Rio+20’s pathetic fallacy
World leaders play out epic political leadership tragedy on global stage
In political terms, being at the Rio+20 Earth Summit is like watching a car crash in slow motion. The drivers (politicians) don’t know where they’re going and most of the time they don’t even have their eyes on the road.
Each of the 100-odd political leaders takes to the stage for five minutes of hand-wringing, but they’re not even listening to each other. The heads of state show up in the main plenary hall just long enough to mug for the TV sets at home and then disappear back into the cavernous halls of the RioCentro conference centre. It’s like watching children lining up for a turn on a bouncy castle.
Ever since the summit began, Rio’s weather has been rainy and muggy. It’s like Nature’s been mimicking the emotions of the event – no grand tempest or flood as yet, but close and sticky and slightly oppressive.
Famous faces from all walks of life are milling about, entering stage left, uttering a few bon mots, exiting stage right. It’s surreal and fleeting and occasionally absurd. There’s Richard Branson from Virgin, declaring War on Carbon. Here’s Jim Balsillie from Blackberry, saying that more work needs to be done. There’s South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, talking with slow gravitas about … hmm, not sure. Prime Ministers are everywhere, sprinkled across the five pavilions, the hundreds of side events, the food court.
With all the VIP action, you’d think that Rio+20 would be an orgy of planetary love. A competition for commitments and declarations to save our sickly Earth.
And to be fair there is a lot of love, actually – from the armies of attendees who work day in, day out in the environmental and sustainable development fields. And from the thought leaders who have worked tirelessly during the 20 years since the first Rio Summit trying to make ‘sustainable development’ a reality – people like Muhammad Yunus, who set up the micro-credit lending Grameen Bank, and Norway’s Gro Harlem Brundtland whose leadership led to the landmark 1987 ‘Our Common Future’ report, and Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of Bhutan, who is championing Gross National Happiness as an alternative to narrower measures of progress like Gross National Product. And UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who seems to be trying to roll the heads of state into action.
But the disconnect arises with the main core of political leaders themselves. Barack Obama and Angela Merkel and David Cameron haven’t even bothered to show up. Too clever to get caught out as eco-fools, presumably.
Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, a key advisor to the UN Secretary General from Columbia University, put it down to our inadequate governance systems and short-term election cycles giving elected leaders few incentives or rewards to think big and long term for the sake of future generations. The present generation has failed, he said, and now it’s up to young people and those still unborn to put things right.
Meantime, morning is breaking in Rio and the daily parade of helicopters shuttling our dear leaders west from the hotels on Copacabana and Ipanema beaches to RioCentro will soon begin. But today, the final day of the summit, the pathetic fallacy of Rio+20 – that the world’s political leaders will rescue us from a growing global ecological catastrophe – is being exposed for all the world to see. And as if on queue, in the last hour the gentle rain of the past couple of days has turned torrential and thunder and lightning are lighting up the Rio sky.
With global environmental political leadership at an all time low, it’s time for a new dawn of renewed ecological leadership. With the field opened up at Rio+20, it’s going to be interesting as NGO’s, corporations, public officials and assorted glitterati compete for the elusive higher ground.
By Karl Hansen
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