Jun 19 2012

The U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development—A Tale of Two Narratives

The U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development here in Rio de Janeiro is occurring on the 20th anniversary of the famous 1992 Earth Summit, also in Rio de Janeiro.  At the Earth Summit, heads of state did not just say that sustainable development is a good idea.  They also, and more importantly, pledged to make it happen in their own countries.  One of those heads of state was U.S. President George H.W. Bush.


Twenty years later, a great many heads of state (or, for the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), will gather to focus on two particular implementation issues—greening the economy to achieve sustainability and eradicate poverty, and creating institutions for sustainability.  But the conference is also intended to reinvigorate the amazing energy that existed at the Earth Summit 20 years ago, when I took a week off from my job at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources and attended as an observer.  While the formal conference runs from June 20-22, a variety of side events and meetings related to the conference have already been going on more than a week.


Two stories or narratives about the conference are developing—both quite different, and each containing a good bit of truth.


On one hand, a great many nongovernmental organizations, corporations, local, state, provincial, and national governments are sharing what they have achieved in the past two decades, and what they hope to achieve.  They have taken actions to move toward sustainability for a variety of reasons—to satisfy customers and investors, to improve quality of life, to save money, and to protect the future for their grandchildren.  They see that making their environmental, social, and economic goals work together (the essence of sustainability) provides more benefits than business as usual.


A new book about sustainability in the United States—Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability—recounts a great many such stories of sustainability in the United States—in local, state, and even national governance; at colleges and universities; and among corporations.  (I am the principal author of that book; see http://www.actingasiftomorrowmatters.com/.)


Here I have heard similar stories from around the world.  The head of Quebec’s government spoke the other night about Plan Nord, a sustainable development plan for the northern two-thirds of the province that will protect from development an area the size of France and provide for sustainable development of the rest.  The plan protects the First Nations (or native) people of Quebec as well as an enormous part of the province’s boreal forest (which is an important area for storing carbon dioxide).  Kenya and Mexico have adopted laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.


On the other hand, there is considerable skepticism here about the formal outcome of the conference.  The official document—entitled “The Future We Want,” is better than many feared, but not as good as many had hoped.  The difficulty in finding common ground among all of the world’s diverse nations feeds a narrative that nothing much has happened here.  That is an easy narrative, of course, in a time when there is already considerable skepticism about government.


However one feels about the official outcome, the important work of sustainability will continue—by the private sector, individual governments, and nongovernmental organizations all over the world.  


–John Dernbach, Distinguished Professor of Law, Co-Director, Environmental Law Center

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