Monday, July 2, 2012

Reflections on Rio+20: Five Lessons Learned from the Experience

My last post highlighted the bitter disappointment of the Rio+20 policy process. Disillusioned by the lack of ambition in the outcome document and disgusted by the lack of viable avenues for participation, I joined 150 other civil society members and marched out of the conference venue in protest. It was a great way to vent my frustrations, and the action emboldened us to look outside of the official UN process for ways to create systemic social change. For me, walking out represented the profound realization that given the present global political climate (and the current distribution of political power), world leaders will not take the bold actions necessary to adequately deal with our impending ecological crises.

So what will be able to create the change we need? What tools are available to us agents of social change to grow our movement, expand our influence, and change the current balance of power in order to create a sustainable world? I don’t have the answers, but I have pondered these questions a lot over the past four years. And Rio+20 helped remind me of some simple lessons, things most of us know but don't necessarily follow.

With that, here are five take-away lessons for me from Rio+20:
1.       Really effective groups have deep relationships and a strong sense of community.

Young people creating deep relationships and a sense of community at Rio+20 (photo credits Ellie Johnston)

Remember the famous Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world?”  The one that seems to be plastered everywhere in motivational trainings and team-building exercises?  Well, the saying is probably so popular because it's actually is true!  But the quote doesn’t explain why that small group can make a change in the world.

In my experience, the really effective groups, the organizations that are leading the way and coming up with the most innovative and creative ideas, all have one thing in common: a strong core group of people deeply committed to one another.  This core group shares two things: a common vision and a deep sense of community.  Usually, this group is also in the same location, since actually being with one another helps to sustain the strong sense of community.

Take the whole movement was started by a bunch of kids from Middleberry fresh out of college.  Bill McKibben gets most of the credit for starting the website, but all he really did was steer the community of climate activists in a new direction.  I believe that the group’s commitment to each other allowed them to succeed and grow something lasting.  In contrast, I don’t know of any strong community that existed at the core of Al Gore’s Repower initiative.

I’ll be writing a lot more about the idea of deep relationships and community over the next couple of weeks, since I think this an absolutely essential (but often neglected) part of the social change process.

2.       There are a LOT of young people in the world who care about this stuff.

A small portion of the young people at the Rio+20 Youth Blast (photo credit Kyle Gracey)

Many times, I have felt alone in the fight for climate justice.  Particularly at college, I have often felt like a complete outsider.  Activism and ecological radicalism are pretty rare at WashU, and idealism is also in short supply.  But WashU is not that different from most other college campuses: young people everywhere appear to be pretty apathetic.  With the exception of College of the Atlantic, I have not found any school out there where activism and deep civic engagement is the norm.

But just because you can’t always see activism thriving, it still exists!  And there are a lot of people from our generation who care.  At Rio+20, there were at least 5,000 youth registered for the conference, with many more participating in various side events.  The last American Power Shift hosted over 10,000 people from all over the country.  And those two events are only for politically-focused climate activism.  When you expand your thinking to include all of the local activists and social entrepreneurs, the number of youth change makers grows tremendously.

My point isn’t that activists make up a majority of young people.  We’re still in the vast minority.  But it’s good to remind ourselves that we are a movement, and are by no means alone.

3.      Without explicit goals, deadlines, and accountability mechanisms, it’s really difficult to get stuff done. But personal will power can help.
Young people working hard on projects while at Rio+20 (photo credits Kyle Gracey)

Think back to your last essay assignment (if you are a working adult, you can substitute a task from a project).  If your essay assignments were similar to those of my college experience, chances are this assignment was probably pretty specific.  My assignments had a clear prompt and a clear due date, with the professor available to clarify any questions.  My school assignments also contain a clear accountability mechanism in the form of a grade.  These three things (an explicit goal, deadline, and accountability mechanism) allowed me to complete the assignment, even when I was really distracted or engaged with other things.

Now, think of a personal project, something that you care about but haven’t been able to achieve.  Perhaps it’s keeping a regular blog (that’s me!).  Perhaps it is learning to cook.  Maybe it is learning an instrument.  We all have dreams we want to pursue, but never seem to accomplish.  My hunch is that we probably don’t accomplish these things because we don’t create explicit goals, deadlines, and accountability mechanisms.

