Skeptical, critical, or despairing observers of the recent Rio+20 mega-sustainability-marathon are overlooking some surprisingly good news. No, Rio did not deliver a fantastic new international agreement to transform global civilization. What it *did* produce was a solid, global-scale reflection of the current state of the global sustainability movement - and the conclusion is, global transformation is already well under way.
This positive interpretation is a far cry from what one hears coming from most activist voices. But I am prepared to defend this claim on the merits of the much-criticized "outcome document" alone, though I also have powerful anecdotal evidence from friends who went to Rio. (I did not; it collided with Swedish midsummer.)
Activist voices were highly critical of Rio+20. Greenpeace leaders spoke of "war," documents were symbolically burned, etc. But as Denmark's charismatic Environment Minister Ida Auken put it recently, "NGOs need to get out of the disappointment business." (She said that during a planned interruption of my recent keynote speech to European policy makers on sustainable development, a group that really needed a lift post-Rio. For more on that speech and conference, see www.sd-network.eu)
Let's just look at the Green Economy. Mostly, one hears that the world's nations could not agree on what a Green Economy was -- some want more "Green," some want more "Economy" -- and that they battered their way to a watered-down text about it.
In my view, the text on Green Economy in the Rio+20 outcome text, called "The Future We Want" ("TFWW"), is an example of successful global negotiation. Green Economy retained a prominent role in TFWW. And better yet, it is clearly (though still only partially) defined by the global community for the first time. TFWW includes a statement of fifteen very specific principles intended to guide Green Economy policy making. If you look at previous international documentation around Green Economy -- running to hundreds of pages of contradictions and contestations by dozens of actors -- this specificity in TFWW represents an amazing breakthrough in international diplomacy.
Of course, I personally wish those principles included reference to the biophysical limits of Planet Earth, such as the use of fresh water, addressing climate change, or the preservation of biodiversity. They don't. But they do include (Paragraph 58, principle "o") the idea that Green Economy -- while also meeting legal, social, and poverty-reduction critieria -- should "promote sustainable consumption and production patterns." As long as you actually know that the word "sustainable" must include these things, you'll know what to do to create a real Green Economy.
Other positive elements of Rio+20's TFWW outcome include the first-ever global public endorsement, by the national governments of planet Earth, of concepts like Life-Cycle Assessment, Sustainable Design, corporate social responsibility and sustainability reporting, and the adoption of a new plan for promoting sustainable consumption and production over the next ten years. That's an amazing list ... and it's a partial one.
Just compare that specificity to the abstractions of Rio+0 in 1992, or Jo-berg in 2002, and what you'll see is global recognition that we are in the midst of a global transformation. Sustainable development has finally become the new normal.
(Yes, I know, "water" does not show up until paragraph 109, and soft calls for "significantly improv[ing] the implementation of integrated water resources management" do not excite deep feeling. But water's all over the place in TFWW, both directly, and indirectly: there can be no Green Economy without sustainable management of water resources, for example.)
So, watchers of Rio, don't despair. I was delighted to see some of my more optimistic NGO, research, business, and consultancy friends -- I am not alone in this -- come back from Rio on a high (certainly compared to my government friends). Sure, the mood near the UN process was sour, they say. But elsewhere, they saw evidence of dynamic engagement, people taking initiative and embracing responsibility, a great outpouring of innovation. "I really feel that a global transformation is under way," said a German friend who heads a major center on these issues.
If I stop listening to the disappointment brokers, and just read the actual Rio+20 text with an historic, 20-year perspective, and think about how far we've come, and listen to the reports from my friends who talked with so many other friends about all the wonderful things that are actually happening in this world ... then I feel it, too.
-- Alan AtKisson is a consultant and writer working in sustainability since 1988. He is CEO of AtKisson Inc., president of the ISIS Academy, and co-president of the Balaton Group. He lives in Stockholm.