You might have read about a mammoth conference held in Rio de Janeiro last month. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, was a gathering of world leaders, government representatives, corporations, NGOs and others to establish agreements to help “reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection.” There were tens of thousands of attendees, including 57 heads of state; hundreds of separate events; and a blizzard of press releases and punditry.
I know few people who were optimistic that the event would yield inter-governmental agreements of any significance, and fewer still who think it delivered. Globally, politics and policy these days seem not to be equal to the pressing challenges facing society. I prefer to see this as a slump in the civic sphere rather than some political terminal illness. But just because our politics don’t always work doesn’t mean that society can’t make progress.
That’s because policy isn’t the only force that changes society. The forces that are going to lead to a sustainable future are mutually interactive: Policy influences public behavior as well as attitudes; people influence policy and set expectations for the businesses that serve them; and business, of course, influences policy and people.
The biggest story coming out of Rio was the numerous commitments, many by corporations or corporate groups, to work toward sustainable economic development. Many corporations are in the game despite the lack of an adequate policy framework. The UN Council on Sustainable Development counts more than “$513 billion mobilized in commitments for sustainable development, including in the areas of energy, transport, green economy, disaster reduction, desertification, water, forests and agriculture and a total of 692 voluntary commitments for sustainable development registered by governments, business, civil society groups, universities and others. ” The Natural Resources Defense Council has created a searchable and interactive summary of them here.
My problem with a lot of the commitments is that they are expressed in monetary terms, when the real challenges are better expressed in terms of carbon, joules, tons, or lives. Nonetheless, it is heartening to see all of this activity.