Change is unavoidable, so we must choose the change we want
Ireland is in bad need for positive news. The weather is disappointing, and our football team has failed to lift the mood of a nation that is reeling from economic crisis as well as a sense of loss of independence and of identity. The financial crisis, which has left thousands of people across the country struggling to make ends meet, is compounded by a profound feeling of national self-doubt, as the “Celtic Tiger” has gone from a supposed model for other European countries to becoming the ultimate symbol of hubris and wastage.
Our Government and President have both been elected on a platform of change, and on the back of a promise to re-invent the Republic. And this is only right: It is very obvious that the way we did things in Ireland no longer provides a useful, or desirable, model for the future.
In many ways, Ireland is an illustration of a wider sense of crisis, that has impacted on the globe. Everywhere we look, there are instances of growing economic, political and environmental crisis that suggest “business as usual” is not working.
Business as Usual is not working
Many parts of the world are dramatically affected by the global economic crisis, and the consequences of governments’ near-total submission to the vagaries of the financial markets. Millions of people worldwide have discovered that “the markets” are not subject to any kind of control, due to the deregulating policies of the last decades, and are more than able to destabilise democratically elected governments anywhere.
Less visible to us in Europe, but equally devastating, are the consequences of the speculation on the price of commodities, which is pushing the price of many resources, including most dramatically food, beyond the reach of millions of people. Small farmers around the world are struggling with the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, and people are feeling powerless in the face of the global forces that impact severely, and negatively, on their lives.
And it is becoming increasingly obvious that “the international community” – our structures of global governance – is not able to deal adequately with the compounded crises. “Politics and business as usual” are failing.
The European Economic and Social Committee recently said that it “is convinced that the current economic, social and environmental crises are closely interlinked and that business as usual is no longer possible.”
In other words, we live in an era where change is unavoidable – It is no longer a choice. We will need to change, or else the combined crises will change us. The choice we have is not whether we want to change, but what kind of change we opt for.
Rio +20 – Choosing the Future We Want
At next week’s UN summit, world leaders will be asked to choose the future for mankind.
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as “Rio+20”, will take place in Rio de Janeiro from 20-22 June, twenty years after the first “Earth Summit” in the same city.
In 1992, the first Earth Summit was a seminal event. It inspired world leaders to recognise that – in a world of finite resources – economic development had to go hand-in-hand with social progress and protecting the environment. The concept of shared responsibility lead to the adoption of the “Polluter Pays” principle, which spawned the UN Convention on Climate Change and its progeny, the Kyoto Protocol. It also inspired 189 Governments to agree to the Millennium Declaration in 2000, which contained a new ‘recipe’ for the global fight against poverty, prompting major investment in international development cooperation.
However, all has not been well since that first summit. Global carbon emissions have continued to rise, global inequality has continued to rise, and millions of people are pushed below the poverty line in a global economy that is fuelled by debt and huge consumption of finite resources such as oil and minerals. Planet Earth is hurting, as humanity is exceeding many of the planetary boundaries.
And we in Ireland are very much part of the problem. If every person on earth lived the high consumption lifestyle of the average Irish person, we would need the resources of 3.5 planets to meet their wants. While much has been made of the growing human population, and the pressure it would put on the planet, the truth is that it is rich countries that put the greatest strain on the Earth’s resources. The wealthiest 20% of people consume 80% of global resources. And NB: this 20% is not just the super-rich, but they’re middle classes In Europe and middle income countries such as Brazil and India.
In response to the insatiable need of the world’s biggest economies, increasingly we are seeing a ‘natural resource grab’ by rich countries, taking control of water, forests, fish minerals and arable land, and impacting directly on the lives and livelihoods of poor communities across the globe.
From both an environmental and a social perspective, therefore, increasingly the problem of global poverty is one of extreme wealth and consumption. In Rio+20, therefore, the agenda is not just focused on problems of poverty and hunger, but also on issues of fair distribution of resources, and models for “sustainable development”.
Can Rio+20 make a difference?
The international community is good at organising meetings and conferences on the environment. According to UN estimates, formal conferences on biodiversity and climate change add up to some 240 days each year. And many of these meetings suffer the same fate as most other international summits: they over-promise and under-deliver.
But there are good examples of how international summits can make a real and tangible difference, for instance in the case of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.
For many years, cheap and non-toxic CFCs were thought of as miracle substances, used in refrigerators, solvents and aerosols. But when, in 1985, they were linked to the rapid depletion of the ozone layer, the international community mobilised and banned their use by 1996. In a relatively short space of time, mankind realised it had to change, and we did.
Rio+20 must become yet another example of concerted action, now that we have come to the point of realisation that “we have a problem.”
But if negotiations to date are anything to judge by, we are on course for a massive failure of the Rio summit. Negotiations are very slow, and the civil servants making up the negotiation teams of the major countries have studiously avoided taking any decisions on the big ticket items.
But this Summit may yet turn out to be different. For at this summit, civil servants and faceless bureaucrats will be scrutinised by millions of people who will not actually be at the Summit itself.
In recent years, we have seen many positive examples of how demands from small grass-roots organisations have been given much greater significance in decision-making processes, because of their smart use of social media. In today’s world, we have a global community of citizens on many, diverse, issues, and we have the ability to mobilise that community. The so-called Arab Spring has shown very clearly the “people power” of disparate groups clubbing together with the aid of Twitter and Facebook. The Rio Summit of 2012 may well become the first global summit where social media set the tone.
For this to happen, a realisation has to set in that we must change, and – more positively – that ‘Sustainable Development’ is not a vague concept, but a real possibility. If – and it is a big if – we as global citizens do not shirk our responsibility, we may yet choose the future we want, rather than the future we are set to inherit.
To quote the 19th century humorist Theodore Hook, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.
One thing is clear: the 50,000 people who will travel to Rio for this summit believe strongly that we can indeed make a difference. It may not come from the official summit. Instead, this time, the real success of the summit may come in the shape of the thousands of people outside the summit, taking part via the Internet and social media.
Rio 1992 prompted us to consider “our common future”. Rio 2012 may well be the place where mankind came together to articulate its vision of what that shared future should look like.