Why the message from Rio+20 matters more than ever

kristy Global Citizen, Sustainability News, Advisors' Forum

Why the message from Rio+20 matters more than ever

The upcoming summit must take account of the public’s psychological dimensions if it is going to transform climate change cynics into champions of sustainable living

George Bernard Shaw saw the world as divided into two sorts of people. Those who looked at it and asked “why?”, and those (like himself) who dreamed of things that never were and asked “why not?”

On the road to Earth Summit 3, governments and others need to think very carefully about demographic issues: what people think about sustainable development and how they will react to the outcomes. Just as financial analysts scrutinise decisions by G20 and EU summits and make investment decisions accordingly, the decisions taken, or not taken, by the Rio+20 conference will matter hugely. Moreover, they will be received differently by different sorts of people.

Over the last 20-odd years working on sustainable development, I have identified at least five broad groups of people. (In reading the taxonomy below, try to identify where you and your friends sit.)

The first group might be described as the “clueless”. They are more or less unaware of the major physical and ecosystem changes taking place and, as a result, aren’t able to contribute much to the necessary responses. Poverty is one of the main causal factors, as is poor education. I continue to meet millennials from wealthy OECD countries who have not learned anything about sustainability at school or university. (I doubt whether there are any Guardian readers in this category!)

The second group are the “cynics”. They know about the issue but don’t believe there is a problem. The world is still full of whales and the ozone hole didn’t kill anyone. If sustainability issues were important, governments would regulate. They readily point also to the power of markets to develop new technologies. (“Look how London’s smog was cleaned up!”) In any case, it’s all the fault of the China or India, so what can they do?

The third group are the “curious”. They understand that profound changes are afoot, but often feel disempowered. How can the efforts of a single person or community make any difference in the great scheme of things? They are open to living more sustainability but need help to understand why, how and how much. Without this, they could easily slip into the ranks of the cynics. With it, they could become one of the “champions”.

The champions group comprises people who are convinced that there is a need to act on sustainability issues. They do this in their daily lives in how they shop, work, support causes, speak out on issues, invest and vote. They understand that governments and business need to act, and do their best to send them signals, while living their own values as best they can in the meantime. Many champions feel increasingly frustrated by an economic and political system that continues to build up unsustainable economic and ecological debts, and fails to “join the dots”.

The fifth group might be called the calamitists. This comprises a very different collection of people who have just one thing in common. This is the view that it is now too late to save the world from a major breakdown. Members of this disparate group include scientists knowledgeable about the earth’s 4bn-year history to members of faith groups that believe it was created 6,000 years ago and that an apocalypse is preordained.

In my experience, it also includes a number of senior people in government and business and civil society, including some who will be sitting around the table at Rio.

My point here is not so much to promote a specific taxonomy but rather to recognise that – two decades after the first Earth Summit – there is a need for actions and messaging which take into account the complex psychological and sociological dimensions surrounding sustainability. It will certainly not help implementation of future sustainability policies, much less the solution of many of today’s economic and social problems, if Rio+20 helps swell the ranks of the calamitists and cynics.

So what needs to be done?

The clueless, cynics and curious need to hear that we have very real and urgent problems, that governments are working on them with a sense of renewed vigour and purpose, and that they are an important part of the solution. They need guidance on concrete actions they can take to improve their lot, both in the short and long term. A more catchy vision of the future, embracing the notions that it is smart to be resource efficient and socially just, might be more successful than ‘sustainable development’ in capturing attention to the same agenda.

The champions, for their part, need to hear that their pioneering efforts have helped point to new policies, technologies, financial instruments and lifestyle approaches which now need to be shared more widely. They need to be encouraged to broaden and deepen their efforts, including through more effective use of business and social mechanisms to promote the availability and use of low-carbon and material-efficient products and services, and greater transparency and utility of related consumer and investor information. Governments can’t and won’t do everything.

All groups, including the calamitists, need to hear that the game is far from over and that their constructive ideas and efforts will be essential. The Occupy Wall Street movement is just a small and recent example of a powerful human self-defence instinct, which will increasingly focus attention on how sustainable and just the actions of governments and business are.

The calamitists, in particular, need to understand that the future is not yet written and that their dark vision will not be the basis of policy. While major disruptive change cannot be ruled out, and indeed needs to be planned for in many cases, a new world order is in the making.

While we cannot know what it will look like, its contours – as ever – will be defined by two things: the power of human imagination and the capacity of nature to provide the necessary foundations. Rio+20’s job is to ensure those pillars are safeguarded as far as possible. In this new world, more than ever, we need those who, like Shaw, are prepared to ask “why not?”

Paul Hohnen is an independent consultant and is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House. Paul has been a diplomat, director of Greenpeace International and a director of the Global Reporting Initiative.

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