Why global summits matter: Rio+20
by Ana Puhač
When last December TIME magazine featured the “the protester” as the person of the year, I thought how in the future, that publication could be seen as one of the most symbolic images that marked the start of a new global era. The world is in crisis? Isn’t that what every generation before us, facing a transition into a new global paradigm has said: “the world is in crisis”? Generations are born with crises like people are born with birthmarks – some have it, some don’t, some may symbolize something positive, some cause complications. But none have yet turned fatal, and completely eroded this civilization. We’ve learned from the past that there have been justifiable fears of global existential risks because of the warfare, the threat of nuclear mass destruction and epidemic diseases. But never before have we faced such global systematic disrepair because of the way we’ve decided to develop.
Evidently, the world is starting to crumble under the weight of growing social and economic inequality while polluting the environment and hitting the limit of natural resource depletion. The disrepair is irrefutable, but we persist in our failure to see the protests, collapses of economies, and ecocides that are surging up all over the world as part of one common problem.
The 1992 United Nations Human Development Report (HDR) called for “a world summit on human development that should be convened to enlist the support of the world’s political leaders for the objectives of the compact and their commitments to the resource requirements it will entail.” In response, the Earth Summit was created in Rio de Janeiro the same year. That summit has paved the way in forming a trajectory of global discussions on sustainable development.
Still, no such discussion has saved the world from the crisis. In the public eyes, global mega-conferences simply don’t deliver any success and suffer from exaggerated claims.
After so many disappointing conferences, the Rio+20 summit enjoys an excellent advantage over the other global conferences: incredibly low expectations. There is a little bit less than a month left, and the buzzing question in the media that is actually following the Rio process, is: What are the expectations?
What a trap. By asking the wrong questions, the media encourages standard and disappointing responses. This is how the world remains deemed a melting pot of malevolent disparity that yet again fails to attain utopia. The use of the word “expectation” in the question immediately assumes a direct and concrete “outcome” in response. No wonder that we read in the news how Rio+20 is framed as yet another impasse even before it has even happened. No wonder there are no expectations.
If global summits themselves don’t deliver real outcomes, why do they matter at all? They matter because they are the only acknowledgment that the world’s problems are interlinked and that only with collective commitment toward common goals are we all much better off.
The problem with expectations of global conferences such as Rio+20 is that they are not realistic. As Steven Hale writes in the Guardian: “We overestimate the importance of formal outcomes, and underestimate the importance of the progressive coalitions that summits can inspire.”
It is true: there will be no legally binding document coming out of Rio, there will be no serious political commitment, there hasn’t been improvement in the past twenty years, there is no organization around providing sufficient funding, a sinful carbon trade off will be made so that we can fly to the conference, only the privileged ones will be able to be there. What is maybe most striking is that, as I am writing, the majority in the world is barely surviving this day through hunger, war, injustice and disease, let alone expecting some outcome document they have probably never heard about to make everything better.
However, there are some key things we mustn’t forget. First and foremost, these conferences would not exist if there were no demands from civil society. Therefore, the civil society has as much of the responsibility for pushing the outcome as do the politicians and other power-holders have for making it possible. The responsibilities are different, but their magnitude is equal. Second, the engagement of civil society at the local and national level reflects in the discourse on the global level. Domestic politics decide whether and what outcomes from these negotiations will be implemented. Third, we must distribute our efforts wisely and understand that at this level of urgency, the world is more likely to be changed by deeds, and less by opinions or words.
Finally, the last Rio summit in 1992 has proved something to us. We haven’t seen the real change ever since, but it brought the notion of sustainable development into the mainstream. It’s sealed into politicians’ and public’s minds, and the lack of our common commitment just increasingly outlines its significance. The only sober expectation we have to have for the “outcome” of those couple of days is that there will be a strong prod to the world that we have entered a new era, marked by the global crisis that is curable only if we join our collective efforts. Therefore Rio+20 must, and will be, important.
What will happen after and between those big events is the real outcome. We must embrace the fact that those conferences hold high value of political symbolism more than they do immediate political intervention. Still, it is crucial to make that symbolism reflect the needs of people and the planet impeccably. This is why we need to unite, clearly state what we want and compel our political leaders to show genuine commitment.
Rio will be a moment in time. It won’t save the world, but even if we succumb to disaster or overcome the challenge, our descendants will know that we cared.