After every failed UN conference there are the typical five stages of loss and grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, lastly, acceptance. This last one comes accompanied by good hope for next event. Hope George Monbiot described as, “The rope from which we all hang.” And so, NGOs and media and governments go out and try to figure out what was the progress achieved, if any, and establish the general belief that any progress is less than no progress at all. The points chosen to focus on as positive outcomes at Rio+20 were mainly two: the commitments made by individual countries and the expression of desire to set a group of Sustainable Development Goals.
Even this felt tired this afternoon, when six representatives from NGOs and one from the corporate community offered a press conference with the usual criticism, positive comments, and mandatory pointing to “the road ahead” and “next steps.”
Above the usual, I enjoyed one remark by Greenpeace director Kumi Naidoo regarding the first of the two: “We did not need a big global UN conference to announce projects.” Indeed, I had thought at first that the individual commitments by governments were a positive announcement and I still think those are great, but generating a massive event like this to announce internal actions that seem to have been premeditated before even setting a foot in Rio and which could have been delivered on a national level makes no sense.
Oxfam’s Stephen Hale qualified the lack of action as an “abdication of responsibility” and qualified the summit as a failure, but highlighted “three rays of hope,” one of them being the initial steps towards setting Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millenium Development Goals from 2015 on. “It was a painful birth, but it gives us a vision of the possibility of creating an ambitious set of goals which truly unify the environmental and social agenda,” he said.
Sounds good in theory, but just read the wording of paragraph 246 of The Future We Want document: “We further recognize the importance and utility of a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs).” It is the intention to have an intention in the future, and what follows are conditioning after conditioning lines.
A journalist said what was probably in everyone’s mind: “There is no evidence that we’ll ever get any kind of work or agreement in this process. So I wonder, Why do you keep coming?” There was a long speech about the importance of civil society in being involved and a dubious remark from Hale: “There’s absolutely no evidence that the reverse is true.” It’s unclear what ‘the reverse’ would be, but I think some evidence against that remark is the fact that 20 years after adopting a document we are discussing and adopting another document which everybody thinks is a step back from the first.
Outside, in the open patio, activist David Suzuki, his daughter Severn and a member from a tribe from the Amazon were giving a more passionate statement. “We invent things like capitalism, the economy, a market, and boy we fall down and worship it. But we invented it, it’s not some force of nature. And if it’s not working, that we can change. But we can’t change nature,” Suzuki said. A few minutes later, when asked about the process, he replied: “I don’t see anything coming out of this.”
The national commitments and the promise of a set of goals are good achievements, just not enough to justify all of this. I have now seen piles of paper on tables and about a hundred ‘delegates’ line up to get a bag with some goods inside and too many idle people walking around with eyes lost. We talk about energy efficiency all the time, but what about political and diplomatic efficiency?
Something that was not present in this conference was design. Not design as a set of pretty chairs, but design thinking. We keep talking about how much we need to redesign products that have become obsolete with time, but we don’t question whether it might be time not cancel this process, not to forget about it, but to re-think how to make it work. Until then, it's the same cycle looping continuously.