Monday, February 20, 2012

Rio + 20 & the UN’s 56 recommendations: Collective failure of humanity.

           Twenty years after the initial Rio summit, which rightly proclaimed the need for global sustainability, the world will be meeting again to assess the progress made in the past 20 years, as well as to recommend a way forward from our current position.

            For this occasion, the UN has prepared a report, which details the successes and failures of the past 20 years.  It also contains a set of 56 recommendations, meant to achieve sustainability.

            After reading through the report, I have to say that I could not help but shake my head in disbelief.  I will deal with some of the details of the report in a moment, but first I want to sum up what the UN is recommending as a formula for success.  It is the same approach we already used to achieve 20 years of failure.  I should also add that some of the approaches are even less likely to have an effect today, given the economic realities we face, namely the increased pressure faced by governments to give in to increasingly obscene demands made by private enterprise in order to hold on to their investments, and that includes concessions on environmental and human rights protection.

            Of the 56 recommendations made, not one of them contains a mechanism meant to deal with the economic advantage that is automatically to be gained by non-collaboration with these recommended policy changes.  All of the recommendations rely on goodwill and self sacrifice for success.  It is no surprise therefore that one of the 56 recommendations is a call to promote education about sustainability awareness (recommendation 13).  There is also a recommendation to enhance the ability of the consumer to choose between products that we made in a more or less sustainable fashion (recommendation 11).  There are recommendations for governments to do a wide range of things, including promoting technological innovation, advance human rights, and promote carbon trading.  All of it is stuff that has already been recommended.  The one thing that seems to escape the panel’s considerations is that it is precisely the nations which made some effort to adopt these recommendations in the aftermath of the initial Rio summit, which are currently on the brink of economic collapse, while the nations which shunned these ideas, like China, are set to become the new masters of the world.  Keeping this in mind, do they really expect these ideas to take hold, or should we recognize that they are in retreat, and come up with a more realistic approach?

            There is of course also the renewed recommendation of reaching voluntary global consensus on action on most of our sustainability related issues.  There is no reason to believe that this can be done, because the same things that prevented consensus in the past 20 years are the things that stand in the way currently.  The main stumbling block is the fact that sustainability is a public good, and like any public goods, they can only be built through a form of coercive enforcement of participation, no different than government taxation to build sidewalks, or other public infrastructure.  This all leads me to question whether any of the members of the panel responsible for preparing these recommendations, even have a basic understanding of basic economic theory.

            Then again, perhaps it is not the knowledge that is lacking, but the inability to go beyond individual ideological conviction, which prevents people from reaching appropriate conclusions, and therefore offer viable solutions.  The fact that after 20 years of failure, following the original Rio summit, we are presented with the same recommendations is a testament to the power of ideology to cause collective intellectual stagnation.  We most certainly cannot be any more stagnated than we are currently, and the consequences are already being felt.  The intensity of the pain experienced due to our failure to promote a sustainable economic path, will intensify in time

            Many will remember 2012 for many different reasons.  For myself, I have to say that in the absence of a great apocalyptic disaster, which so many prophesized to be upon us this year, I will remember a different kind of calamity.  I will remember this year as the one in which collective human failure has condemned us and many generations hereafter, to a bleak future. That precise moment of failure will happen when the Rio+20 conference will be completed, with many pledges of goodwill declared from across the planet, while the consequences will take a while to become clear.  Few realize this, but the main aspects of our future will not be determined by our endless, left & right arguments over national policies of taxation, spending, and regulations.  It will be decided when this summit fails to implement a global mechanism for sustainability.  The effects of the above mentioned left & right squabble, that everyone seems to be so heavily invested in emotionally, will be secondary in comparison regardless of the political outcome.

It is a future that we already see unfolding before us.  Failure to promote true sustainability has led to the economic difficulties we experience today, and have been experiencing since 2007 already, and yet few people talk about it in the event’s appropriate context.  Record high energy prices, as well as spikes in food prices, caused by shortages, have been a part of our global reality for about five years now, but listening to our elites, one would think that it is all part of just some temporary technical glitches in the global financial market’s performance.  Facts which are publically available, such as the IEA’s admission in 2010, that conventional crude production has reached a plateau since 2006 already, and it will remain on a plateau at best in the near to midterm future, are never contemplated in the mainstream media.

