Note: This piece is published on the nef blog in two parts. They have been combined into one post here on EB.

As the dust settles on Rio+20 what are we to make of it? What key elements of the Sustainable Development debate might have been missing and what signs of hope are there outside the official treaty making world?

 By micmol

A failure of epic proportions?

Commentators are fairly unanimous that the Rio+20 talks have been a failure. Expectations had of course been low. And because of this most developed country leaders stayed away. In opening the summit Ban Ki-Moon admitted the draft outcome was ‘disappointing’ due to the conflicting interests of member states. China’s Sha Zukang, the UN’s lead on the conference agreed calling the statement “an outcome that makes nobody happy”.

NGOs were unanimous in their disgust with the conference outcome statement, The Future We Want and Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo spoke of “the longest suicide note in history…the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development model…a failure of epic proportions.”

So what was missing from the talks and what hope might there be coming from outside official negotiating rooms?

The end of an era of global diplomacy?

There seemed to be some consensus that the era of global treaties might be over, at least for the time-being. George Monbiot concluded his roll call of Rio failures by calling for us to give up on global agreements. Barbara Stocking, head of Oxfam called on civil society to “pick up and move on… take action”. Lasse Gustavasson, WWF’s Executive Director of Conservation agreed there had been a fundamental failure of “sophisticated UN diplomacy.”

UN Environment Programme Director Achim Steiner said the conference was evidence of “a world at a loss what to do” and that “we can’t legislate sustainable development in the current state of international relations.” Of course it is not just on Sustainable Development that global agreement is failing – the same is true of solutions to the financial system and issues such as Syria.

US Delegation Lead Todd Stern seemed to agree that global multi-state solutions no longer hold out much hope. Todd joined others in suggesting that the failures of Copenhagen and now Rio+20 signal the end of the post-Cold War global treaty era.

Both Stern and WWF’s Gustavasson noted that far more commitment and leadership had been shown at Rio+20 by civil society, city mayors and the private sector. Indeed, Stern spoke of the early stages of a new era of new forms of global co-operation linking nations with business and civil society that is now flourishing in the shadow of the hollowing-out of formal processes. Some commentated that there was far more of a meeting of minds between some business and civil society folk in the 3000 odd fringe events at Rio+20 than in the negotiating rooms.

It is perhaps hard to see how such one-off, informal co-operation between the private sector and civil society will replace binding global treaties, but perhaps there is some small reason to be hopeful still? If, for the time being at least, we have to give up hope for action from Governments, then what signs are there that civil society and the private sector might take up some of the slack? 

Reason to be hopeful?

John Vidal has written a slightly more upbeat and optimistic post-conference view than Monbiot. One reason for Vidal’s optimism comes from conversations with legendary campaigner Richard Sandbrook who told Vidal after the first Rio summit that he was not as downbeat as NGOs and commentators at the time. Sandbrook’s view was that it is not at summits that change happens. For Sandbrook change always happens in the aftermath of seemingly disappointing events with new debates and global understandings emerging from the ashes.

I’m an optimist (and recent new father) and perhaps that clouds my judgement, but in the world I often inhabit, of progressive corporate debate, I am noticing a marked change of gear and new conversations seem to be possible.

My friend Craig Bennett of FoE spoke on Radio 4 post-Rio about a similar optimism around thinking at the vanguard of the progressive corporate world. Around five years ago, campaigners like Craig and I noticed a shift in the NGO meetings we held. No longer was it us in one huddle and the CBI and business in the other.  Suddenly there seemed to be more common ground between NGO thinking and that of some of the progressives in business. Over the last few years the most progressive thinkers in the corporate world have become more and more disillusioned with current markets and have realised that most of the low hanging fruit has been picked. For real change to occur they recognise that governments need to fairly radically reframe the markets and that society needs to be engaged in a very new debate about the meaning of ‘progress’.

Today, some in the business world are willing to think what might have been unthinkable things just a few years ago. I’d be the last to suggest that even the most progressive business leaders are willing to sanction debate about things like alternatives to capitalism (yet…). But it’s no longer heresy in some boardrooms to discuss the seemingly fundamental challenges of decoupling growth from ecological collapse or the need to shift from a focus on ‘wants’ to a focus on ‘real needs’. A number of business leaders like Ian Cheshire of Kingfisher, Paul Polman and Amada Sourry of Unilever and Ian Marchant of SSE have all questioned our current economic model and called for significant change.

These, as yet isolated, progressive voices in business point to some reason for hope. The other strong beacon of possibility is the rise and rise of grass-roots, citizen-led responses to our dilemmas such as Transition Towns. It’s no wonder that business is now keen to engage with such community and citizen-led movements as Transition Towns’ Transition Streets and Sustran’s DIY Streets initiatives.  Such initiatives show far more hope of radical change than do global summits and treaties.

The best our political ‘leaders’ seemed able to come up with at Rio+20 was ‘green growth’ and its love-child ‘sustained growth’. How many more moronic oxymorons can they think up one wonders…..? 

Sustainable Development or Sustained Growth?

