

Of course, you wouldn’t expect the outcome document to present detailed solutions, but what would be good to see is greater recognition of the scale of environmental challenges we face, with the existence of nature recognised as being beyond a resource for our insatiable consumption, and stronger commitment to change. Instead of a list of things that must not be done in assisting developing countries build a green economy, positive language is needed, emphasising the opportunities that exist to adopt technologies and approaches that support greater equality and sufficiency, whilst reducing our terrifyingly large impact on the global environment.

Yes, now is the time for much greater political commitment to sustainable development, but let’s hope we’re not looking back in another 20 years, wondering how that time passed, with so little progress to show for it.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 January 2012 18:30

    To children everywhere,

    Please explore what is willfully ignored and conspicuously unexplored. Many ‘experts’ appear to have sold out to the “one percent” by participating in the widespread denial of science regarding the issue of human population dynamics/overpopulation. One the one hand we have the deafening silence of scientists and on the other we have pseudo-scientists who broadcast whatever self-serving thought, contrived logic and ideology their benefactors demand. The human community is being deceived with false promises and directed down a primrose path by unsavory, mutually aggrandizing leaders. These so-called leaders are erroneously believed to possess the intellectual honesty, moral courage and will to act boldly that is required to acknowledge, address and overcome the colossal threat posed to future human well being and environmental health by the unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers.

    Any exploration of what is being deliberately avoided and repeatedly denied would include, I suppose, an examination of the best available scientific evidence related to the most accurate placement of the human species within the natural order of living things as well as all the seminal research related to the way the world we inhabit actually works. Perhaps rigorous scrutiny of “human creatureliness”, an easily observed aspect within the breadth of humanness, could be a point of investigation. Very little attention and research has been dedicated to this aspect of our all-too-human nature. Another point of inquiry has to do with the nature of the world we inhabit, with particular attention to the shape, make-up and ecology of Earth. Is our planetary home flat or round? Is the Earth like a teat at which the human species can forever suckle or is the planet composed of limited resources that are being wantonly dissipated today? Is the ecology of Earth frangible and can its ecosystems be degraded by human pollution to a point at which the Earth could become unfit for human habitation?

    Children, why not invite your friends, parents, teachers and other elders like me to speak truthfully with you about what efforts are being made to assure a good enough future for you by pursuing a path toward sustainability? Despite your elders’ claims of ignorance about what it means to live sustainably, do not be fooled. They are playing stupid. The challenge for you is to call out your elders and insist they simply acknowledge that no one with wealth and power in the 1% wants to stop what is known today as “business as usual” practices, much less sensibly begin to plan for the right-sizing of ‘too big to fail’ corporations. Open discussions are everywhere eschewed of plans for transitioning away from the legitimization of transnational corporate ‘persons’. Too-big-to-succeed business empires are not being “powered down” to sustainable enterprises, ones that can exist in 2050 on a planet with the size, composition and environs of Earth. To this end, perhaps we can speak loudly, clearly and often about what your elders need to learn fast and well regarding how to live in our planetary home without recklessly dissipating its finite resources, as large-scale corporations are doing now; how to adjust outrageous per capita overconsumption patterns and individual hoarding lifestyles in preparation for an end to economic growth (not development); how to sensibly stabilize and then humanely reduce the size of the human population to a level that assures sustainability of the human species and life as we know it; and how to deal effectively with the relentless pollution and environmental degradation that is occurring on our watch.

    The Rio 20 Conference will occur in June 2012. Where are the scientists who are ready, willing and able to discuss openly, objectively and honorably the “mother” of all emerging and converging, human-induced global challenges looming before the human family on our watch: human overpopulation? Have scientists capitulated to the politically correct agenda of the rich and powerful as well as agreed to speak only of that which the 1% determined is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially suitable, religiously tolerable and culturally prescribed? Children, perhaps I am mistaken about all of this. For your sake, I certainly hope so.

  2. Martin permalink
    8 February 2012 14:17

    Thank you, Fiona, for this comment. And thank you for the question “Where is the intrinsic value of nature recognised in the Zero Draft Outcome document?”

    The words biodiversity and ecosystems do occur in the document, but only in the context of how they might be exploited more sustainably. Leaving aside the idea that something can be more, or less, sustainable, just as, presumably, one can be more, or less, pregnant, it seems that the future we want has space only for humans and whatever bits of the living world that are useful to us. This is not the future I want, so I’m not sure who the “we” is in the title.

  3. Fiona Nunan permalink
    9 February 2012 15:09

    Martin, thanks for the comment and your observation about the title of the conference brochure and zero draft outcome document. Who, indeed, are the ‘we’ being referred to? Fiona

  4. 9 June 2012 15:55

    This situation is no longer deniable. Opportunities like the one offered at RIO+20 cannot be missed. During my lifetime, many have understood the Global Predicament we are facing now, but only a few ‘voices in the wilderness’ were willing to speak out loudly and clearly about what everyone can see. It is not a pretty sight. The human community has precipitated a planetary emergency that only humankind is capable of undoing. The present ‘Unsustainable Path’ has to be abandoned in favor of a “road less travelled by”. It is late; there is no time left to waste. Perhaps now we will gather our remarkably abundant, distinctly human resources and respond ably to the daunting, human-induced, global challenges before us, the ones that threaten life as we know it and the integrity of Earth as a fit place for human habitation. Many voices, many more voices are needed for making necessary changes.

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