We needed to have a mechanism in place to promote global resource efficiency within the economy, at least a decade before this event.  Five years after conventional crude plateaued, we still lack such a mechanism, which is reflected in the fact that even as the economic recovery or better said non recovery is taking hold; we have near record petroleum prices.  I explained the effect of the event of the peak in conventional oil production that happened half a decade ago, in a previous article.
 It seems to have shaved more than 1% out of the world’s potential capacity to expand GDP.   In the years and decades to come, the oil situation will get worse, as conventional petroleum will move from the current plateau in production, to an eventual permanent decline.  The much hyped unconventional sources will not be enough to fill the void.  Other resources, will reach their maximum yields, and some even start declining, ranging from minerals, to ocean based protein harvests.  Each one of these resource constraints will negatively impact our ability to expand the global economy, which in turn will intensify the ferocity with which systemic risks will hit us, until we reach a global breaking point.  In the absence of an agreement to implement a global mechanism to promote sustainability this year at the Rio summit, similar to the one I proposed in my book, this will be our future, because with every year that passes, it becomes harder to change course, because most of us will be too busy dealing with the immediate symptoms of our unsustainable path.    

As the conference will close, no one will notice any immediate significant changes, so few will remember the significance of failure at this summit.  We will move on to the next stories and issues, which will seem more important, because they will appear to be more immediate.  The effects of failure to promote true sustainability will take the shape of symptoms, which we will in most cases fail to identify correctly to the source, and thus we will deal with these symptoms, which will progressively become more severe, in the years and decades ahead, without realizing the importance of having in place a mechanism to promote global sustainability, and thus prevent the intensification of the symptoms.  Even when our global economic system will be on its death bed, we will fail to recognize the disease, so unfortunately, we will become witnesses to the beginning of the worst human disaster on record, because unlike other failed societies from our past, this one, for the very first time, is a global society.

            The summit will take place in June, and I intend to write an article related to this subject every month leading up to the event, in order to do my small part in trying to raise awareness of the need for success, as well as explain what should be considered real success.  I hold no illusions of making a great deal of difference on my own. The best I can hope for is to reach a few people, and thus help reshape the argument into a direction that is more relevant to our needs.  The last article centered on this particular summit, I will write in July as a follow-up and sum-up of the results.  I hope those of you, who decide to read them, as well as my other weekly articles and perhaps even my book; will find the material to be informative and perhaps even persuasive enough to change your view, not only about the need for sustainability, but also on how this can be achieved.


  1. Man, I read all these and there is one thing that is coming in my mind: Aren't we pathetic? We destroy everything around and, at the end, we will destroy ourselves! What about the next generations? No conscience, no regrets? The almighty ME and NOW! If 20 year ago the leaders got together trying to do something about all these issues, now, 20 years later, we are worst than then! If 20 years ago we were wondering if it isn't already too late, now I start to believe that already is, especially in the present socio-economical international context...Sad, sad, sad...!

  2. The truth is that we can't trust the government to do anything about this because they have their own interest that they prefer to protect. So it comes down to us, you and me and the government just going to have to follow. If teachers choose to include in their teachings ways kids can help and each of us that believe and see the problem teach others around us this could become the new Christianity. We under estimate the power of the WORD. We just need somebody to "write the book" I know comparing Christianity to what needs to happen in our society may not be the same but just think about it. The power the people had when Christianity spread around the world was stronger then any government.

    1. It is a valid argument, and do not get me wrong, I have nothing against individual goodwill pitching in to help out. Reality is however that it cannot solve our problems. In fact, the effect individual goodwill has had so far in promoting sustainability has been negligible, even though this has been what we have based our hopes on for a few decades now. Furthermore, people tend to be fooled into thinking that same mentality of awareness that currently exists within the western world can be transplanted to other cultures. That is simply not the case, just as it is not so with the claim of US hawks that they can invade other countries and introduce western style democracy and values in respect to basic human rights as they claimed not long ago that they would. I know many people have come to believe in the idealistic ideology of people power. Idealism is easy to buy into, and hard to leave behind. I'm afraid, if we do not wake up soon and realize that it is not enough, we will be left extremely disapointed, and we will regret not having woken up sooner to reality.

