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Failure And Hope From Rio+20

By Jules Peck

05 August, 2012
The Daly News

A failure of epic proportions?

Commentators are fairly unanimous that the Rio+20 talks have been a failure. Expectations had of course been low. And because of this most developed country leaders stayed away. In opening the summit Ban Ki-Moon admitted the draft outcome was “disappointing” due to the conflicting interests of member states. China’s Sha Zukang, the UN’s lead on the conference agreed, calling the statement “an outcome that makes nobody happy.”

NGOs were unanimous in their disgust with the conference outcome statement, The Future We Want and Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo spoke of “…the longest suicide note in history…the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development model…a failure of epic proportions.”

So what was missing from the talks? What hope might there be coming from outside official negotiating rooms?

The end of an era of global diplomacy?

There seemed to be some consensus that the era of global treaties might be over, at least for the time being. George Monbiot concluded his roll call of Rio failures by calling for us to give up on global agreements. Barbara Stocking, head of Oxfam, urged civil society to “pick up and move on… take action.” Lasse Gustavasson, the World Wildlife Fund’s Executive Director of Conservation agreed that there had been a fundamental failure of “sophisticated UN diplomacy.”

UN Environment Programme Director Achim Steiner said the conference was evidence of “a world at a loss what to do” and that “we can’t legislate sustainable development in the current state of international relations.” Of course it is not just on sustainable development that global agreement is failing — the same is true of solutions to the financial system and issues such as Syria.

US Delegation Lead Todd Stern seemed to agree that global multi-state solutions no longer hold out much hope. Todd joined others in suggesting that the failures of Copenhagen and now Rio+20 signal the end of the post-Cold War global treaty era.

Both Stern and WWF’s Gustavasson noted that far more commitment and leadership had been shown at Rio+20 by civil society, city mayors, and the private sector. Indeed, Stern spoke of the early stages of a new era of new forms of global cooperation linking nations with business and civil society that is now flourishing in the shadow of the hollowing-out of formal processes. Some commentated that there was far more of a meeting of minds between some business and civil society folk in the 3,000 fringe events at Rio+20 than in the negotiating rooms.

It is perhaps hard to see how such one-off, informal cooperation between the private sector and civil society will replace binding global treaties, but perhaps there is some small reason to be hopeful still? For the time being, we may have to give up hope for action from governments. After all, the best our political “leaders” were able to come up with at Rio+20 was “green growth” and its love-child “sustained growth.” How many more moronic oxymorons can they think up?

Thankfully, there are signs that civil society and the private sector might take up some of the slack.

Jules Peck originally posted this as a two-part essay on the blog of the New Economics Foundation. To read more, please see Jules Peck’s original Part 1 and his follow-up in Part 2, which call for sustainable development rather than sustained growth

Jules Peck is a Founding Partner at strategy and innovation consultancy Flourishing Enterprise which works to engage the corporate world with beyond-growth economics and to help them innovate through the lens of wellbeing..



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