After Rio+20, the world must choose between sustainability and growth (Part 1)

With the current consensus that the Rio+20 summit was a failure, is the era of global treaties at an end, and if so where do we go next?

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Jules Peck works with companies on strategic innovation at Flourishing Enterprise, is a trustee at the thinktanks New Economics Foundation and ResPublica and chairs Edelman’s Sustainability Group. Jules is the co-author of Citizen Renaissance and was the director of David Cameron’s Quality of Life Review.

Commentators have concluded, fairly unanimously, that the Rio+20 talks have been a failure. Expectations had, of course, been low, and because of this the leaders of most developed countries stayed away.

Rio+20Opening the summit, Ban Ki-Moon admitted the draft outcome was “disappointing”, due to the conflicting interests of member states. China’s Sha Zukang, the UN’s lead on the conference, agreed, calling the statement “an outcome that makes nobody happy”.

NGOs were unanimous in their disgust with the conference’s outcome statement, The Future We Want. Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo spoke of “the longest suicide note in history…the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development model…a failure of epic proportions.”

So what was missing from the talks; what hope might there be outside official negotiating rooms?

The end of an era of global diplomacy?

There seems to be a consensus that the era of global treaties may be over – at least for the time being.

George Monbiot concluded his list of the summit’s failures by calling for us to give up on global agreements. Barbara Stocking, the head of Oxfam, called on civil society to move on and take action itself. Lasse Gustavasson, the WWF’s executive director of conservation, agreed there had been a fundamental failure of “sophisticated UN diplomacy”.

UN Environment Programme director Achim Steiner said the conference was evidence of “a world at a loss what to do”, noting that “we can’t legislate [for] sustainable development in the current state of international relations”. Of course, it is not just on sustainable development that global agreements are failing – the same is true of solutions to the financial system and issues such as Syria.

Todd Stern, the US delegation head, appeared to agree that global multi-state solutions no longer hold out much hope. Stern joined others in suggesting that the failures of first Copenhagen, and now Rio+20, signal the end of the post-Cold War global treaty era.

Both Stern and Gustavasson noted that far more commitment and leadership had been shown at Rio+20 by civil society, city mayors and the private sector. Indeed, Stern spoke of the early stages of a new era, in which new forms of global co-operation that link nations with businesses and civil society flourish in the shadow of formal processes.

Some suggested that there was far more of a meeting of minds in the 3000 or so fringe events at Rio+20 than in the negotiating rooms themselves.

It is hard, perhaps, to see how such one-off, informal co-operation between the private sector and civil society could replace binding global treaties, but perhaps there remain some small reasons for hope. If, for the time being at least, we have to give up on the possibility of governmental action, then what signs are there that the private sector and civil society might take up some of the slack?


See also:

The economic crisis is no excuse for the G20’s neglect of environmental issues 19 Jun 2012

Jobs and growth would benefit from green economy measures 21 May 2012

Cameron’s downgrading of environment policy bodes ill for the future 26 Apr 2012

Clean energy summit will expose more coalition divisions 23 Apr 2012

Sustainable development in 2012: Learning the lessons of 1987 23 Dec 2011


Reasons to be hopeful?

John Vidal gives us a slightly more upbeat, optimistic post-conference view than Monbiot’s. One reason for Vidal’s optimism comes from his conversations with legendary campaigner Richard Sandbrook, who suggested to him, after the first Rio summit, that change does not happen at summits.

For Sandbrook, change always occurs in the aftermath of seemingly disappointing events, as new debates and global understandings emerge from the ashes.

I’m an optimist and recent new father, and perhaps that clouds my judgement. Yet in the world I inhabit, of progressive corporate debate, I notice a marked change of gear. New conversations seem to be possible.

My friend Craig Bennett of FoE spoke on Radio 4, after the Rio summit, about a similar optimism around thinking at the vanguard of the progressive corporate world. Around five years ago, campaigners like Craig and I noticed a shift in the NGO meetings we held.

No longer was it us in one huddle, and the CBI and business in another. Suddenly, there seemed to be more common ground between NGO thinking and that of some of the progressives in business.

Over the last few years, the most progressive thinkers in the corporate world have become more and more disillusioned with markets, and have realised that most of the low hanging fruit has been picked.

For real change to occur, they recognise that governments need to radically reframe the markets, and that society needs to engage in a new debate about the meaning of ‘progress’.

