Will business as usual trump transformational change at Rio+20?

Two of the fora I’ve participated in recently sought to shape new models for our species and planet. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland the theme , programme and presence of #Occupy protestors combined to ensure inequality, governance and popular uprisings were, at least, on the agenda. At the UN meeting on the changing context of development and its implications for cooperation and global partnership , on the other hand, these barely found mention. Despite that superficial difference, however, both events struck me as being completely out of touch with the scale, persistence and sheer outrage of citizens around the world and with the dire consequences of inaction on climate change.

At the WEF the gap between the diagnoses of the problem, exemplified by the annual risk report and the 2012 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer on the one hand, and the solutions posited on the other, was stark. Even as participants painted a picture of impending economic and ecological doom, there seemed to be little appetite for any significant change in their norms or approaches to accountability, collaboration or sustainability, and even less change in their priorities and practices. Fingers were duly wagged at the Europeans for failing to reach agreement on the Eurozone’s economic woes. Grim warnings of economic meltdown or long-term economic stasis were duly issued by economists and international institutions. The emerging powers smugly strutted their new clout while disavowing any responsibility for global remedies to problems they did not cause. A predictable roster of causes permitted businesses to showcase meager evidence of social responsibility. And then, it seemed to me, conversation reverted to the deal-making that characterizes such events. Calls from civil society organisations, academics and young people for radical re-imagining of the very purpose of business and the metrics by which we measure success were, in my view, politely attended to, then ignored.

At the UN meeting much of the debate centred on technocratic aspects of development, aid and sustainability. I heard the terms efficiency, effectiveness, fiscal crunch and green everything – growth, jobs, economy – bandied about incessantly. Much less mention of the themes of equity, justice or accountability that have been the focus of people’s movements on every continent. Every speaker seemed resigned to a period of political paralysis and economic austerity that would prevent meaningful progress on the core challenges of our time for the foreseeable future.

At both venues I was troubled by the apparent cavalierness with which those who presume to leadership are contemplating cataclysmic consequences that threaten the lives, livelihoods and liberties of the vast majority of the earth’s peoples. An acquaintance cynically inquired whether, in fact, governments and business are pragmatically planning for the apocalypse while mouthing pious platitudes of transformation, sustainability and democracy. Going by the recent wave of legislation aimed at control rather than freedom – of expression, information, association and assembly – offline and online, one would be hard-pressed to disagree with her hypothesis.

In less than 18 weeks, leaders from government, business, civil society, media and academia will convene in Rio, Brazil, to forge a new vision of sustainable development that marries the economic, social and ecological imperatives of our era. Or in UN-speak “to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development” by focusing on “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.”

If Rio+20 is to mark a genuine turning point in human relationships – with each other and with our home planet – we will require much more than words. The Brazilian hosts of the event have promised greater access to civil society and youth than at most recent global summits. Given the evident apathy, inertia and cynicism which leaders across politics and business seem to be bringing to Rio, and the experience of recent global conferences, it falls to civil society to raise both, expectations on outcomes and the price of failure. If the 7 billion human, and innumerable other, inhabitants of our planet are to get more than procrastination and empty promises in Rio, citizens around the world will need to send our representatives a strong, clear message: Their licence to lead depends on their ability to transcend short-termism, political differences and institutional constraints to fashion a compelling vision of hope and a coherent plan of action towards the goals embodied in the original Earth Charter.











Ingrid Srinath

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