This call for ‘sustained’ growth is indeed more than just oxymoronic – in the face of all the evidence that we have reached safe limits to global growth sustaining growth forever seems positively barmy. We live on an ever more fragile finite planet, where we are at or beyond safe limits already and where only in the wildest dreams of techno-fantasists can we imagine decoupling of the scale and urgency required. 

So in this year of Rio+20 it is timely to recall Brundtland’s 1987 definition of Sustainable Development as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of needs; andthe idea of limitations imposed on the environment.”

There are two parts to this definition; firstly issues of efficiency of production and planetary limits and secondly issues around ‘human needs’. Sadly most debates about sustainability have focused only on the first of these. Too few are making efforts to better understand this second part of the definition – the true meaning of flourishing, prosperity and meeting human-needs for wellbeing. Without this second lens we are operating as if half-blind. Even the half of the story that Rio+20 did debate, natural limits, was debated half-heartedly and focused through a lens of obsession with sustaining growth. If things didn’t fit the ‘sustaining growth’ model they were off limits.

Questions of where we are trying to get to – what the objective in life might be – have been the subject of thinking for time immemorial.  Aristotle spoke of the concept of ‘lives well lived’ in 350 BC. And yet little or no thought is given to such ideas in our current, hyper-consumerist, lifestyles which take ‘stuff’ as a proxy for progress. Professor Tim Jackson summarises our shift from wellbeing-giving intrinsic values to consumerist extrinsic ones in his recent TED talk; “the ‘insatiability doctrine – we spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people we don’t care about.”

It is perhaps therefore no surprise that Rio+20 has been found failing in its task. Since 1987 we’ve lost our way. We asked Brundtland to come up with a definition for development that could be sustainable and then ignored half the definition. We chose to focus on the ‘other’ half – the bit about the planet and material limits and ignored the somewhat more uncomfortable questions about ourselves and our real needs (as opposed to created wants).

To use the analogy of a journey, it is as if we are fixated on how much fuel is left in our tank, and how efficiently we are driving without, for a moment, thinking about where we are trying to get to and what route to take.

Only at the fringes of the ‘green movement, in places like Transition Towns and nef has much thought gone in to these questions of human-needs and asking the crucial question ‘what do we really need?’

Reframing ‘prosperity’ without growth – the rise of wellbeing economics in political and corporate thinking

Evidence is now emerging to help question the assumption that ‘more is better’ and new research from nef’s Great Transition macro-economic modelling suggests that, if we redesign economics correctly, we do not actually need growth to deliver the kinds of things we expect from a successful economy such as high employment, fiscal balance, high wellbeing and ecological efficiency.

If economies are forced to cease growing and to focus on new measures of progress such as wellbeing then the implications for commerce will of course be significant. As Professor Jackson has said, we urgently need to tease apart what kinds of economic goods actually contribute to the satisfaction of human needs and promote wellbeing, and which simply serve as pseudo-satisfiers or destroyers of the underlying needs.

Whether capitalism can be compatible with a beyond-growth wellbeing economy is as yet unclear. What is called for is a shift away from the commodification of everything and to a market system not based on profit maximisation but the ecological efficiency of the equitable satisfaction of wellbeing-needs. Whether the entities we call ‘companies’ will morph to be compatible with such a paradigm or new enterprises, more like co-operatives, family, employee and community owned enterprise will be the norm in this new paradigm is also not yet clear. But what is clear is that we can’t go on in the same blind fashion we are currently pursuing.

In progressive circles a new economics is emerging that questions the meaning of prosperity and posits that instead of focusing on growing wealth we ought instead to focus on growing wellbeing.  In politics and parts of the business world progressives are tuning in to this reframing of progress to a wellbeing perspective. David Cameron has been brave to continue to push for alternative wellbeing measures of progress and leading progressive corporate leaders are working to integrate a wellbeing perspective into their strategic innovation.

What next? Can the SDGs deliver on wellbeing?

Despite Cameron and Sarkozy having flirted with these issues, little real action has been taken to consider the ‘needs’ half of Brundtland’s definition. For want of any credible response to the challenges of our time from governments it seems that progress rests on the shoulders of civil society and progressives in the commercial world. Perhaps if civil society and the progressive corporate world can continue to examine questions of human needs and help update definitions to progress and prosperity we can hope for future global action which is truer to Brundtland’s definition than Rio+20 managed to be.

As Saamah Abdallah has blogged the SDG process could be the place such progress might be made and you can be sure that Nef will be pushing for just such progress. Although, as Alex Evans has blogged here, its as yet unclear just how the SDGs will be developed, Dave Cameron can play a key role in continuing to push the wellbeing agenda as co-chair of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda.

Cameron has bravely pushed wellbeing over his time in power. But he has said less and less on the subject over time. He ought to recognise that questions of ‘needs’ and wellbeing are now coming centre stage in progressive debates about Sustainable Development and that he would be risking little in injecting such thinking into the SDG process.

Jules Peck is a Nef Trustee and  works with companies and organisations such as the Transition Towns movement on Flourishing Enterprise strategic innovation, Jules is also chair of Edelman’s Sustainability Group, co-author of Citizen Renaissance and was the Director of David Cameron’s Quality of Life Review