Rio’s Success

Asking The Right Questions

One of the articles in We Can Do It! (IC#33)
Originally published in Fall 1992 on page 7
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

Last issue, we promised a wrap-up on the long awaited "Earth Summit" – the UN’s huge Conference on Environment and Development that was held this June in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

We liked this (excerpted) analysis by IC contributing editor Donella (Dana) Meadows. Her weekly column, "The Global Citizen," is one of the most reliable places we know for holistic and humane commentary on world affairs. To get Dana’s column onto your local newspaper’s Op-Ed page, write her directly at PO Box 58, Daniels Road, Plainfield NH, 03781.

Was it all a waste of time, the enormous, contentious Earth Summit? Knowing governments in general, there was no reason to expect the Rio meeting to produce brilliant policymaking or heart-warming international cooperation, and it didn’t. But what governments do is not all that happens. Especially in environmental development matters, the future is primarily in the hands not of governments, but of people who have babies, drive cars, turn lights on and off, buy stuff, generate garbage. On the level of people, the Earth Summit was a success.

Brazilian schoolchildren trooped in thousands through the environmental exhibits. NBC found it necessary to explain on the nightly news what biodiversity means. BBC World Service did special environmental shows for weeks. If the Earth Summit did nothing more than advance the ecological literacy of the world’s reporters, that will pay long-term dividends.

But it did more than that. In addition to the government summit there was a business summit, where corporations promoted new, green technologies. There was a spiritual summit, attended by the Dalai Lama, Shirley MacLaine, rainforest shamans, and earnest meditators who descended upon conference rooms two days in advance to fill them with vibrations of peace and compassion.

The most significant summit, I think, was the peoples’ summit, the one that brought together the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), from the World Wildlife Fund to the Association of African Midwives. Cynics looked down on these gatherings as "sandboxes for environmentalists." But don’t underestimate the personal connections and creativity that can arise in a sandbox.

At the NGO meetings Africans with practical experience in village-level solar energy exchanged ideas with Danes demonstrating hi-tech windmills. Women’s groups found common ground. Indigenous peoples challenged the industrial world’s condescension and pointed out that they know some things about co-existing with nature that everyone might need to understand. Coalitions formed. If you wanted to hear leading-edge ideas and watch them spread around the world, you had to be in the sandbox.

The consciousness of the industrial age gives rise to steel girders and toxic wastes, desktop computers and ozone holes, mahogany furniture and burning rainforests. The new consciousness asks how to have steel, computers, and furniture, how everyone can have them, and how that can happen in a way that does not degrade the material and energy sources from which everything is made and from which all species live.

There are answers to tough questions like that. The answers won’t be found until the questions are asked. The Earth Summit directed the attention of the world’s government, media, business, spiritual, and grassroots leaders to the important questions. That was no small achievement.

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