In a few days the international community will be meeting in Rio de Janeiro, to hold the most significant environmental conference since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. As the planet’s ecosystems tremble under the weight of overconsumption, this conference surely provides one of few remaining opportunities for governments to take environmental issues seriously.

Will the world’s leaders dare to think beyond the growth paradigm that lies at the root of our environmental crises? Will they be bold enough to constrain the overconsumption of natural resources or even acknowledge the problem of stagnating oil supplies? Sadly, history provides little grounds for confidence. What is more likely is that the conference will simply warm the climate further through an exchange of hot air disguised as genuine commitment.

The term ‘sustainable development’ became part of our political vocabulary as a result of the United Nation’s publication of Our Common Future in 1987. It is this publication that gave rise to the popular understanding of sustainability as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

This definition was vague enough to produce an international commitment to sustainability in 1987, but it proved to be so vague that in practice it was widely construed to mean ‘business as usual.’ Of course, a definition that can mean anything means nothing at all, and today many people consider ‘sustainable development’ to be a term that does more harm than good, merely providing a veil behind which green-washers thrive.

The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 set out to give more content to the meaning of sustainability, and there were some encouraging advances. For instance, this conference established an international framework for dealing with climate change, which served as the basis for the Kyoto Protocol. But if that framework initially gave people hope, the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009 – in which the world agreed to sweep the elephant of climate change under the rug – justifies something approaching despair. Political rhetoric aside, it seems the world’s addiction to fossil fuels will condemn us to inaction – or, in the case of Australia’s Carbon Tax, to grossly insufficient action – come what may. We can be sure, however, that Mother Earth has a way of settling such issues for those who choose to ignore them.

The Rio Earth Summit also produced a major policy document called ‘Agenda 21,’ in which the world’s leaders found the courage to state the obvious, namely, that ‘the major cause of continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in the industrialized counties.’ On that basis the document maintained that all countries should ‘promote patterns of consumption and production that reduce environmental stress,’ and that ‘developed countries should take the lead in achieving sustainable consumption patterns.’

Despite nothing of the sort occurring, these messages have been consistently reaffirmed on the international stage, although always at the level of rhetoric alone. When the World Summit convened in Johannesburg in 2002, changing consumption and production patterns was identified again as one of the ‘overarching objectives’ for sustainable development. No doubt we can expect more of these hollow commitments at Rio+20.

If nothing else, what these declarations and conferences acknowledge is that fundamental changes to Western-style consumption practices are one of the main preconditions to ecological sustainability. To some extent, ‘simpler lifestyles’ of reduced and restrained consumption must first emerge at the personal and community levels, where people exchange superfluous consumption for more worthwhile but less materialistic pursuits. However, to facilitate that transition, we also need macro-economic policies that respect the ecological limits to growth and which recognise that there is more to life than GDP.

Yet, in the face of Agenda 21, and despite mounting evidence of increasing violence against nature, more growth and higher consumption levels generally remain the unimaginative solutions to all our problems. It seems, then, that we need to be reminded of Einstein’s insight that we cannot solve our problems using the same kinds of thinking that caused them.

Be that as it may, one issue that will be at the forefront of everyone’s mind at Rio+20 is the fact that the global economy is looking increasingly fragile, especially the European economies. This will no doubt privilege short-term economic revival above long-term ecological challenges, but as our environment degrades further, that approach will prove to be something of a false luxury. There can be no healthy economy without a healthy planet.

In fact, even from an economic perspective, consuming ‘natural capital’ on a finite planet is hardly being economically prudent. That makes as much sense as a business selling off its key assets and treating this income as profit – a practice of dodgy accounting that might seem fine on paper until the shareholders are told the assets are all gone.

Put more vividly, today’s global economy resembles a snake eating its own tail. At what point, one might ask, will the snake recognise that it is feeding upon its own life-support system?

Rio+20 presents us with a great opportunity – perhaps one of our last opportunities – to wake up to this tragic reality and begin developing fundamentally new economic systems. After all, if we do not change direction, we are likely to end up where we are going.

These are extremely challenging times, calling for bold and creative solutions to enduring problems. We need to start thinking differently about what constitutes ‘the good life’ and set about building new, highly localised, post-growth economies based on notions of sufficiency rather than excess. We should also see that it is in our own, immediate self-interest to do so. And if our governments remain entrenched in the economics of growth, as they promise to be, there will be no other way forward but to build the new economies ourselves, from the grassroots up, in the manner of Transition Initiatives.

That might be the real lesson of Rio+20.


Dr Samuel Alexander is co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne. He also writes regularly for the Simplicity Collective and is involved with Transition Coburg and the Simpler Way Project.