I originally intended to blog every day while in Rio.  Looking back at my blog, I see I was able to keep it up for all of two days.  My internal goal was never quite explicitly stated though, so when things got really busy, it was easy to neglect blogging.  And with no accountability mechanism (and lots of engaging things happening around me), I didn’t stand a chance to keep my personal commitment.

Setting and accomplishing my own goals is vastly more difficult than accomplishing someone else’s objectives.  Clearly defining (and sticking to) a goal is really hard for me, since I easily get distracted and lose interest.  Deadlines are easy to set, but I am almost always too ambitious and forget about my other responsibilities.  And accountability, when it’s only about you?  That takes will power and persistence, a skill that many of us (myself definitely included) lack.  But will power is a skill that can be learned, something that I intend to practice a lot more now that I am out of college.

4.       Nature really IS revitalizing.

SustainUS members hiking through the woods on Ilha Grande (photo credits Lauren Borsa)

Before getting involved with climate activism, I didn’t get out of suburbia that much.  I sometimes went for runs in my local forest preserve, and occasionally my family would go hiking in a state park.  But I never felt it was that important, and certainly never saw “nature” as a source of inspiration and renewal.

In college, I got to experience many different natural habitats.  My college Pathfinder focus program traveled to the Missouri Ozarks, the Mojave Desert, and Hawaii.  I got to see lots of Missouri forests while interning at an ecological field station.  Through the Sierra Student coalition, I got to camp in the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.  After each of these experiences, I returned to St. Louis feeling renewed and a little more centered than when I left.

After the Rio+20 conference concluded, I traveled to Ilha Grande (“big island” in Portuguese) with some friends from SustainUS.  The island has of a series of small fishing villages (with hostels and small pousadas), pristine beaches, and hikes through the beautiful forest.  It was a very different scene from both Rio the city (with it’s crazy nightlife and constant carnival atmosphere) and the Rio+20 conference (which was incredibly stressful and pretty disempowering).  Almost immediately after arriving in Ilha Grande, I felt more at ease and more centered.  That feeling of peace stayed with me throughout my time there, and continued even after flying back to my hometown in suburban Chicago.

My main point make an effort to get out of the city once in a while.  It will help to reinvigorate you and help put things back in perspective.

5.       Celebration is essential for this work.

SustainUS partying in Rio de Janeiro (photo credits Lauren Borsa)

While in Rio for three weeks, I went out more times than during the entire spring semester.  Maybe that was because the conference was Rio, the city famous for dancing and beaches.  Maybe it was because we were all stressed and exhausted from futilely trying to affect policy change, and we needed a break.  Maybe it was just because we really enjoyed each other’s company.  The surprising thing is that celebration didn’t wear us down or hurt our SustainUS advocacy work.  It actually made us more effective.

Going out dancing and drinking beers on the beach was one of the main reasons I felt so connected to everyone on the SustainUS team.  Seeing people let their guard down and let go of the activist policy wonk persona was a really grounding experience.  It was hilarious to see SustainUS members transform and display their party quirks (Hudson's "hefty booty dance" interpretation was particularly amusing).  Partying together reminded us that we’re all just people, we're don't have to expect perfection, and since we’re making most of this up as we go, we should enjoy the ride.

On a more philosophical note, I feel that activists (especially those involved in climate change work) often forget to celebrate the very thing we are trying to save.  We’re involved in this fight because we care about people, and we want to make sure that future generations can enjoy a thriving, just, and sustainable future.  But we (or at least me) rarely take the time to be here, fully in the present moment, and enjoy the beauty of the world that surrounds us.  There is incredible joy to be found in the simplest things: playing card games with friends, going for a walk in the woods, or dancing the night away drunkenly on a beach.  If we took more time to experience the present and celebrate life with others, maybe our worries about the future wouldn’t feel quite so heavy.

I hope you find these five lessons helpful.  They are things I already knew (I think most of us already do know these things), but they are easy to forget.  Rio+20 was a great reminder of these lessons, which I hope to keep follow during my future work in St. Louis and beyond.

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