What can we expect from Rio+20?

We should engage in a global dialogue to envision the future we want – and devise an adaptive strategy to get us there.

For the environment to be saved, we must acknowledge our dependence on nature [REUTERS]

Portland, OR – The future of the planet is on the table as policymakers and environmental advocates gear up for the next major UN conference in Rio de Janeiro, on the 20th anniversary of the 1992 “Earth Summit” in mid-June. Expectations for the Rio+20 meeting are understandably low, given the recent history of climate change meetings in Copenhagen and Durban. The reasons for this failure are also clear: while a “global deal” to reduce global carbon emissions will clearly benefit everyone in the long run, such an agreement appears to fly in the face of countries’ (especially developing countries) short-term economic growth goals.

At the same time, Rio+20 may be the most critical and potentially most influential meeting of its kind ever. What would have to happen for this to occur? In a nutshell, our view of the world will have to change. Our fundamental goals will have to change from an unsustainable emphasis on economic growth to a much broader vision of human well-being that acknowledges our dependence on nature and on each other. Can this happen?

The world has changed dramatically. We no longer live in a world relatively empty of humans and their artefacts. We now live in the “anthropocene” era, a full world where humans are dramatically altering our ecological life-support system. Our traditional economic concepts and models, on the other hand, were developed in a relatively empty world.

If we are to create sustainable prosperity, if we seek “improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”, we are going to need a new vision of the economy and its relationship with the rest of the world that is better adapted to the new conditions we face. 

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We are going to need an economics that respects planetary boundaries and that recognises the dependence of human well-being on social relations and fairness, and that recognises that the ultimate goal is real, sustainable human well-being – not merely growth of material consumption. This new economics recognises that the economy is embedded in a society and culture that are thmselves embedded in an ecological life-support system, and that the economy cannot grow forever on our finite planet.

Why should we expect this sweeping change in worldview now? These ideas have been around for a long time and yet the growth paradigm has continued unabated. What is new is the timing and the situation. The time has come when we must make a transition. We have no choice. Our present path is clearly unsustainable.

As Paul Raskin, the founding director of the Tellus Institute, has said: “Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is business as usual that is the utopian fantasy; forging a new vision is the pragmatic necessity.” But we do have a choice about how to make the transition and what the new state of the world will be. We can engage in a global dialogue to envision “the future we want”, the theme of Rio+20, and then devise an adaptive strategy to get us there – or we can allow the current system to collapse and rebuild from a much worse starting point.

Rio+20 could be the turning point. Cultures and societies can change rapidly. In fact, when they do change dramatically it is often at a “tipping point” where forces and trends that have been accumulating over time combine with a triggering event to cause a major shift. Remember, for example, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The ongoing financial crisis, the climate crisis, the crisis of well-being and happiness and the Occupy movement, all represent accumulating trends. The Rio+20 meeting could be the trigger to get off the growth bandwagon and start down the path to a more positive vision of the world we all want – a world that is ecologically sustainable, socially fair and economically prosperous. A world where human well-being is the primary goal, recognising that human well-being depends on the well-being of all of us and the rest of nature.

Rio+20 could be the trigger. Or it may not. We may have to wait for deeper crises, for a more severe collapse. I hope not. While it is not wise to raise expectations too high, it is also not wise to give up hope. Let us hope for the best.

Robert Costanza is professor of sustainability and the director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) at Portland State University in Oregon.