Changing the system and accounting for what really matters: the future I want to discuss in Rio

As someone who studied economics full-time during four years, I experienced on many occasions a sense of frustration and even consternation at how most economists seem to be considering economic issues in isolation, with little regard for their intimate relation with politics and the natural environment. This is why, when I read the report of the High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, « Resilient people, resilient planet« , setting the table for the Rio +20 Conference, I felt a real sense of hope and enthusiasm about the vision it conveyed: that it is time to bring the sustainable development paradigm into mainstream economics, and to move beyond GDP by accounting for what really matters, like building caring communities, securing the climate and protecting biodiversity.

Rio +20 will commemorate 20 years of the Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference for Sustainable Development (UNCSD), and mark the 25th anniversary of the Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future”. While this conference is supposed to mark the beginning of a new economic paradigm and to provide an impetus for change, it feels like politicians are on a course to shy away from this opportunity in the midst of an economic crisis too many still think of as in silo (c.f. the zero draft text, which contains few signs of political will to move from green-sounding rhetoric to concrete action).

So we have a chance to put sustainable development at the heart of the global agenda, but this will not happen without a strong, visionary and outspoken civil society. In this context, we at CliMates are eager to take fully part in the effort by raising the voice of youth. This is why, as part of the CliMates blogging team, I am participating to the tck tck tck Rio Blogger Prize. 

The Brundtland Commission first convened before I was even born, and I was seven years old at the time of the Rio Earth Summit. As I was just reaching the age of reason, pioneers such as Gro Harlem Brundtland and Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the Earth Summit (and, interestingly, a Canadian oil entrepreneur committed to the environmental cause), had already made it their purpose to define a global agenda to achieve development in a way that would not hinder my generation’s prospects for a desirable future.

To get a sense of the enthusiasm and positive energy the Earth Summit is said to have been filled with, I watched some videos, including then-12 years old Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s poignant speech (“If you don’t know how to fix it, then please, stop breaking it!”), interviews of its key actors, in particular about the passing of the Brundtland Commission.

Compared to the high expectations the Earth Summit had set, I understand the deep sense of sadness that may arise when considering how little progress has been achieved – and indeed, how much we have gone backwards. Our governments have failed to raise their game to the challenges we face. Worse: the attitude for some of them towards the environment has evolved to become dangerously retrograded and outdated.

Yet, like so many others in my generation, I am not burdened by the fatigue of past failures, and I do remain hopeful. Not only am I hopeful, but I also feel responsible for fixing these problems. Maybe that is the advantage of youth: the ability to look at old problems with a fresh eye and to imagine new solutions.

And in the fight against climate change, any innovative solution is good to take. About these issues, the grown ups do not have the answers, and youth has to get grips with it.

For me, Rio +20 is about changing our attitude and collectively awakening to the fact that while hurting the earth, we are indeed hurting ourselves. Our wasteful and resource-thirsty way of life has now led us to exceed the planetary boundaries by nearly 50%. Climate change and biodiversity erosion are threatening our living environment and making us vulnerable and insecure. Our planet is also becoming very crowded, with 9 billion people projected to live on it by 2050. In this context, we have no choice but to learn how to live all together and to finally realize and start living as if we had a single planet.

Globalization and market liberalization, if they were ever instrumental in achieving sustainability, have reached the limits of the benefits they can achieve for us. Our archaic, outdated institutions must be radically revisited and adapted to a bottom-up world, i.e. conducive to permanent innovation and local experimentations – so that organizations like CliMates have their say in the negotiations. We need to radically redefine them into collaborative, informal and decentralized institutions – and Rio +20 is the opportunity to imagine and lay out how to do so. The time has come for a Constitutional moment in world politics, akin to the Bretton Woods moment.

I hope Rio +20 will also feature a conversation about development patterns, and what is a meaningful way to define « development ». Discussions about development paths and the catching up process for developing countries are pointless without a clear vision of what kind of society we want to live in. Now that developed countries have got to the end of the really important contributions economic growth can make to quality of life, meaningful development should be about achieving a mindful, empathetic and happy society. The discussion should start by the right metrics to guide our decisions towards achieving it.

So maybe the idea put forth by Columbia and Guatemala of setting Sustainable Development Goals, which could follow up on the Millennium Development Goals beyond 2015, can be a good starting point to finally start accounting for what ultimately really matters.

One thing I like about Rio +20 is that everything is on the table, and the point is to discuss it all at once. All options are opening up for change: governance, trade, funding,  technology development, MDGs, etc. Some may see it as messy and disorganized. I think we need much more of this kind of holistic thinking, as reconnecting the big ideas is essential to finding innovative solutions to living within planetary boundaries, tackling climate change and reducing social inequalities.

The failures are very systemic, and more transversal thinking is direly needed. That is to say, to avoid catastrophe, we should get serious about changing the system. And while we’re at it, why not make some room for the youth to pour in its energy, creativity and courage.   

This is a post I am entering into the tck tck tck Rio +20 Blogger Prize.