Today, some in the business world are willing to think things that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. I’d be the last to suggest that even the most progressive business leaders are willing to sanction debate about things like alternatives to capitalism (at least, not yet.)

Still, it’s no longer heresy – in some boardrooms – to discuss the seemingly fundamental challenges of decoupling growth from ecological collapse, or the need to shift from a focus on wants to a focus on actual needs.

A number of business leaders – Ian Cheshire of Kingfisher, Paul Polman and Amada Sourry of Unilever, and Ian Marchant of SSE  – have all questioned our current economic model and called for significant change.

These progressive business voices, as yet isolated, give us one cause for hope. Another is the inexorable rise of grassroots, citizen-led responses to our dilemmas such as Transition Towns. It’s no wonder that business is now keen to engage with such community and citizen-led movements as Transition Towns’ Transition Streets and Sustran’s DIY Streets initiatives. Such projects hold far greater hope of radical change than do global summits and treaties.

The best our political leaders seemed able to come up with at Rio+20 was ‘green growth’ and its love child, ‘sustained growth’. How many more moronic oxymorons can they think up?

Sustainable development or sustained growth?

This call for ‘sustained’ growth is beyond oxymoronic: in the face of all the evidence, it’s ludicrous. We live on an ever more fragile planet, where we are at (or beyond) safe limits already and where only techno-fantasists can imagine decoupling of the scale and urgency required.

After Rio+20, it is worthwhile recalling Gro Harlem Brundtland’s 1987 definition of sustainable development:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of needs; and the idea of limitations imposed on the environment.”

This definition, firstly, raises issues of production capacity and the planet’s finite resources. Secondly, it draws attention to the question of ‘human needs’. Sadly, most debates about sustainability have focused only on the former. Too few people try to better understand the latter, the true meaning of prosperity and wellbeing.

Without it, we are operating half-blind. Even the half of the story that Rio+20 did debate – the planet’s limits – was debated half-heartedly, with a myopic focus on sustaining growth. If things didn’t fit that model, they were off limits.

The question of where we are trying to get to – what our objective in life might be – has been the subject of thinking since time immemorial. Aristotle spoke of the concept of ‘lives well lived’ in 350 BC. And yet little or no thought is given to the subject in our current hyper-consumerist lifestyle which takes ‘stuff’ as a proxy for progress.

Professor Tim Jackson summarises our shift from wellbeing-giving intrinsic values to consumerist extrinsic ones in his recent TED talk:

“…the ‘insatiability doctrine – we spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people we don’t care about.”

It is thus unsurprising that Rio+20 failed in its task. Since 1987, we’ve lost our way. We asked Brundtland to come up with a definition for sustainable development and proceeded to ignore half the definition. We chose to focus on development, neglecting the somewhat more uncomfortable questions about ourselves and our real needs.

To use the analogy of a journey, it is as if we are fixated on how much fuel is left in our tank and how efficiently we are driving without, for a moment, thinking about where we are trying to go and what route to take.

Only on the fringes of the green movement, in projects such as the aforementioned Transition Towns and in places like the New Economics Foundation, has much attention been paid to the subject of human need.

What do we really need?

Many will be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Others like Manfred Max-Neef have updated Maslow’s approach: there is now a rich understanding of what it means to flourish, and what brings wellbeing to individuals, communities and societies.

For a long time, questions over our current economic model have led Nobel prize winners like Amartya Sen, Joseph Stigliz and Dan Kahneman to revise the meaning of prosperity. In 1968, Robert Kennedy questioned GNP as a measurement for it:

“It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Now evidence such as the NEF Happy Planet Index and Genuine Progress Indicator have been helping challenge assumptions about the link between wealth, growth and wellbeing or prosperity.

These indicators show, for instance, that despite continuing exponential economic growth since the 1970s, life satisfaction has flat-lined in the richer part of the world. Indeed, the opposite of wellbeing – ill-being – is growing, with levels of depression, isolation, mistrust and substance abuse soaring.

Work by academics and think tanks shows that, above a level of income most in the rich world have long since achieved, only 7% of our wellbeing comes from income.

The key things which increase wellbeing (“feeling good and functioning well”) are connections to friends, family and community; giving back and volunteering; being physically active; having life goals and continuing to learn; and taking notice and being engaged.

At NEF, we call these the five ways to wellbeing. Yet little of this thinking, either, found its way into the Rio+20 debates.

The second part of this essay can be read here


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