    2. The human being is a follower, and what it needs is on the paper solutions in plain easy language to understand and grasp the concept of what kind of trouble we are in, and how to fix it. Yes I do think US is the rotten apple in all this but look on how they did it. They used the power of television to create a society that does not recognize the real issues, Does not know how to think for itself, our brains are submerse under so much crap that we do not have the power to think of what they are doing to us. We just accept the fact that this is how thinks are and that is good enough to most of us. Our self worth has to improve Until then we are just robots following the things we are being programmed with.

    3. Before you decide to pronounce such harsh jugement on the US, or western society, I invite you to take a second look around the world. As nasty, immoral, greedy and mindless our society may seem to some, truth is that as our reign over the world is comming to an end, there is every indication that what is comming is far worse. Besides, our society is not all bad. We are probably the most environmentaly conscious society on this planet, even though and perhaps because we realized the huge individual footprint we leave behind. Bottom line, there are now many more individuals around the world, whose footprints are getting just as big, yet there is very little in terms of a realization of the need for sustainability. They see that it is now rightfully their turn. As such, whatever we do and achieve indiviually is beccoming less and less relevant. I urge you to read my book, for a slightly different perspective, not just because I am trying to sell books. It is a perspective which is less ideological, and more based on facts. It may offend some on the right, and some on the left, but that is simply because ideology sells a set of ideas as a package, which everyone should be logical and open minded enough to realize that regardless wheteher it is left or right, since it is a bundle, it will contain some rotten ideas.
      PS: As prommised in the article, I intend to write a piece on this subject every month, and next monday, I intend to publish an article on the negative economic effects of unilateral eforts by governments on sustainability, based on evidence from the last decade. It is meant as an explanation of why we should expect to rely less and less on voluntary goodwill, since the populus seems to be less willing to pay the price. I know you may not agree with it, but I recomend you read it, perhaps as a healthy chalenge to your own ideas and expectations from humanity.

  3. If we agree to “think globally”, it becomes evident that riveting attention on GROWTH could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the communities in which we live cannot continue as it has until now. Each village's resources are being dissipated, each town's environment degraded and every city's fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened. To proclaim something like, 'the meat of any community plan for the future is, of course, growth' fails to acknowledge that many villages, towns and cities are already ‘built out’, and also ‘filled in’ with people. If the quality of life we enjoy now is to be maintained for the children, then limits on economic and population growth will have to be set. By so doing, we choose to “act locally" and sustainably.

    More economic and population growth are no longer sustainable in many too many places on the surface of Earth because biological constraints and physical limitations are immutably imposed upon ever increasing human consumption, production and population activities of people in many communities where most of us reside. Inasmuch as the Earth is finite with frangible environs, there comes a point at which GROWTH is unsustainable. There is much work to done locally. But that effort cannot reasonably begin without sensibly limiting economic and population growth.

    To quote another source, “We face a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing the town’s business…..” That is a true statement. But the necessary “break with the old ways” of continuous economic and population growth is not what is occurring. There is a call for a break with the old ways, but the required changes in behavior are not what is being proposed as we plan for the future. What is being proposed and continues to occur is more of the same, old business-as-usual overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, the very activities that appear to be growing unsustainably. More business-as-usual could soon become patently unsustainable, both locally and globally. A finite planet with the size, composition and environs of the Earth and a community with the boundaries, limited resources and wondrous climate of villages, towns and cities where we live may not be able to sustain much longer the economic and population growth that is occurring on our watch. Perhaps necessary changes away from UNSUSTAINABLE GROWTH and toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.

    Think globally while there is still time and act locally before it is too late for human action to make any difference in the clear and presently dangerous course of unfolding human-induced ecological events, both in our planetary home and in our villages, towns and cities.

  4. Thank you for your comment. I agree that we cannot continue to grow infinitely. The problem I have with the current consensus of convincing local communities to adopt a no economic expansion policy, is that these communities will become weaker and victimized by the ones who do not choose to take that path. Many people recognize this on a conscious or subconscious level, and that is the reason why the current environmental movement and its ideals are being rejected.
    I'm afraid if the environmental movement fails to wake up to reality, it will in the end do more harm than good to the cause. I suggest you read the rest of the Rio + 20 articles, as well as my book, for it explains in more detail the benefits of my proposal, which in my view should among other things adress the population growth problem, as well as overconsumption on an individual level. Very importantly, I feel I have adressed the problem of sustainability as a public good. Just as within a town, you do not ask people to contribute to public infrastructure projects voluntarily, we should also not ask people to voluntarily sacrifice their well being for the greater good.