By Donella Meadows
–June 18, 1992–
Was it all a waste of time, the enormous, contentious Earth Summit? One member of the German delegation summed it up, “Whether Rio was a disappointment depends on what one expected.” Most of the participants I’ve talked to expected little. Therefore they were pleasantly surprised.
Knowing George Bush and the people to whom he listens, no one expected leadership from the United States, and of course none was forthcoming. The unexpected result was that the Europeans and Japanese stopped capitulating to American stubbornness. “Europe did everything it could to keep from embarrassing Bush, but his administration’s incompetence made that completely impossible,” one delegate told me. So the rest of the industrialized world will go ahead of the United States on the path toward sustainable development, at least until we elect a real environmental president.
Knowing governments in general, there was no reason to expect the Rio meeting to produce brilliant policymaking or heartwarming international cooperation, and it didn’t. But what governments do is not all that happens. Especially in environment/development matters, the future is primarily in the hands not of governments, but of people who have babies, drive cars, turn lights on and off, buy stuff, generate garbage. On the level of people, the Earth Summit was a success.
Brazilian schoolchildren trooped in thousands through the environmental exhibits. NBC found it necessary to explain on the nightly news what biodiversity means. BBC World Service, the one broadcast you can hear just about everywhere on the planet, did special environmental shows for weeks. One British reporter who normally covers business affairs told me that in preparation for Rio he finally got around to reading the environmental books piled up on his desk. He found himself shocked at the extent of the problems and excited by the notion of sustainable development.
If the Earth Summit did nothing more than advance the ecological literacy of the world’s reporters, that will pay long-term dividends in the accuracy and frequency of environmental information. But it did more than that. In addition to the government summit there was a business summit, where corporations promoted new, green technologies. There was a spiritual summit, attended by the Dalai Lama, Shirley McLaine, rainforest shamans, and earnest meditators who descended upon conference rooms two days in advance to fill them with vibrations of peace and compassion.
The most significant summit, I think, was the peoples’ summit, the one that brought together the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), from the World Wildlife Fund to the Association of African Midwives. The preparations for this summit, like the others, went on for two years. Cynics looked down on these gatherings as “sandboxes for environmentalists.” But don’t underestimate the personal connections and creativity that can arise in a sandbox.
At the NGO meetings Africans with practical experience in village-level solar energy exchanged ideas with Danes demonstrating hi-tech windmills. Women’s groups found common ground. Indigenous peoples challenged the industrial world’s condescension and pointed out that they know some things about co-existing with nature that everyone might need to understand. Coalitions formed. The NGO delegates took on with gusto all the topics the governments feared to touch — population, mindless consumption, economic justice, energy efficiency, stopping nuclear power, limiting carbon dioxide emissions. If you wanted to hear leading-edge ideas and watch them spread around the world, you had to be in the sandbox.
U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who had to spend his time at the government summit, summarized it accurately: “The current level of commitment is not comparable to the size and gravity of the problems.” Maurice Strong, the amazing diplomat who organized both the Rio meeting and the one in Stockholm 20 years ago, was exhausted by the last day at Rio and made one of the most negative comments of his upbeat career. “We don’t have another 20 years now. I believe we are on the road to tragedy.”
I agree with them both, but I also recall a remark that Czechoslovakia’s writer-philosopher-president Vaclav Havel made when he addressed the U.S. Congress a few years ago. He said, “Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around as the Marxists claim.” I wonder if the assembled legislators had any idea what he was talking about.
Consciousness precedes being. Treaties, institutions, governments, technologies, economies arise out of the human mind, in response to problems humans perceive, based upon human understanding of how the world works. The consciousness of the industrial age gives rise to steel girders and toxic wastes, desktop computers and ozone holes, mahogany furniture and burning rainforests. The new consciousness asks how to have steel, computers, and furniture, how EVERYONE can have them, and how that can happen in a way that does not degrade the material and energy sources from which everything is made and from which all species live.
There are answers to tough questions like that. The answers won’t be found until the questions are asked. The questions won’t be asked out of a consciousness that is uninformed, or fearful, or resistant to new ways of thinking, or focused only on power and privilege. The Earth Summit raised consciousness. It directed the attention of the world’s government, media, business, spiritual, and grassroots leaders to the important questions. That was no small achievement.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992