In a few days, I will be in Rio de Janeiro along with 50,000 other people. Why? For Rio +20, the popular name for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which is taking place from 20-22 June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After the Earth Summit in 1992, some countries adopted an agenda, called Agenda 21, to bring together different stakeholders to one platform in order to rethink our priorities and values towards sustainability and social equity. Twenty years later, the world recognizes the urgency of refocusing on these issues and is returning to Rio to develop a new agenda.
As someone who has eagerly waited to attend this conference, I have high hopes for Rio+20. My hope is mostly anchored in the belief that civil society and citizen sector organizations will bring the issues of social equity and sustainability to the forefront. Critics of the conference see it as another stamped blueprint-generating conference with no or little implementation and delivery impact. However, what distinguishes Rio +20 for me is not the fact that it is the largest UN conference in history, nor that immense amounts of time and money have been put into making the agenda very clear, but rather that the dialogues will lead indirectly to the emergence of a new narrative advocating a change in our priorities.
Be it the conference’s focus on a green economy, poverty eradication, or the institutional framework for sustainable development, at the heart of it is one thing – the need for a new way of thinking, and acting on issues of social equity. The most significant value-added of Rio +20 is that it provides a platform for citizen sector organizations to promote and deliver the rapid transition to an economy that maximizes human wellbeing. Rio +20 catalyzes the ‘global transition’ (originally coined by the new economics foundation) to a new economy centered on the values, priorities, and actions necessary for a sustainable future.
At the heart of the conference and the dialogues will be the most critical question: What about economic growth? Can we grow sustainably and equitably? My take on this is that economic growth was a means to the end of human wellbeing. By focusing on economic growth, we have transformed our means to our end. What is the long forgotten purpose of economic growth? Oh right, prosperity. Now the concept of prosperity without growth is a myth. Tim Jackson calls out the myth in his book, Prosperity Without Growth, where he makes the case for putting a stop to myopic ever-growing demand for economic growth. It is time to reverse this goal displacement and address making sustaining human wellbeing and natural communities the sole priority of economic activity. This transition will require the rise of a new consciousness, as Gus Speth calls it, which will refocus us on the worthwhile goal of ‘human wellbeing’. My hope for Rio +20, is the rise of this new consciousness, not necessarily from the Rio dialogues themselves but more from citizen engagement in the dialogues and the side-events happening in Rio this summer.
Sana Rafiq is i2i’s Marketing and Social Media Summer Assosiate, pursuing a B.A. in Economics and Political Science at Carleton College, MN. Her passions include new economics and sustainable development. She is an avid reader and loves discussions on philosophy, the number zero, and complexity.