Representatives from more than 150 nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro this week for Rio+20, also known as United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. There's lots of talk. We've been hearing about the green economy, the business opportunities of including the environment in financial transactions, the need for technological innovation to overcome major ecological challenges, the financial mechanisms needed to spur innovation and proper corporate behaviour to move toward a sustainable future... We heard it all before in 1992, when Agenda 21, a massive blueprint for a sustainable future, was adopted and soon after spurned by most rich nations because it cost too much (0.7% of annual national GDP).
Sign up for our newsletter
Once again, delegates have arrived with expense accounts and fancy hotel accommodations to discuss yet another statement building on the failed statements of the past while the world confronts a biosphere even more severely damaged by millions of acres of destroyed forests, two billion more people and atmospheric carbon concentrations nearing tipping-point levels. In 1992, 1,700 senior scientists from around the world and more than half of all Nobel prizewinners alive at the time released a document called World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, which stated, "No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished."
Despite the urgency of the plea, the international community has failed to respond adequately. Humans have reached or perhaps exceeded critical tipping points in disrupting some of Earth's great cycles (carbon, nitrogen, water) and have torn at ecosystems and species diversity that are the key to cleansing and replenishing the atmosphere, water and soil.
Meanwhile, as in 1992, civil society represented by youth, indigenous people, the poor and disenfranchised, environmentalists, and social justice and peace activists are clamouring to be heard halfway across the city from Riocentro where official delegates are meeting. It's as if the two groups were from different planets. They appear to be incapable of speaking to or hearing each other. I remember Germany's father of renewable energy, the late economist and politician Hermann Scheer, saying that the obstacles to sustainability are not technological, economic or social but psychological. Here in Rio he is being proven correct. We see the world through lenses of values and beliefs that determine the way we act.
The official delegates at Riocentro operate from a worldview in which humans are at the centre of everything and the biosphere is a resource to be exploited as we wish, except now with more environmental responsibility. National boundaries and economic priorities, both of which are human constructs that can and should be changed, underlie and drive all the debates over the wording of the final documents. In contrast, the civil society attendees see that the biosphere is our home. It is the source of our atmosphere, water, food and soil. It is a complex web of life of which we are a part. These people argue that our actions must be predicated on the need to protect these sacred elements while working for a more equitable and just world. Sadly, delegates at Riocentro cannot possibly incorporate the demands of civil society because of this fundamental clash in values and perspective.
In all the political posturing and lobbying by corporations, there is simply no comprehension of what the real crisis is: We humans have become so numerous and technologically powerful, so impatiently demanding and servile to a destructive global economy built on a corporate agenda, that we are undermining the life support systems of Earth.
I'm in Rio as official babysitter for my daughter Severn, who galvanized a global audience through a YouTube posting of a speech she gave in Rio in 1992 when she was 12. Now, 20 years later, Severn is a mother and has returned to Rio to reprise her message. None of the major political leaders who attended the conference in 1992 (Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, U.S. President George Bush Sr.) is here. In other words, politicians come, mouth grand words and sign watered-down documents and treaties, but are not around to take responsibility for their implementation. Listen to Environment Minister Peter Kent's rationalization of Canada's outrageous attempts to monkey-wrench the entire process and you will hear a complete failure to comprehend the concerns of civil society. It's just blah, blah, blah, blah.