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Reflections on Rio +20, so far

Posted by Sarah Hessel Saturday, June 23, 2012

by Elwyn Grainger-Jones

Well, it's midway through Rio +20.  I've been going from event to event, location to location, speaking at some on the subject of sustainable smallholder agriculture, and absorbing the atmosphere.  Don't think that the Rio delegates are on the beach - this was pretty empty when I drove past it yesterday!  Most delegates are spread out across hundreds of side events, with a smaller group in the actual text negotiations.  And at any one time, a lot of them are stuck in traffic shuttling between locations, where they can at least enjoy the views of this beautiful city.

What is most fascinating at these big conferences is to dip into different communities, it's sort of a human zoo with (and apologies for any stereotyping) so many different group cultures.  So far I have spoken at a film launch, surrounded by young and articulate Brazilian journalists keen to talk about how to connect with people through human stories; at a corporate sustainability event on climate risk management, surrounded by smart, focused business people excited about the number of possible connections to help at the same time both smallholder farmers and their own businesses; at a civil society-organized event, with young and old environmentalists deeply frustrated at the lack of action from national and global leaders on this issue and concerned about corporate power and 'land grabbing'; and at an agriculture event, surrounded by technical experts who after years of piloting sustainable agriculture techniques are searching for ways to 'scale up' the use of these approaches with the urgency required.

What have I learnt so far?  Well, there's a lot of soul-searching going on behind the scenes here.  Yes, there has been progress on poverty reduction, but on the environment - let's face it - we are losing.   It's not that there is no cause for hope - Rio is full of wonderful examples of humanity finding ways to live sustainably.  There has also been tremendous progress in developing knowledge and tools to tackle environmental problems since the original Rio conference, including (at last) more serious talk about redefining how we measure growth to include the stock of natural assets.  It's just that the pace of environmental degradation - including climate change - is exceeding the pace at which these examples, approaches and tools are being scaled up.  The statistics on what's been happening since the original Rio conference in 1992 bear this out.

I'd like to see more psychologists here.  I'm only half-joking.  There are so many technical experts in Rio who can earnestly share frightening graphs (I have some good ones myself) to make a rational case for action.   But this is not enough.  As someone put it at an IIED event -  environmentalists have used science, then security and now economics to make the case for action, but this is not getting through fast enough.  Why is this?  The main explanations being given are the inertia of "mindsets" which are changing more slowly than the world around us, responsibility for failure (and success) being spread too thinly, and all this leading to politicians generally not being pressured to take bold action.  Civil society is here, but this in no way feels like a coherent and unified mass-movement creating pressure across the globe.   More fundamental questions around whether or how the values of modern consumer economies can be made compatible with environmental sustainability are generally put in the "too difficult" or "too radical" box.

I think, as always, this comes down to the age-old struggle between different aspects of human nature:  we can be far-sighted, visionary, cooperative even across nations, and expansive in our thinking; but, especially in times of anxiety, we can be short term, selfish, non-cooperative and narrow in our thinking.  Short-term thinking defies action on climate change.  A deeply competitive environment and a lack of trust is challenging our ability to cooperate across nations on these global issues.  Narrow thinking, understandable given the mind-boggling complexity of human interaction with ecosystems, lies behind the "silo thinking" within governments and internationally on public policy where issues are pursued in isolation of each other to the detriment of all - e.g. between the environment, development, finance, people or agriculture (where, for example, there are too many examples of agricultural production being boosted at the expense of ecosystems).

And how should we communicate this conference to the world?  It's too early to conclude on the conference since we don't yet know what the outcome will be.  In terms of communicating environment issues more generally, most of us working on these issues are torn between giving a message of fear or hope, so we oscillate between the two.   We can at least learn from the mistakes of the past and move on from communicating the environment purely in terms of trade-offs (e.g. "you can either protect nature or feed your people" - a false trade-off in fact), and perhaps make clearer the equity and justice aspects of what is happening on the environment.

So fingers crossed for the next few days - given what's at stake, I hope world leaders rise to the challenge.

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