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March-April 2012

Vol. 37, No. 2


Rio+20: Civilization must ensure sustainability

Rio+20 logoOn February 9, Henry de Cazotte, Special Executive Advisor for the Earth Summit, spoke to the representatives of numerous NGOs at the United Nations regarding preparations for the gathering, to be held in Rio de Janeiro this June. Before speaking, Cazotte, who is French, recognized that for most of the assembled group the main concerns in preparing for the Summit were ethics in the use of planetary resources and social justice. Addressing such a group appeared to inspire Cazotte to speak from the heart as well as from his depth of knowledge. Following are the main points raised in his eloquent remarks.

It is the hope of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that the upcoming Rio+20 Conference will be the most signifcant summit yet. According to the Secretary General, humanity finds itself at a transformative juncture unparalleled in history. It was noteworthy that the Secretary General did not say that humanity finds itself at a crossroads but rather at a transformative juncture. In addition, Cazotte emphasized that, while we remember with pride the high level of achievement at the first Earth Summit in June 1992, also held in Rio, the upcoming conference is not so much for looking back as for looking forward. The agreements to be made in 2012 must be designed to assure the well-being of humanity 20 years into the future, to 2032. This is noteworthy because many serious thinkers are raising doubts about humanity's survival beyond mid-21st century, based on the current rate of resource depletion and increasing population.

Given these considerations, in one short conference lasting only a few days, "what should be the main issues addressed and what goals can be offered to help humanity get its act together"?

The Summit needs to address two interlinked substantive issues. The first is poverty alleviation. The second responds to the question of how not to cross various planetary thresholds? The oceans are depleted, the climate is warming and there is unprecedented migration to the cities. With the projected population increase to nine billion people, it is predicted that global food production will have to increase by 45 percent. There is also a serious problem caused by the fact that the dilemmas facing humanity are global with long term consequences, while the vision of governments is limited to national well-being for the immediate future.

These points would be too daunting to tackle except for the fact that a huge network of civil society is deeply engaged in preparations for the Summit. Ethical considerations are constantly brought forth, particularly by indigenous people whose voices were seldom heard in the past. In Europe, churches have a strong network advocating for planetary values and, in general, there is an expanding sense of human solidarity and concern for intergenerational well-being. Social media has made knowledge and information available and cast people around the world into a space of power unknown before the present.

However, on a different level, it must be asked if our global and multilateral institutions are adjusted to the challenges we face? Clearly, the answer is no; nevertheless, energizing suggestions are floated that indicate change for the better, keeping sustainability and responsibility to the future in focus: Some of these are:

  • Sustainable development, built equitably on environmental, social and economic development, will become the flagship for the United Nations, providing the standard for all measures of progress. This is an important step beyond the present aim of development, which does not account for environmental depletion and is not bound by obligations to sustain and enhance the natural world for the sake of generations to come.
  • The World Bank will completely change its tenor and become the Bank of Sustainable Development.
  • A new metric for measuring well-being beyond the economic measure of GDP will be established. The question of how the global commons, the forests, the water and the air, are used must now be constant.
  • The Trusteeship Council will become the Senate of the Planet.
  • An undersecretary general position for Ombudsperson for Future Generations will be created.
  • The UN Environment Program (UNEP), now a small branch of the UN system headquartered in Nairobi, will become the World Environment Organization. It is noted that there is a push for this by 110 countries.
  • A registry of sustainability commitments that have global significance will be established and monitored by Civil Society.
  • Additionally, speaking of the broad Summit preparation on the part of stakeholders everywhere, one senses a reordering of principles in favor of the common good. Some even say the voice of the planet is being heard.
  • The conversation around a low carbon global economy away from oil grows continuously. (Coal remains a huge problem.)
  • Science is in continual dialogue with development. Silicon Valley is on the fast track for the design of "smart" homes.
  • There is a growing effort universally to eliminate the use of all plastic bags and Styrofoam, as in Los Angeles County.
  • In terms of solidarity, one hears the question - we share the air we breathe, why not the resources?
  • A major battle is being waged against the commodification of the forests.
  • In many places around the globe private money is being used – not linked to profit but to service.
  • How humanity produces and consumes is being looked at. It is planned that the Catskills will provide vegetables for New York City. Lettuce will no longer be flown in from Chile.
  • Sustainable agriculture is a central issue – less water and less fertilizer are called for.

Viewing these trends leads one to assess the current moment as transformative. True, there is much talk of the Green Economy and fear that it is really just another form of capitalism and greed. However, there is also a strong hope that the Green Economy will be the implementer of sustainability, respecting planetary boundaries and using planetary resources for the good of all humanity; that it will signify job creation as well as energy innovation and efficiency. In other words, a new industrial revolution.

Finally, the Summit is expected to produce Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will be for all nations and all people. This is unlike the Millennial Development Goals aimed at underdeveloped nations. The SDGs will probably center on sustainable cities, food security, water, energy, and disaster preparedness.

Hopefully real transformation is underway and the output of the Summit will be responsibly implemented. According to Cazotte, this is possible because every person on the planet with a mobile phone will be a potential monitor of implementation. Civil society, empowered by social media, will be the enforcing agent in the name of the future.

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