Next week, the world will converge in Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, aka the Rio+20 Earth Summit. If you are in the United States, you may never have heard of this conference. Well, it's time to start paying attention. The policies, partnerships, and initiatives that emerge from Rio+20 have the potential to change the world and put us on a much more sustainable path.
In short, Rio+20 is a conference designed to reaffirm the world's commitment to sustainable development. Sustainable development means different things to different people, but the most known definition is "meeting our present needs without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs." Understanding sustainable development this way means that economic production must occur in socially just manner (meeting the needs of the present generation) while not degrading the Earth's planetary ecosystems beyond their regenerative capacity (ensuring that future generations will also have clean air, clean water, productive soil, and a stable climate). Sounds simple, right?
Unfortunately, we're a long way from actually achieving sustainable development. Our current development system is great at creating economic production, leading to remarkable advances in technology and quality of life. However, our current system is not achieving social justice or ecological sustainability: nearly 3 billion people still live on less than $2 per day, and we would need 1.5 planets to sustainably regenerate all of the resources we consume globally each year. And while we are quite good at creating economic wealth, we still have a lot of room in improving our ability to cultivate happiness. Record numbers of people currently suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses, and according to the World Health Organization, more people die from suicide annually than from homicides and wars combined.
With these statistics in mind, world leaders are gathering in Rio de Janeiro to try to work out a new development pathway that balances economic production with social and ecological well-being. They also tried this twenty years ago, at the original Rio Earth Summit in 1992. While the documents and ideas that emerged were inspiring, the implementation of sustainable development during the past twenty years was fairly disappointing. Hence the "+20" in the Rio+20 conference title; this year's meeting is an attempt to reboot the international dialogue and move global development towards sustainability twenty years after the original Earth Summit. Over 130 heads of state are committed to attend the conference, and UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon is hopeful that Rio+20 will serve as a major turning point for the global community.
Policy agreements from Rio+20, however, likely won't be the most important thing that emerges from the conference. Governments simply aren't powerful enough to create the global transformation necessary for sustainable development; the transition also needs leadership from business and civil society. Rio+20 is an incredible opportunity for these groups to share their success stories, demonstrate proven models for local sustainable development, and build the broader coalitions necessary to create deep political, economic, and cultural change.
For me, the most exciting opportunity for Rio+20 is the concentration of innovative ideas and proven models for local and regional sustainable development. There is a whole ecosystem of side events and side conferences happening alongside the official UN process: from a forum on social entrepreneurship to a TEDx event on “human power” to the “people’s summit” for sustainable development, there are many opportunities to engage in productive dialogue about the future of our planet and our global society. These events will host critical conversations, but they won’t have an impact unless the message reaches communities around the world.
That’s where you all come in. Anyone reading this blogpost (and anyone informed about Rio+20 and sustainable development) has incredible power; you hold the information and the influence needed to change the conversation about development. In the long run, we need major policy changes and institutional reforms to redirect resources in a more sustainable manner. But none of this can happen without the hard work of having intentional conversations with our friends, neighbors, family, and co-workers. Sustainability is a global issue, but deep social change almost always occurs on a local scale.
The truth is, Rio+20 will not usher in a new era of sustainability. The policy document that emerges from Rio+20 will likely be very weak, filled with greenwash or half-measures with little to no accountability. While over 100 heads of state are attending, they will likely offer lots of rhetoric and little new initiatives. Yet, Rio+20 does offer a rare opportunity to challenge the status quo model of development and question fundamental assumptions (like economic growth can continue forever or that the huge discrepancies between the rich and the poor are an inevitable side effect of economic progress). The change in the status quo requires a collective change of mindset, and change that can begin by engaging our communities on the tough issues of sustainable development. We have the power to create a more sustainable world. And we can start to bring this new world into being, one conversation at a time.