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Finding real economic leadership in the wake of Rio+20

Twenty years after the seminal “Earth Summit” on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil once again has hosted a “fate-of-the-earth” meeting (Rio+20) focused on the themes of a green economy and institutional change. In the aftermath of the 1992 meeting, too many nations, including the United States in particular, failed to reverse the downward trend in planetary ecosystem health. Today, with a global population of 7 billion consuming resources beyond the ability of the earth to replenish itself, we’d better hope there’s a better attempt at the transition to a sustainable economy after this meeting.

Change must begin with the structure of the economy because a nation’s economic policy is also its social and environmental policy. National economies all over the world are failing — failing to provide economic stability, failing to secure resources for future generations, failing to protect ecosystems and non-human species, and failing to achieve social justice.

In anticipation of the Rio+20 summit, Foundation Earth published a report called “The Economic Rethink: Who Does It Well?.” It challenges leaders to adopt big changes and gives them examples to follow from a variety of nations. In preparing the report, Randy Hayes, founder of the Rainforest Action Network, and I reviewed over a dozen scorecards that grade nations on their performance — some focus on corruption, others on empowerment of women, still others on environmental protection.

In our 16-category analysis, Brazil, the host of the Rio+20 meeting, receives a failing grade, missing the boat in 13 categories of action toward a sustainable economy. Brazil’s political leadership is intending to make the nation a global powerhouse in agricultural exports, an intention that would mean sacrificing the world’s greatest tropical rainforest, the Amazon, to accommodate industrial plantations for food and biofuel exports.

But the report goes beyond the question of accountability for Brazil. It highlights significant positive steps that some nations are taking to shift to a new economy. In most of the 16 categories, at least a few nations are taking leadership roles. The twin goals of an environmentally restored earth and a socially just civilization are not part of a utopian fantasy: people have adopted inspiring policies and taken forward-looking actions in real places around the globe. The challenge is to make sure that the following examples become the rule rather than the exception:

  • Bhutan is leading the way in development of new indicators of progress. The “gross national happiness” measures deeper values that cannot be captured by GDP.
  • The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with deforested Haiti, is demonstrating leadership forest restoration. Since 2003, forest cover in the Dominican Republic has increased from 32% to almost 40%.
  • In the energy sector, several leaders are stepping forward. Sweden, Costa Rica, and British Columbia (Canada) have instituted carbon taxes to include the ecological cost of energy use in its price. And Germany has blazed a clean energy trail with outstanding results in solar and wind power.
  • Cuba is an innovator in organic community agriculture. Havana grows 50% of its fresh produce within the city limits.
  • In a world awash with financial scandals and offshore tax havens, New Zealand has become the “least corrupt nation” because of its effective legal framework, fiscal transparency, and accountability.
  • Bolivia and Ecuador have put a rights-of-nature provision in their legal codes as have several cities and towns in the United States.
  • Iceland, number one on the Global Gender Gap rankings, is a nation of empowered women. Women in the Land of Fire and Ice hold the majority of jobs in university education and have nearly equal representation in parliament.
  • In contrast to Brazil’s determination to fill the Amazon with massive dams, the United States has led the world in one category: restoration and protection of rivers. Over 1,000 dams have now been removed in the U.S. to restore fisheries and water quality. Furthermore, more than 250 rivers have been safeguarded in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
  • In the Netherlands, “repair cafes” are beginning to address the problem of over-consumption. Such cafes encourage reuse of broken and weathered possessions, providing free repair services.

These examples of leadership are well worth celebrating, but many challenges remain along the path to a sustainable economy. The biggest challenge is that no nation adequately addresses carrying capacity, planetary limits to growth, or sustainable economic scale. All nations must overcome this challenge to ensure a healthy planet and flourishing civilization for future generations.

It remains to be seen what progress will flow out of the Rio+20 meeting, but examples of real leadership in “The Economic Rethink” offer hope that we can dispose of the “disposable economy.” There’s no longer room for an economy that treats the earth like it’s the site of a liquidation sale.

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