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What’s “Rio+20″ and why should we care?

For those of us working in ecological and economic sustainability, Rio+20 is a big deal, and in our circles, just about everyone knows about it. Yet we have to wonder, what proportion of the general public has even heard of Rio+20, much less knows what it is? It’s a big question for a forum like the Daly News, where we’re all about mainstreaming sustainability. When we mention Rio+20, do we quickly lose readers who vaguely assume it’s some international, esoteric event with little relevance to mainstream society?

Rio+20 is short for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. It’s a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, which also was held in Rio de Janiero. The biggest environmental conference of all time, the Earth Summit produced the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Agenda 21. It was a beacon of hope on a planet in peril.

On the other hand, anarchists, nationalist extremists, and paranoid conspiracy theorists (and Sarah Palin, who warrants her own category) rue the Earth Summit because it evoked a certain level of international governance. It threatened the free world with that S word: sustainability.

The Earth Summit was also memorable for President George H. W. Bush snubbing his nose at the Convention on Biological Diversity, despite its signing by 150 countries and the European Union. He did sign the Framework Convention on Climate Change, but only after it lost its teeth by calling for voluntary instead of mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. In general, Bush dampened spirits and hampered diplomatic progress. “The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” he iconically announced, and he pitched that classic 90′s win-win rhetoric: “Economic growth provides the resources for environmental protection, and environmental protection ensures that growth is sustainable.”

I am quick to add that, despite explicitly identifying two prominent Republicans above, the win-win rhetoric was far from a partisan project. The Clintons, for example, were fond of win-winning with, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

And the rest is history: decades lost, for the most part, in win-win one-upsmanship when we could have been preparing smartly for limits to growth and the sustainable alternative, the steady state economy. But that’s enough about history. What does Rio+20 offer in its wake? I think it offers perhaps the single biggest opportunity yet for “steady statesmanship” in international diplomacy.

Signs are abounding that the win-win rhetoric is giving way to common sense and sound science. No clearer sign exists than the CASSE position on economic growth and its growing list of signatories and commenters. One long-time conservation leader who recently signed the CASSE position noted, “I’ve been waiting for you for 40 years.” The time is ripe for steady state economics in academia, non-governmental organizations, and public policy.

But it’s not just we at CASSE and our list of signatories who signify a paradigm shift away from the obsession with economic growth. Why, just today the Huffington Post published an interview with Jeff Rubin about his new book, The End of Growth. The title is less noteworthy than the fact that Rubin was chief economist with CIBC World Markets. It seems like almost every day another well-known economist or ex-Wall Streeter is looking limits to growth square in the eye and not flinching. Rubin sees the end of growth as an opportunity for the planet to recover from the destruction inevitably wrought be growth.

These folks have a lesson for mainstream environmental and conservation organizations who can’t kick the win-win growth habit: Better get out of the way as real conservation leadership is coming from elsewhere. History will show that the big conservation NGOs have done us a major disservice by failing to raise awareness sooner — much sooner — of the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. To the degree they actively propagated the win-win rhetoric, their legacies will suffer.

I’ve digressed slightly from Rio+20, but only for some context. The proceedings of massive, bureaucratic UN conferences are not always unhitched from reality or relevance. What the various statesmen and women, ambassadors and diplomats are cogitating is the same thing we are: How can we all get along in the world when we know that many countries are consuming resources at a rate that is unsustainable and threatening to others on the planet? And yet those same countries continue calling for economic growth? There’s got to be a better way. Let’s hope the better way is achieved through diplomatic means, and not less peaceably.

Several weeks ago I moderated a session of the UN General Council in New York called “Harmony With Nature.” The session was sponsored by the Bolivian government, whose diplomats were completely understanding of limits to growth, and of the alternative policy goal of the steady state economy. My fellow panelists (including Joshua Farley, Herman Daly’s co-author of Ecological Economics) were aligned on the matter, and I daresay we literally brought “steady statesmanship” into the UN lexicon, or at least the proceedings. The tired old win-win rhetoric was debunked, and the feedback was enthusiastic.

This experience mirrored one from the Eastern Economic Association conference a few years ago, but on a much larger scale. The economists at the EEA conference were very unlike the neoclassical economists that pander to politicians with perpetual growth theories. They got it about limits to growth and the need for a steady state economy. So too with the diplomats from countries not so raveled up with Wall Street. The days of the win-win rhetoric are waning; the world at large is moving on, ready for steady statesmanship.

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