Rio+20’s clearest outcome is that civil society and major parts of the private sector are up for the challenges of the 21st century but government is not.
In our work for the UN and the Government of Brazil on the Rio+20 Dialogues, we saw consensus on policy priorities for achieving sustainable economic growth, fighting poverty, advancing social equity, and ensuring environmental protection from citizens in countries with low and high Human Development Index (HDI) scores. These include:
- Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies
- Restoring deforested and degraded lands
- Implementing the right to water
- Avoiding ocean pollution by plastics through education and community collaboration
- Promoting food systems that are sustainable and contribute to improvement of health
- Promoting the use of waste as a renewable energy source in urban environments
That the public’s priorities made their way into the final vision-setting outcome document is an unquestionable success and hopefully, a precedent for how the UN will engage civil society in the future. But the fact that the outcome document does not contain numbers or dates alongside these items is devastating and perilous.
Having the US, Europe, and China in election, economic crisis, and political transition modes, respectively, certainly did not help matters. But I’m not sure political or economic stability in the G20 would have been enough. The fundamental issue is that we are not structured as a globe to legislate for the benefit of the future; and this is no surprise given that many of the world’s powers — the United States perhaps most consequentially — are themselves equally ill-equipped.
Rio+20 must serve as a wake up call for the world that our systems of government – including the constitutional republic – are officially no longer suited for the modern era. While part of the solution will come from networks and emerging technologies that foster civic engagement, real progress will require structural reforms to government itself and a new vision for a national government’s role in a complex, inter-connected world where few major issues are not by their nature planetary.
In the United States, for example, change could look like a lowered voting age, mandatory voting, a lengthened Presidential term, or perhaps even a fourth branch of government constitutionally mandated to protect the future.
Rio+20’s greatest legacy ought to be that it galvanized us to look deeply at how we run the world.