Rio +20: Point of No Return?

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (aka Rio+20) is concluded in Rio de Janeiro amidst commentary that ranged from utter despair to very tempered hope. Those who see an existential threat to the survival of the planet and mankind describe the hard won consensus agreements that emerged as pathetically limp. Earth and mankind are at a point of no return when the accelerating pace of climate change becomes irreversible. Point of no return conveys the idea well: it's when an exploratory airplane no longer has enough fuel to return home. The chronic optimists among us see hope in the fact that something did emerge, and indeed that, 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit, the meeting took place. And we hope and wish for coalitions of citizens from around the world with a determination to act.

The Rio meeting was huge. Over 45,000 participated, with delegations from 188 countries plus three observers. Over a hundred heads of state and government participated (with Barack Obama among the absentees). Over 4000 journalists covered the events. The official reports claim $513 billion in commitments and real progress towards a greener, sustainable economy. There were hundreds of commitments to action by companies, NGOs, universities and individuals.

An important story is the large and growing role of religious organizations and leaders among the 45,000. They came from many parts of the world and different faith traditions. Their common message is that the challenges of climate change and care of God's creation represent an urgent moral imperative. Action is critical. The allies include leading global religious and spiritual figures.

The religious voices are not unanimous. Family planning, for example, was an elephant in the room: ignored or deliberately kicked out of the discussion because it still evokes strong reactions mostly from the odd coalition of religious bodies that since 1984 are termed the "unholy alliance": the official Catholic Church, some Muslim voices, and some from the evangelical community. Every suggestion that growing population was a problem that demanded action was contested. Rio provided evidence that family planning is a conversation that needs to be reengaged in religious circles because there is plenty of support as well as opposition.

I participated in a March meeting in the Hague, called "Wings for Rio," that illustrates well the passions and concerns around climate change that brings very different religions leaders together. "Wings for Rio" sought compelling messages that would, like a bird, take wing for the conference. The event was grounded in the 20 year Earth Charter, and driven by Rabbi Arwaham Soetendorp. He was joined by leaders following spiritual traditions, Christian leaders, businessmen determined to restore spirit to the world of commerce, and a diverse group of political allies. Its conclusions took the form of a declaration whose signatories include the Dalai Lama. Its flavor is captured in its concluding phrases:

This is a solemn moment of global decision making. The Rio + 20 Conference provides a historic opportunity to lead the world into a more sustainable future. We do not have another 20 years to lose. To move forward in our best interests and even more in the interests of those yet to be born, we must fundamentally change the concepts that underlie our negotiation practices and realize that only together can we forge inclusive solutions. Humble in the consciousness that the consequences of our decisions and actions will be felt by many generations to come, we turn to the Source of All Blessings for strength and courage. May our children, and our children's children take pride in our actions.

The Hague meeting was a provocative blend of pragmatic talk about green energy and reducing waste and calls to spiritual reflection. We struggled with central challenge: how, morally and still more practically, can we balance the imperative of working to end poverty with recognition that unregulated economic growth can destroy the planet. Moderation is the watchword.

Three interesting voices gave the Hague meeting a distinctive flavor. First, several leaders from indigenous traditions spoke forcefully to the deep respect for nature and awareness of mankind's dependence on the earth that are a thread that binds many traditional religious beliefs and practices. There's plenty to learn from them. The meeting included Bhutan's Minister of Labor who touted the principles and quantitative measures that Bhutan has elaborated as the way ahead for their commitment to a framework of Gross National Happiness (in contrast to Gross National Product). Their hope is that Bhutan's humane and spiritual paradigm will compel leaders in Rio to rethink notions of progress centered on consumption and greed. And 96-year-old Brahma Kumari leader Dadi Janki emphasized repeatedly the wise observation that the place where change must start is within each one of us.

Did these messages resonate in Rio? Probably not in any truly significant way. But they are prophetic in the sense of combining vision with poetry and underlining the ethical arguments that surely everyone must hear. My bet is that the resonance of these spiritual and moral insights will grow as we move forward and that spiritual arguments will compel action at least as powerfully as the convictions of science.

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