Rio+20: understanding the present in the light of the future


12 June 2012
By Mikhail Gorbachev

Founding President, Green Cross International

They say if you want make God laugh share your plans. I planned to come to Rio+20, but my 81st birthday has had unwelcome toll on my plans.

2012 will inevitably be a year of reflection. Those of us who are concerned for the future of our Earth and its inhabitants must do all we can to ensure it is also a year of action, and one that marks the end of a period of apathy and shortsightedness.

Overcoming such lack of vision was what brought us to Rio 20 years ago for the first Earth Summit on Environment and Development. But that event’s tangible results, and those of the many subsequent conferences here and around the world since, have fallen far short of what is needed to steer our world onto a sustainable path.

Looking back to 1992, when I switched the focus of my activities from national politics to international development and the environment, the situation was very different. During and just after the Rio Earth Summit, there was an overwhelming air of enthusiasm and hope for the future. It was a time of optimism and, in retrospect, innocence, as everyone celebrated the end of the Cold War.

Then, incredible social and political changes that were deemed impossible just a few years earlier were, in fact, implemented. This was no accident. In order to unleash these energies on both sides we had to overcome the strong opposition of the existent power structures that blocked the way ahead. But the changes resonated the hopes of the time and leaders had the courage to respond to the call. The Berlin Wall was brought down in the belief that future generations could solve challenges together.

Today, 20 years later we are instead surrounded by cynicism and, for many, despair. This is hardly surprising at a time of an economic crisis exacerbated by increased pressure on natural resources, spreading of poverty, diminishing human security, continuing violent conflicts, and environmental degradation. I feel bitter when I look at the cavernous gulf between rich and poor, the irresponsibility that caused the global financial crisis, the weak and divided responses to climate change, and the failure to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The opportunity to build a safer, fairer and more united world has been largely squandered.

The world was already faltering to reach the eight overarching Millennium Development Goals by 2015. These targets now look even more distant. Take infant mortality, one of the most compelling causes: the World Bank now estimates that an additional 200,000 to 400,000 babies will die this year because of the fall in economic growth.

With just 3 years to go, the goals set at that Millennium Summit in 2000 are little more than pious wishes for hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, particularly in Africa.

The promises of increased development assistance, fair trade, improved market access and an easing of the debt burden of developing countries are not being kept.

And even when one of the goals – on access to safe water – is claimed to have been met, the celebrations and backslapping fail to hide a stark reality for those 800 million people who today still have no such access.

Everything bears the stamp “too little too late”.

I can’t qualify this failure as being anything other than one of leadership and vision.

Yet it is clear to me that the efforts of politicians alone will not be enough to respond to the challenges that we face. What we need is the interaction of politics, business and civil society.

The world finds itself at an important inflection point. The choice is between a perfect storm of progressively deepening set of crises or expanding perspectives of unprecedented opportunities.

The economic, environmental, political and, most important, moral crisis we face has shown that the currently dominant model of economic growth is unsustainable. This model engenders crises, social injustice and the danger of environmental catastrophe.

There is a clear need for a rapid transition to a different model.

We need to rethink the goals of economic development. Consumption must not remain the only or the principal driver of growth. Growth should be seen as a tool of societal development. The economy needs to be reoriented to goals that include public goods such as a sustainable environment, people’s health in the broadest sense of the word, education, culture and social cohesion, including absence of glaring gaps between the rich and the poor.

But in the face of every great challenge there is always a choice. The future is not predetermined. It depends on what we do today.

The choice we have to make is a collective one. Everyone – politicians, business leaders, activists – has a role to play. The question is whether we want to ensure a safe, sustainable future for everybody or keep being held hostage by the current mix of political and economic interests and motivations.

I hope that clever terms that are in vogue ahead of Rio, like “green economy”, “green jobs” and “green growth”, are not going to serve as little more than “green band-aids” for plastering over the festering sores sickening our planet – and its inhabitants – today.

For if the “green economy” concept does not enable real environmental sustainability, equitable development and reduced consumption of resources and products, then it is a flawed concept that merely paints bad economic practices green.

How can we ensure that economy becomes “green” and not just “painted green”?

The Rio+20 conference must produce a coherent and verifiable plan for transformative action to put the world on the path to sustainable development.

The outcome must reflect the need to re-invent measures of progress that must be transparent, inclusive, environmentally sound and socially fair, and recognize the need to incorporate the value of natural and social capital into an economic model that will make markets operate in a fair and transparent manner and deliver the goods and services required for a sustainable society.
The leaders who will assemble in Rio must use this platform to announce specific sustainable development initiatives, challenges and commitments that befit part of the global inter-governmental framework to promote an effective means of sustainable development.

The document should provide specific solution-based paths commensurate with the declared ambitions of the Summit. For example, the document could envisage cutting military funding and proposing such proceeds be invested in meeting the MDGs and other initiatives that promote sustainable development, particularly in the developing world. It should prioritise and the fast phasing out of subsidies for socially and environmentally destructive practices.

An ambitious and action-oriented Rio+20 outcome document must be politically-binding and recognize the imminent threat of exceeding our planet’s natural limits.

The good news is the sustainable development issue is back on the global political agenda. We must not let this chance pass. Rio has been a place where people have been coming for years to do just this. Bold initiatives have been forged in Brazil, like Agenda 21 and the Earth Charter (as a footnote, I must criticize the apparent “dropping” of reference to the Earth Charter from the current draft of the Rio+20 outcome document. I hope this is rectified.) Green Cross International, that was born 20 years ago in Rio and which I am proud to be part of, will contribute to Rio+20 with a number of meaningful and interesting events, that you are very welcome to join.

I do hope that Rio+20 will avoid replicating the fate of many initiatives, with aspirations fading soon after the ribbon was cut and cameras stopped rolling. We do not have the luxury of waiting 20 more years for Rio+40. Society is evolving. Understanding the present in the light of the past, we see only the problems, resulting in gloom. But understanding the present in the light of the future compels us to evolve and see the opportunities it points to.

Only thus can Rio+20 be able to, in the words of the Green Cross slogan, “Give Our Planet a Chance, give Humanity a Future!”



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