In May 2012 Rio De Janeiro hosts a major UN conference, that marks the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit. In 1992 the Rio Earth Summit was the largest ever held, and helped spread around the globe the idea of ‘sustainable development’ as a common goal integrating environmental protection and poverty reduction. It also saw the UN and its member states calling on business and civil society to join in meeting the challenge, thereby encouraging more corporate responsibility and integrated approaches from nongovernmental organisations. Having discovered “sustainable development” in 1988 on the back of the Brundtland report, and just about to start a Geography degree at Cambridge Uni, I followed the Rio Earth Summit and was hopeful that it marked the beginning of a major change. I responded to the call, by working on and developing partnerships between businesses and NGOs in the following years. By 1995 I was helping develop market demand for wood certified under the Forest Stewardship Council system, and by 1996 developed an organisational concept for the Marine Stewardship Council, for WWF. In 1997 I then co-wrote a book about these novel ways of implementing the call from Rio.
Since then the field of innovation on responsible enteprise and finance for sustainable developed has grown and grown, and with that my workload, as an activist, analyst, and advisor. The FSC and MSC are now both massive organisations influencing the sustainability of forests and fisheries worldwide.
However, twenty years on, the statistics on environment and development are not particularly encouraging; consider the rising rates of deforestation, carbon emission, malnutrition and forced migration. Why? Partly because the focus on sustainable development was sidelined by a primary focus on trade liberalisation in the 1990s, on geopolitics and security in the 2000s, and because of an over-riding focus on increasing economic growth rates throughout. One reason for the lack of focus in 1992 on economic root causes of social and environmental problems was the exuberance and hopes after the end of the Cold War: discussing flaws of capitalism was seen as unhelpful and not hopeful. One reason for the focus on what non state actors can do, and thus not government, was the dominant influence of Western nations, who were embracing a laissez faire approach to state governance at that time.
Twenty years later the lack of major global progress towards sustainable development, towards true integration of environmental and developmental priorities, should make us question this lack of attention to economic systems and government roles.
In the last twenty years we have seen non state actors experiment in many new ways to advance the sustainable development agenda, with partnerships and voluntary standards emerging to promote responsible enterprise and finance. Its been exciting and exhausting. However, despite our enthusiasm, these experiments have also reached some limits of what they can achieve in promoting wider change. Leaders in business and civil society are therefore calling for government to become involved to help mainstream the innovations in sustainable development governance. If Rio 1992 was about governments calling non state actors to act, Rio 2012 may be about non state actors calling on governments to act in support of their innovations.
It is a call that may be heard, because today there are non Western nations with more recent experience of strong government leadership that have greater influence in the intergovernmental arena. In addition, twenty years on we should be able to show more maturity in exploring how systemic flaws in a our economic systems could be changed to reduce pressures for poor social or environmental outcomes.
A debate is beginning to be had in both business and civil society circles about the type of economic system we need for a more fair and sustainable world. Although often rudimentary, and often misunderstanding what capitalism is, these debates show there is growing willingness to tackle issues at the depth and scale that matches their signficance to our planet and our humanity. If it was practical not to discuss capitalism in 1992, given the shortcomings of our progress towards global sustainable development since then, it would not be practical to avoid discussing it today. Consequently we will see an agenda for innovating collaborative economic governance for sustainable development emerge over the coming years. Rio 2012 could be a useful moment in helping to globalise that conversation. However, if it becomes a huge draw on our time and attention without getting to the root causes of our enduring social and environmental problems, it could be worse than useless.
For those of us who have worked hard heeding the original call of Rio, we would do well now to organise to influence people’s awareness of what we have learned through success and failure over the twenty years.
With that in mind, I have begun reflecting on those lessons, and on how they could be communicated and learned in ways that could influence the agendas of organisations that can implement change. Because, we must not lose sight of how such summits are not in themselves implementing mechanisms.. connections have to be made from the insights and hopes of such summits to the real institutions of national and international governance.
Therefore, here are some initial ideas on what we could do:
- clarify the lessons from the last 20 years and the accuracy of the narrative I have just described above
- communicate these insights and narrative to global civil society through networks such as the stakeholder forum for the Rio 2012 summit, and get buy in
-communicate these insights and narrative to business networks active on sustainable development, such as the WBCSD, which was born by the last Earth Summit, and the World Economic Forum, which subsequently saw the light and embraced the goal.. and get their buy in
- begin deliberations and research and a devise a plan of technical assistance for a collaborative economic goverance agenda that would seek to mainstream the last 20 years of innovations in sustainable development practice and sustainable development governance
-communicate these insights, narrative and the technical advice about how to implement a collaborative economic governance agenda to mainstream sustainable development innovations, to the various parts of the UN system that are involved in Rio 2012
- engage the Brazilian government, NGO and business communities on this agenda, as given Brazil’s emergence they will play a far greater role in shaping the agenda, messaging and outcomes of the summit than in 1992
- create powerful communications products, such as TV documentaries, popular books, and celebrity campaigns and concerts that sing from this hymn sheet, rather than a dumbed down and expedient narrative, as we have seen at past summits
- remind everyone that the impact of this summit will be in the way it influences other institutions such as WTO, IMF, WB, UNCTAD, UNDP, ECOSOC and so on, and that unless the connections are made to these agents of economic governance, the summit will be a global mirage of hope in a desert of statis and despair
If you agree, and can actually do something about them, please get in touch. Given my existing commitments to other work, my only plans for engaging in this process are some work Im doing for UNCTAD. However, I will find time to discuss other ideas if you have plans to act.