The Future we Need -- A report from the US/Canada Citizens Summit for Sustainable Development

28 Mar 2012

Among other things, Rio-1992 gave us the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which later spawned the Kyoto Protocol and two decades of mostly frustrating climate change negotiations. Meanwhile, species diversity continues to decline and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and the global average temperatures continue ever upward.

There have been positive changes, of course. The idea of “green economy” did not exist in 1992. Nor was it possible to build a LEED certified green building, such as the one at Yale University where the US/Canada Citizens Summit on Sustainable Development took place over the weekend. The movement back to organic foods, the growth of alternative energy technologies, and an expanding global ecological consciousness, driven in a large part by the internet and social media, could hardly be imagined.

Other changes have influenced the direction we have taken as a species in this short time. There are 1.2 billion more people on the planet today than in 1992. And while urbanization has expanded around the globe, economic growth has pulled 400-500 million people out of poverty. There are 6 billion cellphones in the world; there were hardly at the first Rio conference.
As globalization has continued apace, capital has been concentrated in increasingly fewer corporate hands. Walmart is a more significant economic player than 100 nation states; the Bill Gates Foundation has more resources than the World Health Organization.

Around 150 people from a variety of fields were invited to the two-day session at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Founded in 1701, Yale boasts three presidents (Ford, Clinton and Bush Jr.) among its alumni, as well as hundreds of legislators, judges, academics and others of note.
Yale is in many ways an oasis, seemingly remote from the grittier parts of New Haven that surround it. New Haven has the reputation of having one of the highest crime rates in the country. The real world has inserted itself in the form of an Occupy encampment on the Common, right outside the entrance of one of the university’s oldest halls. At the time of writing, the Occupy New Haven website ( stated that the camp has been in place for 162 days but faces eviction on 28 March.

The contrast between the Occupy camp with its weather-worn tents covered in blue tarpaulins and the pink sandstone facades of Yale beside it speaks to one of the issues that underlies this year’s Rio +20 discussions, which will take place in June. The common definition of sustainability links environmental, economic and social priorities. All three are necessary concomitants for sound policy making. Or put another way, sustainable development is a three-legged stool. All three legs need to be of equal length or the stool will tip over.
The Citizens Summit opening panel of speakers tackled an important question: Why are really no nearer to our goal than we were two decades ago?

Nick Robinson, from Pace University and the former head of the Sierra Club in the U.S., was in Stockholm at the first global environmental conference in 1972 (the one which created the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP). He called this “a reset moment” -- a chance to slow down the unsustainable degradation of the planet.

Much of the opening session was taken up with assessing why we aren’t there yet. The problems since 1992 were summed up by Dan Esty, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency. Esty was Deputy Head of US delegation to the 1992 Earth Summit and pointed out the problem is not lack of political will. Using this argument is a cop out, he said. “Don’t say we didn’t get there because of a lack of political will, tell us why we didn’t have it.”

Esty’s reasons for lack of progress include:

The world is a complex place. “We have overplayed our hand on science.” While a firm analytical basis is necessary, “uncertainty is the foundation of good policy. The disagreements about science are really disagreements about policy choices. Unfortunately, “environmentalists often offer solutions that are insufficient in the view of all those who need to be brought along.” Solutions and choices need to be “economically viable.”
The politics has been “mishandled.” The 1992 Rio Earth Summit was “the high water mark for environmental action” and government, business and civil society were on the same page. Unfortunately, progress has been “hamstrung by special interests that have framed the debate in negative terms.”

The debate needs to be reframed, Esty said. “There has been too much emphasis that good science will motivate action.” This has led to a sense of righteousness on the part of proponents “that is not carrying the agenda.”
As we met, negotiations on the draft text for Rio +20 were continuing and the “Zero Draft” for the summit, now nearly 200 pages, is being discussed in great detail and at great length. Unfocussed and with too many priorities, the document is also uninspiring, we were told.

Luis Alfonso de Alba is a member of the Mexican delegation negotiating the document. He said the lack of ambition in the document could lead to “the lowest common denominator to make it look like we are delivering.” But why settle for that?
“We are at a critical juncture,” de Alba said as he wrestled with his 18-month-old son for ownership of the microphone. “We could have something that makes a difference.” It just requires will.

A common theme.
The conference organizers want this to be a first step in pulling together a movement from Canada and the United States, two countries which for their own reasons and politics have governments that are seen to have failed to live up the commitments made in Rio in 1992. Whether that happens or not, will be up to the participants and the commitments they make.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice a changing of the guard taking place. Those with grey hair were outnumbered by younger people. While the conference began with a questioning of where we have been, what hasn’t worked, and why, it ended on a more upbeat note.
The last word went to Sharon Smith who is completing her Master of Environmental Management at Yale. She is the author of The Young Activist's Guide to Building a Green Movement and Changing the World.

Smith pointed out that young people do not need to make “reasonable” demands for change. They need to make unreasonable demands -- think big, not small. Not breaking windows, but pulling down barriers between people and communities. To have an influence, young people need to “go beyond expectations” and outside their networks, and mobilize and connect in ways that could not be imagined in 1992. That this the way of the future, she said.


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