The world’s political and economic elite are gearing up to make the pilgrimage to the World Economic Forum next week. From warnings and criticisms to tongue-in-cheek guides to crashing parties, the sleepy ski resort of Davos is back for its annual outing in the news. For many, it’s just another “important” event, full of people “chasing successful people who want to be seen chasing other successful people”. So why bother – literally and metaphorically – to make the long trek up?
“It’s better than nothing.” This was the general resigned tone of the remarks heard at the conclusion of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro on June 22nd, 2012. Others echoed a bleaker outlook, proclaiming that the past twenty years of large UN conferences had merely resulted in the pointless exercise of talking the talk without walking the walk ad infinitum. The result from the countless preparatory meeting sessions and tedious negotiations is Resolution 66/288 – The Future We Want. All UN member states adopted the resolution document which serves, amongst other things, as the foundation for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
When I walked into pavilion 1 at the Riocentro on my first day at Rio+20, I passed a large white exhibitions space which was labelled ” The Future We Want.” I glanced at the big blue word clouds and five large TV screens — “What future do we actually want?,” I asked myself. The cynic in me felt there was no need to answer that question because even if we could agree that the future must be a more sustainable, prosperous one for all, politicians from all over the world, partially with completely different backgrounds, capabilities and ideals, representing conflicting needs and interests, won’t be able to agree upon a shared, long-term vision for the future anyway. My optimistic side countered that in the last 100 years alone humanity has overcome two world wars, ended apartheid in South Africa, escaped total nuclear destruction and developed the internet, among other things. Anything’s possible, if you work hard on it, I thought. Little did I know that just hours later I would be revisiting some of these questions about the “The Future We Want” in a conversation with the exhibition’s co-creators, Jonathan Arnold and Bill Becker. At a panel on “Sustainable Lifestyles 2050,” Bill was a panelist and spoke about the importance of a strong intergenerational relationship to help the young members of society implement their ideas for a sustainable future.
I spent two weeks tracking Rio+20 as a student reporter seeking to make sense of the sustainable development talks, listening to ministers, CEOs and scientists who opened up trail-blazing perspectives on changing economic and societal paradigms.
Most media judged it as meaningless, mainly due to its lack of political commitment, but to only focus on this would be wrong. As important was the momentum and narratives it created, which are seeding ideas among the younger generation that may actually change the way they will lead society and the economy in years to come. Rio+20 was a great platform for networking, conversations and knowledge exchange, bringing together experts from all over world to discuss specific topics such as climate change mitigation, social inclusion and ethical finance. The major ongoing impact from the conference will probably come from the world of business. There appears to have been a shift of thinking among corporates towards inclusive growth.
After two weeks of Rio+20, I have met many people who feel very uncertain about our environmental future. They throw their hands up in the air and ask: Why aren’t environmental issues getting the traction they deserve? In fact, I was one of them during the “Four Days of Dialogue.” When the panel for “Sustainable Energy for All” solicited questions from the floor, I stood and asked, “What took you so long? And what will you do, to ensure that it won’t take us so long again? Because if we don’t know what is preventing us from acting now, how will we be able to act faster in the future?” Five hundred fellow members of civil society heard me and applauded.
Located in the main conference venue for the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the “Tree of Rio+20 Visions” wall displays a collective art initiative organized by WeCanada. Conference attendees were invited to add their own vision throughout the three-day event for “the future we want.” You can see the tree in the slideshow below.
I’ll be honest. I was one of those that didn’t have high expectations for Rio+20. If trying to agree with your partner can sometimes be challenging and requires good negotiation skills and patience, I can’t even imagine which kind of super-powers decision-makers and negotiators would need to reach a satisfactory outcome. How can people from all over the world, with completely different backgrounds and capabilities, needs and interests, ideals and understanding of reality agree upon something that might go against their countries’ short-term development and interests? I don’t think there are too many brave leaders that would be willing to sacrifice their political lives for long-term development and progress, whatever that really means.
When Severn Cullis-Suzuki stepped on stage at the plenary session of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, she knew this was her one opportunity to speak to the world’s most influential decision-makers. Just twelve years old at the time, she seized her once-in-a-lifetime chance to tell every politician, businessman and journalist at the UN: “You are what you do, not what you say… I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words.”
The complexity of the Rio+20 Conference is overwhelming. Just to give you an impression, some interesting figures:
Every morning when waking up, our outlook welcomes us with approximately 40 new Rio+20 announcements and event invitations. The entire Rio+20 conference will cover 500 on-side events and again as many off-side events. Selecting the events to attend takes 1 day of preparation. 50.000 people are expected to attend the Rio+20 conference.
Excited to Wake Up! The wonderful thing about a first day is the inherent enthusiasm and curiosity you feel when you wake up in the morning. You know that something good will come from it, but what? Excitement! In this spirit, Anna, Sunserae, Nikolaj, Johannes, Ilke, Laura, Maciej and I woke up at 6.30am on June 15th, ready for our first day as student reporters at the 3rd Preparatory Committee Meeting of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
As my fellow reporter Nikolaj Fisher described in his recent post 10+10+10+10 = Rio+20 – a short history, over the last two decades we have seen the world enter a realm of conversations, all aimed at bringing us the future we want. This of course was a large accomplishment – the world was so very different twenty years ago. Regardless of the world’s political complications, we have seen a rise of monumental events begin to bring about a new movement and way of thinking, creating a paradigm shift. In 1992 we saw the UN Conference on Environment and Development. In this conference, AGENDA 21, seen as the blueprint for a sustainable planet, was brought to light.
This post is in reflection of the Youth Blast – Conference of youth for Rio+20. The Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY) gathers together these days in Rio at the Youth Blast – Conference of youth for Rio+20. The fact that they are a major group should help to give them a voice in the Rio+20 process. While the conference is not as strictly organized as official UN meetings, it provides some space for more creative approaches in order to influence the Earth Summit in Rio. Please find a short creative collection of what is in the mind of youth: