Friday, June 15, 2012

A New Environmental Movement: Why I am at the Rio+20 Earth Summit

Over the past one and a half years, I have devoted a lot of time and attention towards something unfamiliar to most of my friends, family, colleagues, and former professors: the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, aka the Rio+20 Earth Summit.  Why in the world would I devote so much time to a United Nations’ conference obscure to the vast majority of the American population?  In short, because I care deeply about our world and the bleak future my generation will face if we don’t move society towards a more sustainable path.  This post is the story of my motivation to attend Rio+20, the UN mega summit happening now in Rio de Janeiro.
The opening pathway to the Rio+20 Earth Summit.
When I first heard of Rio+20 in January 2011, I was incredibly excited by the opportunity of a new Earth Summit, a single conference that could change the course of human history and put society on a more sustainable path.  I had learned about the original Rio Earth Summit of 1992 through my environmental studies classes, and I knew that the ’92 meeting was generally viewed as the most productive environmental meeting in international history, producing or launching most of the important treaties on sustainable development to date.  I saw the opportunity for a new Earth Summit to be just as influential, where world leaders could take a step back from the consuming duty of daily governance to look at the big picture of our planet’s ecosystems and the economic and social state of our world. I hoped that Rio+20 would be the beginning of new method of global governance, one that would use systems thinking to approach our shared challenges in an integrated manner.

At the time, I was interning at the Millennium Institute, a DC-based non-profit that does systems modeling work for sustainable development.  I was enamored by the idea of systems thinking and modeling, as I had finally found a way to formally display the interconnections I intuitively sensed between the crises of food, water, energy, security, poverty, biological diversity, and climate change.  My mentor at the Millennium Institute had served as the lead modeler for the UNEP Green Economy Report, a document which was designed to move the global conversation forward about the Rio+20 Earth Summit.  This initial exposure to Rio+20 gave me hope that the conference would use a systems-based approach in discussing global policy, leading to new development strategies and global practices that would finally put us on the path towards a truly sustainable future.

When I heard that SustainUS, an organization that sends US youth to major United Nations conferences, was sending a delegation to Rio+20 I was immediately interested.  Some of my friends from climate activism had attended UN climate conferences before, but I didn’t know anyone who was following Rio+20.  I applied to the delegation, thinking that I could bring a lot more people into the process and help make Rio+20 relevant to United States youth.  I was accepted to the SustainUS group, started having regular conference calls with new friends from all over the country, and committed myself to the hard work of making an impact at Rio+20.  I have had a great time working with my fellow SustainUS delegates, and I know that we will stay friends for many years to come.

The SustainUS delegation, in action!  (Our guiding policy principles are included as well.)
My initial commitment to join the SustainUS delegation was nearly a year ago.  Now I sit here in RioCentro, the official venue for Rio+20, and am surrounded by the chaos that inevitably comes with a 20,000+ mega-conference.  It is hard to even describe the feeling of being here.  People are everywhere, many in dressed in the unofficial negotiating uniform of suit and tie, but some in flashy T-shirts advertising their particular issue of campaign.  Media are running about the place searching for the latest story as security officers and other employees attempt to direct the thousands of participants to their specific destinations.  Work on the official negotiation text is happening in groups scattered throughout the sprawling complex, with civil society representatives scurrying around to try to keep track of the progress.  Meanwhile, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are hosting their own separate side events, two or three per hour, which will total to more than 500 events before the conference is done. 

To add even more to this scene of bewildering chaos, many countries have separate pavilions and are holding their own events in a huge park across the street from the official Rio+20 conference center.  The complete picture is like a world’s fair mixed with a gigantic model UN conference, except that the negotiations are the real UN and not students re-enacting diplomacy.  There is so much going on that even the most seasoned activist would easily get derailed.

Athlete's Park, with country side events (photo by Hannah Freedman)
Unfortunately, the size and complexity of the Rio+20 Earth Summit is not enough to guarantee political success.  Over the past two years the UN convened numerous multi-lateral negotiation sessions to prepare a document that would “recommit world leaders to sustainable development,” which was intended to be completed before anyone arrived in Rio de Janeiro for the actual event.  The proposed text touches on many different areas of sustainable development, ranging from the emerging “green economy” to oceans, forests, and cities.  However, the previous negotiation sessions were incredibly difficult and not particularly productive, leaving a mostly incomplete negotiation text for delegates to frantically complete before heads of state arrive next week.  Many huge divides remain between the positions of developed and developing countries.  Civil society groups involved in the negotiations, especially youth, are increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of decision-making.  As the clock ticks down, some observers have already written off Rio+20 as a political failure.

I am still optimistic that the conference will emerge with a positive political outcome, but my true reason for being here in Brazil lies beyond the negotiating rooms.  The Rio+20 political outcome document is only one part of this massive conference, and in our modern globalized world, other actors besides nations can and do have tremendous impacts.  The previously mentioned 500+ side events are showcasing the power of NGO impacts, such as Oxfam's side event on “Youth Fixing the Broken Food System.”  And many new partnerships are launching at Rio+20, connecting actors from government, business, and civil society together in novel ways to take on the large challenges of sustainable development.

I am particularly excited to use Rio+20 as an opportunity to learn and network with the world’s leading social entrepreneurs engaged with sustainable development work.  I have been incredibly inspired by meeting youth from around the world doing innovative sustainable development work.   Today I’ll be attending the “Forum on Social Entrepreneurship and the New Economy,” a parallel conference to Rio+20 highlighting the opportunities for social entrepreneurship to advance sustainable development.  I plan to collect and document the novel ideas of innovative change makers so that I can use them in my future work in St. Louis and beyond.

Ultimately, Rio+20 is about us.  The physical conference may be in Rio de Janeiro, but modern communications technology allows for global conversations on sustainable development to happen anywhere at any time.  And we are doing much more than talking about sustainable development; many of us are embodying the concept.  Innovative companies and non-profit organizations are now using the internet to crowd-source financing for solar panels, connect volunteers with people who need their skills, and “kick-start” new projects with funding from all over the world.  While the heads of state attending Rio+20 may get most of the attention, the tens of thousands of NGOs, sustainable-oriented businesses, and passionate community leaders who are in Rio de Janeiro are the real leaders of the global movement for sustainable development.

Instead of focusing on the mediocre policy outcomes, Rio+20 should be seen as the launching point of a new type of environmental movement, a movement of distributed leadership and networked solutions.  In this new environmental movement, leaders don’t identify themselves as environmentalists, opting for people-based solutions to complement the traditional environmental goals of conservation and ecosystem preservation.  This movement embodies systems thinking by  addresses the world's food, water, health, energy, and financial challenges in an integrated manner.  It is both extremely local, creating customized solutions for a particular place, and inherently global through its networked connections to the millions of other participants around the world.  The new environmentalism isn’t even really environmentalism: it is an expanded form of humanism that recognizes us as part of the global environment. 

The emergence of this new, largely youth-driven environmental movement is the reason I am here in Rio.  I am here to experience the energy of this global convergence and bring back new tools for my work in the United States.  I will connect to global youth networks and help to strengthen youth coalitions of social entrepreneurs globally.  And I plan to share all of the inspiration I find at this conference with you via this blog,  my twitter feed, and the SustainUS social media portal.  I hope that we can all find inspiration find this conference and be empowered to participate in this new, emerging environmental movement for a truly sustainable future.

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