Stockholm+40: Dreaming about revolution

I thought I would write blog entries throughout the Stockholm+40 conference. Instead, I listened – not so much to the formal presentations and speeches, though there were a few good ones. I listened to my friends and colleagues. “What are you working on?” I wanted to know. “How is it going?”

For me, the sustainability movement is first and foremost a human movement, a movement of people, working for change. Some are tired, they say, and some are scared. Some are happy with a new job, some are bored with the old job, some are on fire with the passion of a new project. A conference like this – global, but not enormous – provides a rare opportunity to take the temperature of the whole global movement.

But right now, as I write, the Minister of Environment for Egypt is talking. Sustainable development is happening in Egypt, he tells us; and he calls for support to make something happen at Rio+20. Ideas are discussed at international meetings, but nothing happens in between, he laments. He is responding to the impassioned statements of the “stakeholders” (half of them are business people), who want justice, transparency, lifestyle change. Now the secretary of environment from Hong Kong is also stressing the “walk the talk” message …

Well, if you are someone who has been around sustainability work for a while, you would feel very much at home here. It would feel very familiar to you. Some of the speeches are truly rousing and cleverly new in their angle; others make even an optimist change agent like me think in curmudgeonly way, “Oh, dear me, I have been hearing this for over twenty years …”

So, what’s new? Or at least, new in the sense that these topics are under-stressed in these kinds of official conferences? What caught my interest, in terms of what was said from the stage?

  • The fact that growth – “the elephant in the room” – was directly debated, in sharp-though-civil exchanges between champions of free market liberalism and academic experts on resource and ecosystem limits. Usually, above a certain level of international officialdom, that doesn’t happen.
  • The fact that Sha Zukang, the UN’s Secretary-General of Rio+20, went off his scripted prepared remarks and got quite emotionally charged up in his call to make the upcoming conference truly meaningful.
  • The idea that a sustainable lifestyle has to include the idea of human rights, gender equality, and the security of people.
  • The acknowledgement (and this was from Tim Jackson, who was full of pithy and thoughtful insights) that it is not so easy to say, “we should consume less stuff,” since access to flashy new stuff is not just a status issue – it is an issue of hope. New flashy stuff means progress, in our societies. Take that away and you take away some people’s sense of hope.
  • The fact that Maurice Strong – the most senior, elder, and arguably the biggest power-insider in the room – called openly for “revolution.” (That’s a picture of Maurice, on stage.)
  • Rebeca Grynspan, UNDP’s Costa Rican-born Associate Administrator, calling for a global mandate to create alternative measures of progress (and she was a bright light generally, full of energy and clarity).
  • Achim Steiner and Todd Stern (google those names if you don’t know them) just announced a major advance in the formation of a new “Climate and Clean Air Coalition,” focused on reducing diesel emissions, black carbon, methane flaring and other air pollution issues that also exacerbate global warming … I’m actually not sure what they are concretely doing yet, but they claim it will not be just a “talk shop,” and they are excited about the progress they are making … and it’s good to hear the US’s climate negotiator talking positively about change instead of explaining US reluctance in climate talks … so I am interested to learn more …

… and then there were the many “unofficial” conversations. Coffee chat. There, I learned more about Stanley Nyonyi’s and Telma Gomes’s project on creating Global Dialogues:  they plan to have people talking and exploring their vision of the future around a thousand tables in Rio. I learned about a young activist’s efforts to create small, green businesses in Nigeria. I got the latest news, from friends working for UNDP and UNEP, on progress on the Sustainable Energy for All initiative that is being driven by the UN Secretary-General (I wrote about that here). These are actually the conversations that give the most insight and even hope, because that’s where one can feel a sense of reality:  real people, doing real things.

And of course, I had a lot of meetings here. Colleagues from the UN, with whom I worked on planning the new UN Office for Sustainable Development, or with whom other colleagues in my circle of colleagues and clients have worked, were here; so I got caught up on how things are progressing. I did my best to make some useful connections between people; others helped make connections for me (Marie Neeser – my neighbor, friend, colleague, client, and much-admired colleague who does most of her extraordinarily effective work behind the scenes – deserves a special public thanks in that regard).

With apologies to the planet for the extra CO2 involved in holding meetings like this, emails really cannot substitute for this kind of live, human conversation. Of course, for me, coming to Stockholm+40 was just a bus ride away from home (a ride that I could even share with my wife, Kristina AtKisson, who coordinates sustainability efforts at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute). It’s not likely that I will go to Rio+20. But I was happy to be here, at Stockholm+40, to reflect on the bittersweet fact that we are now 40 years into this global struggle for a sustainability transformation … and to dream, at least, that when I am as senior as Maurice Strong, I might be able to attend a meeting that is reflecting on the history instead of the future of this revolution – a revolution accomplished, and good.

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