Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – On Wednesday morning, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) kicked off in Brazil.
The three-day conference brings together around 50,000 persons: heads of states and delegates, business leaders and the private sector, the scientific community, NGOs, journalists, environmentalists, activists, children and youth, farmers, indigenous peoples, local authorities, women, and trade unions, as they seek to reduce poverty, address world hunger, advance social inequity and prevent climate change.
The original 1992 Earth Summit (also held in Rio, hence Rio+20) sought to put the issue of sustainable development at the forefront of the United Nations' work.
The 20-year anniversary summit takes place amidst two of the greatest challenges facing the international community: the biggest economic downturn in modern history and an environmental tipping point, climate change.
A new study published recently in the journal Nature warns that we are fast approaching irreversible climate change.
Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, stated in a press conference that "if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail, then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation."
This year, more than 100 heads of states will attend, including host Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, China's Premier Wen Jiabao, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, France's newly elected President François Hollande and Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
U.S. President Barack Obama, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, and U.K.'s Prime Minister Cameron will not be in attendance.
What are the Rio+20's Goals?
Rio+20 seeks to establish an institutional framework for sustainable development. While not legally binding, the document that emerges from Rio+20 will serve as a roadmap for sustainable development.
Delegates approved a draft of the document entitled "The Future We Want,” late Tuesday evening, which will be presented to heads of state to be revised and ratified by the summit's end on Friday.
Measuring Sustainable Development
Yet how does one measure sustainable development? What marks development? Is it best gauged by economic growth? Or by other factors? And what makes it sustainable?
In Rio, a demand has been put forward to analyze economies not solely on the basis of gross domestic product (GDP).
Earlier this year, in its report Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing , UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s High-Level Global Sustainability Panel concluded that “the international community should measure development beyond GDP and develop a new sustainable development index or set of indicators.”
The Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission — based on the work of Nobel Prize laureates in Economics Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, as well as of French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi — has also called for a broad range of social indicators to complement GDP figures.
At a press conference Wednesday, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) responded with a proposal for a "Sustainable Human Development Index."
It draws on the Human Development Index (HDI), created by the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and continued by Sen, which measures life expectancy, health, literacy, education and standard of living.
Others, ranging from James Gustave Speth in "Rio+20: Charter for a New Economy" to James Korten in "Rio+20: A Defining Choice" argue for new economic models .
Thus, while the writing is on the wall with regard to the urgency of climate change, the need for an alternative economic model, one that takes into account the health of both planet and people, is also becoming increasingly clear.
NGOs Respond to the Draft Text
During the opening plenary, NGOs were given the opportunity to respond to the draft text. They faulted it for failing to mention tipping points, planetary boundaries or carrying capacity. (For more information about planetary boundaries, see http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v461/n7263/full/461472a.html)
Additionally, NGOs lambasted the draft text for its failure to mention nuclear energy, particularly in light of the Fukushima disaster, and to demand an end to fossil fuel subsidies.
"Just to be clear," they concluded, "NGOs at Rio do not endorse this document."
Prior to the Rio+20, a People's Summit kicked off in Rio on June 15, 2012. This alternative conference brought together people from movements worldwide, seeking to address environmental degradation and social inequity, to reject green speculation and fossil fuel subsidies.
Representatives from over 500 indigenous communities worldwide gathered on Tuesday evening and signed a declaration presented to the opening plenary this morning. Addressing the Rio+20, a representative from the group demanded a focus on sustainable development and on a recognition of their legal rights, and argued against extractive industries.
On Sunday afternoon, global organizations Avaaz and 350.org protested fossil fuel subsidies by unfurling a trillion dollar bill on the iconic Copacabana beach, calling on world leaders at the Rio+20 Summit to end the nearly $1 trillion dollars they hand out in fossil fuel subsidies each year.
On Tuesday, June 19, 2012, nearly 1500 people used Rio’s Flamengo Beach as a canvas. Their bodies formed the lines of an enormous image promoting the importance of free-running rivers, truly clean energy sources like solar power and including indigenous knowledge as part of the solution to climate issues. The activity was led by Brazil’s many indigenous peoples organized under the umbrella of the Articulation of Brazilian Indigenous Peoples. ©Spectral Q/Chico/Paulo
Not all are convinced that the Rio+20 negotiations will prove successful. Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, criticized the negotiations.
“Rio+20 has turned into an epic failure,” warned Naidoo. “It has failed on equity, failed on ecology and failed on economy.”
Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist and academic who covers international climate negotiations, domestic energy policy and related direct actions. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, The Progressive, The Nation and the Wall Street Journal. She has appeared on the Laura Flanders’ Show on GRIT TV; Pacifica radio stations KPFA’s Against the Grain and WBAI’s Wake Up Call, as well as the National Radio Project.