|Rio+20: Reflecting on the past, understanding the present and gazing to the future |
The first video from the Regeneration project, a video series that aims to create a roadmap for Rio+20 by asking sustainability pioneers to reflect on the last 20 years and look forward to the next
Jo Confino for the Guardian Professional Network
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 1 March 2012 11.06 GMT
The Regeneration Project is a collaborative initiative between SustainAbility and GlobeScan. I am not normally one for remembering song lyrics but some words by Misty in Roots, played at Radio 1 DJ John Peel's funeral, have always stuck in my mind
"When we trod this land, we walk for one reason ... to try to help another man think for himself. The music of our hearts is roots music, music which recalls history, because without the knowledge of your history, you cannot turn in your destiny: the music about the present, because if you are not conscious about the present, you're like a cabbage in this society."
They seemed particularly apt as I started writing about the launch of a collaborative project between SustainAbility and GlobeScan that uses Rio+20 as a milestone from which to look back over the past 25 years of sustainability to learn from the past, understand our present and hopefully impact on our future in a positive way.
The Regeneration project, which seeks to provide a roadmap for achieving sustainable development within the next generation, centres around video interviews with the leading sustainability pioneers who helped frame the original United Nations' Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the Brundtland Report.
As one generation ages, the desire grows to pass on the knowledge, energy, and lessons learnt, in the hope the new team on the block avoids making some of the same mistakes and makes faster progress, which is now critical in the field of sustainable development if we are to avoid the worse ravages of climate change, social upheaval and ecosystem destruction.
The project focuses in particular on ways the private sector can improve sustainability strategy, increase credibility and deliver results at greater speed and scale.
GSB will be showcasing one interview every week in the run up to the Rio +20 conference in June and those taking part include Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motor Company, Israel Klabin, the founder of the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development, Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and chair of the Bruntdland Committee.
While some pioneers recollect the optimism of 1992, there is a deep sense of sadness of how little progress has been made. Maurice Strong, who served as United Nations (UN) Secretary General for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, says: "If governments had done what they agreed to do [at Rio] we would be much closer to an answer than we are now."
Nevertheless, the pioneers point to several reasons to remain hopeful, pointing to bright spots that have emerged in the areas of local government innovation, citizen participation, clean energy and technology development.
Many also look with hope to the conscientious, connected teens, twenty and thirty-somethings who will form future generations of leaders. This cohort has grown up with social entrepreneurs, citizen activists, and social innovators as role models.
What the pioneers are clear about is that incremental change is not enough and there needs to be a fundamental re-appraisal of the current economic system.
Vandana Shiva, philosopher and founder of Navdanya, believes we need to reprioritise and refocus: "For too long, we have been made fools of with the illusions and fictions of Wall Street. We are at a crossroads of multiple crises… the crises of the economy and financial world, of climate change, of peak oil, overall ecological crisis, the water crisis, the biodiversity crisis… it's now a convergent crisis."
Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute characterises our challenge as a race between two tipping points. The first is a political tipping point, the moment in time when humanity decides to take action on these urgent issues. The second is an environmental tipping point: the point beyond which there is little we can do to recover what we have lost.
The pioneers are sober about their expectations of global political leaders. Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), says: "I think the political leadership in most of our countries at the moment is either preoccupied or not able to focus on this challenge or not prepared to focus on it."
Nitin Desai, Deputy Secretary-General of the 1992 Earth Summit, points out that international relations is locked in an old paradign which is for "national governments to protect their national interest… not issue interest."
The financial system is also seen as a major roadblock with Matthew Kiernan, former executive director of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development accusing banks of taking a one-dimensional view of their role. Because their direct environmental impact is minimal, compared to most other industries, too many have felt they could opt out of the discourse. But, Kiernan says, "If you're looking for transformational change, the capital markets, the purveyors of the financial oxygen supply of companies, should be the focus. "
The pioneers say that given the vacuum elsewhere, increasing leadership is being seen from the collaboration between the corporate and NGO sectors.
Jim MacNeill, Secretary General of the Brundtland Commission and lead author of the Brundtland Report, said, "I hate to imagine where we would be if a number of corporate leaders had not bitten the bullet and taken the lead."
But the challenge ahead will be translating the vision of a few leading companies to the majority of business. John Elkington, founder at SustainAbility and Volans explains, "I think it's a big stakes game and many of the C-suite people that I watch closely are finding it very difficult to… build the sense of conviction that this is the future and they've got to play into it. They're still in this period of vacillation."
What is providing some backbone to the business appetite for action is the constant pressure from NGOs. In contrast to government, they can often move quickly, aren't afraid to experiment, and, can mobilise effectively through social media. Kakabadse says: "There is no recipe for sustainable development. [Civil society] is permanently challenging [itself] to try new ways of doing things. And sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don't. But, [we] have the courage to try, to risk, to go for it."
To achieve sustainable development in the next generation, the pioneers say there is a need to reconsider the incentives and penalties in our economic system, which have changed little since the Earth Summit.
The current system does not account for, or measure, the resources that make our economies, our companies, and our lives function. As Shiva says: "Growth only measures commercial transactions. It doesn't measure growth in any real terms. It doesn't measure the growth of our trees, the growth of our soil, the growth of our children, the growth of health in society, the growth of happiness and joy in society."
Twenty-first century businesses will have to be more cognisant of planetary limits, and also be willing to create new models that take into account biodiversity and natural resources.
Elkington says: "One of the fundamental problems I think the C-suite actors in this space currently have is that as more and more of this becomes systemic, not just a single issue, it becomes dramatically more complex in terms of who does what, who's got responsibility, where the risk and opportunities lie, what the role of this particular company might be moving forward."
For more background on sustainable development milestones over the last 25 years, click here.
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