The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, nicknamed Rio + 20 was celebrated a few weeks ago. Twenty years after the famous “Earth Summit,” is humanity finally ready to take up its commitment to sustainable development, or maybe even just the concept of sustainability?

Two indices point to a fundamental lack of ambition from the international community:

1. The agenda for the three-day conference  “Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” essentially puts the concept entirely on its head.

2. The duration of the Conference itself is extremely short (only 3 days) and the absence of President Obama from the US as well as Angela Merkel from Germany does not bode well.

In 1992, the Rio Earth Summit committed to making sustainable development an all-embracing concept which integrated the 3 pillars of society : economic, social and environmental  (to which cultural and political dimension pillars could also be added). There was even a general consensus on this definition at the time. Then in 2002, in Johannesburg, the emphasis was put on business being involved as well and building state-business and NGO-business partnerships.

Why then, as global urgency grows to ‘do something’, as the interrelationship between environmental, economic, financial, social and cultural crises is more and more obvious to all, yet put again the economy at the very heart and center of this conference? For some, there may be good reason, but for many of us, this does not bode well.

The objectives of the conference itself also come across as very narrow given what is at stake: 3 days, versus two weeks in 1992 and one week in 2012. In fact, so much so, that the newly-elected French president, François Hollande (who is on the whole pretty suspicious of any type of ‘ecological radicalism’ so to speak) is himself, rather worried. However, the investment of time and effort by the many stakeholders in preparing the conference show that expectations are nevertheless running high:

Civil society (which comes across as better prepared than most of the official country states) is already gathered at the “People’s Summit” and will likely attract a lot media attention if the official conference flounders.

– The “elders” (The elders), who were the main activists in 1992, are sounding the alarm and simultaneously attracting the attention of the younger generations. They are really hoping that they can transmit a message of both urgency and hope to the youth of today. We are in “The urgency of the metamorphosis” says Edgar Morin, a leading French philosopher.

We can see this at many levels:  The “Roosevelt 2012” group in France brings together citizens around 15 specific proposals. To boot, younger generations are starting to flock together to make their voices heard – from North Africa, Quebec, to Burma and also South America. Indigenous people espouse another model of “development” confronting the illusory solution of larger power plants, transportation and the destruction of ecosystems from which they derive their livelihoods and well-being. “We are not poor”, says the leader of an indigenous community fighting against mining projects near the Sierra del Condor in Peru.

Moreover, the concept of sustainable development itself already is starting to seem a lot less useful than it once was, as it just doesn’t seem to reflect the urgency of the global situation. The concept of de-growth, however, is counterproductive as it doesn’t define itself as pathway to positive goals, but as  just negative ones. For our economy to be sustainable, certain goods or services must in fact grow, and yes, others must indeed decline.

For members of civil society, the concept of environmental and social transition is gradually emerging as the modus operandi upon which citizens, governments and economic actors can agree on. The term “transition” was originally coined by citizens involved in the Transition Towns movement which started in the UK in 2005. This grassroots movement has now settled in more than one hundred countries around the world. Transition appears to be a very strong concept as it puts economic, social and cultural changes in an active and dynamic perspective.

Contrasting with the constricted vision of “green growth”,  to which the UN’s Secretary General refers, transitioning refers to blending social and political forces to achieve a shared goal. While economic forces are definitely part of the solution, they are not the only or main drivers to a real transition, nor its main goal. Today Transition must  rise to another level, and include, not only territories, but also nation states, the international community, and companies. Rio + 20 offers us the opportunity to re-orient sustainable development towards this evolutionary horizon.


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