Next year, in June, world leaders will get together in the joyful city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to mark 20 years of UNCED—the Earth Summit (see Down to Earth, May 15, 1992).
Unbelievably, it will be 40 years since the Stockholm conference, when the question of the environment first caught global attention. At Stockholm, developing countries—then prime minister Indira Gandhi was the only leader from this part of the world to attend the meet—were uncertain. They were just feeling their way to articulate what the environment meant for them, how their own development would need resources and how their growth could lead to pollution. Mrs Gandhi’s famous phrase, “poverty is the biggest polluter”, has been interpreted in many ways. At Rio in 1992, this set of countries, sobered, decided to put their foot down: they asserted their right to sustainable development.
This Rio+20 comes at a crucial time in global affairs. A possible double digit recession in the US, financial crisis in the Eurozone, peak oil prices, everything is provoking a rethink on the current growth model. What are the interconnections between this model, built on consumption for wealth creation, and the challenge it poses to sustainability? We know, today, an underlying cause of the financial strain is dependence on cheap loans or cheap production to induce consumption, to fuel growth. The world has not been able to design a growth model that meets the aspirations and purchasing abilities of people, indeed the needs of all. There are limits to such growth, a fast-growing world is learning. It is not possible to emulate the lifestyle of the already-industrialised without compromising the survival of the Earth. Such limits will require the world to share the Earth, so that growth can be afforded and sustainable, for all.