Category Archives: media

Rio + 20: Power of Informal Networks and Brazil’s place in the world

ImageRecently returned from Rio + 20,  I wanted to share my overall take on what was important about this mega-event.  In my view, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a historic, game-changing event whose importance will not be understood for many years to come. This is because the signficance of what happened in Rio de Janeiro from June 20-22 was diffuse, uncoordinated, distributed across multiple networks and hard to capture in any kind of zero-sum argument.

Two things stood out: Rio + 20 affirmed and strengthened the importance of informal networks and non-state actors for achieving momentum on sustainable development goals. The second was the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy – a team of 200 negotiators sewed up the final document before the conference opened – not just impressive, this achievement signalled something important about Brazil’s place in the world today.

ImageSide events were the main event
Media coverage in the immediate aftermath of Rio + 20 was mostly negative, and focused on the so-called “weakness” of the final document. This reflects a basic misunderstanding of what these conferences have become in recent years: big networking sessions where people involved in sustainable development pitch ideas and projects, and make commitments for the future.
That is to say, the main action was not in the plenary sessions with the heads of state, but rather in the plethora of side events.
The end result was hundreds of non-globally negotiated voluntary commitments. UN Secretary General for Rio + 20 Sha Zukang announced that governments, businesses, NGOs and inter-governmental agencies made commitments totaling $513 billion towards sustainable development.
Rio + 20 demonstrated, beyond any shadow of doubt, the capacity of corporations and grass-roots organizations to deliver concrete actions on sustainable development without any help from governments.
Dan Farber at Legal Planet “The Environmental Law and Policy Blog” noted, “These developments fit well with the theory of network governance.  The idea is that international cooperation does not simply involve formal treaties, but instead involves networks of officials at different levels of government, NGOs, and stakeholders.”

Informal networks are where the action is

“It does seem to be true that we are seeing the emergence of less-centralized forms of coordination with some resemblance to the decentralized global communication web. Especially since the formal process of international negotiation seems stalled right now, networks like these may be our best hope of progress on global issues,” he added.

Indeed, this echoes the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, who wrote in an op-ed shortly before her death on June 12, “Inaction in Rio would be disastrous – but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: The oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life to thrive.”

This message was echoed in a number of places in the week after Rio + 20.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on June 24, Jim Leape of WWF wrote:
“If you looked around in Rio last week, you saw where the action really is — local and national governments, companies, NGOs, labor unions finding ways to get on with it.
“Governments are coming together in regional initiatives to manage the resources they share. “

Commitments were plentiful and generous

One count showed a total of 600 commitments made at side events at Rio + 20.
These included:

*   Banks, investors, 57 countries, and companies like Wal-Mart agreed to include “natural capital” (and its depreciation) in their measures of wealth.
*   Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s initiative to push companies into reporting their environmental footprints.
*   Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s global reporting initiative to push companies into reporting environmental footprints.
*   The World Wildlife Fund said it had obtained pledges from twenty-six countries for an agreement to protect transnational water bodies.
*   Microsoft committed to roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. If it were a country, Microsoft would have the 51st largest GDP
*   A group of prominent development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities.
*   The U.S. EPA and the Brazilian Environment Ministry announced an online tool as part of the U.S.-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability that highlights key links between policies, funding and on-the-ground projects that can help drive urban sustainability investment around the world. The project is a result of a unique bilateral agreement between Presidents Obama and Rousseff and the cities of Philadelphia and Rio.
*   The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) joined six major organizations at Rio+20 to announce the Global Initiative on Urban Resilience (GIUR), an effort designed to spur building and infrastructure development, create new investment opportunities and foster community action around the world. Partner organizations include the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI International, the World Bank, the Eye on Earth Summit, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Program on Energy, Resources, and the Environment and the Earth Council Alliance of Rio de Janeiro. The GIUR aims to create solutions by focusing on urban geographies, identifying the synergies between city governments, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions and different business sectors.

Green Economy Goes Mainstream
The mainstreaming of green economics may well turn out to be the big legacy of Rio + 20. UNEP was effective at putting Green Economy on the agenda, despite G77/China’s successful efforts on “green economy means different things to different countries” approach to the final text. Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said the final document produced at Rio + 20 is “a reflection of the global situation at a moment in which there is a global crisis and we have to act collectively. [But] the document itself is very rich in terms of actions, initiatives and programs.”
The Nature Conservancy, Corporate Eco Forum and 24 companies representing half a trillion dollars in annual revenue committed to a potentially game changing initiative around ecosystem valuation.

“A new generation of business and political leaders has started to connect company success with social and environmental issues that were previously the concern only of NGOs,” wrote John Vidal in the Guardian.

Fred Pearce wrote in Yale Environment 360 that: “… behind the scenes, something really interesting just may have happened in Rio.” Green economics, as represented in Rio, meant primarily introducing metrics about the use and abuse of nature and natural resources into corporate and national accounting. Once natural capital appears on balance sheets in the same way as man-made capital, then CEOs and policy makers will adopt greener ways, and environmental protection goes from being a cost to an investment.

On the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy, Nicolas Bourcier of Le Monde provides a good summary.

“Rio + 20 marked the end of a cycle. And the arrival of what one can call “a diplomacy of prosperity”, cherished by the strongmen of Brasilia. A world where south-south relations often have a more decisive dimension than north-south relations.”

He goes further to say that Rio + 20 didn’t just affirm Brazil’s position as a leader of the south; but also that the US was tacitly supportive of their position, judging from the self-effacing and moderate tone the US delegation struck at the conference.

My feeling from the outset, before the conference even began, was that this show belonged to the BRICs and that Obama/Cameron/Merkel’s no-show was at most a minor distraction. In the weeks before Rio + 20, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ambassador Patriota – who is taking Chinese lessons – ran an op-ed in the China Daily to say that green economy means different things to different countries. The message was clear – Brazil had aligned with China on this key issue of the final document, source of much disappointment to those who had pinned their hopes on “The Future We Want”.

Anecdotally, Rio de Janeiro during the conference was staggering beautiful and contrary to dire predictions that we would be stuck in traffic gridlock for 3 days, the buses ran regularly and on time, security was abundant but not stifling, every Brazilian I came in contact with went out of their way, and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we were welcome and that things ran smoothly. They were, quite simply, outstanding hosts.

I’ve seen the future, and it belongs to Brazil.



Non-Violent Communications are Urgently Needed in the Media

This is something I have been thinking about for a long time, and I feel it’s time to issue a call to action. Journalists everywhere, without delay, need to start training in non-violent communications in order to adapt to a world of increasing complexity. This is important.

The urgency was driven home to me yesterday while listening to a violent clash on French radio (France Culture) between anthropologist Paul Jorion and journalist Brice Couturier.

Jorion is big on complexity theory and systems thinking, and during the interview he tried to explain that the financial system was already defunct, and that it is beyond salvation, so we should stop dreaming about a miracle bailout or solution that will stop the train wreck. Couturier seemed a bit peeved, and started calling Jorion a “prophet”, and badgered him repeatedly by interrupting him mid-sentence and demanding to know “what’s the solution, then”? Jorion got upset, and became repetitive and defensive. He told Couturier that he was a part of a system that was being routed, and that his anger was a reflection of that.

I think most people listening to this would have experienced the discomfort I felt, probably for two main reasons. The first is of course that Jorion warns that we are within weeks of a break-up of the euro zone (not the first time someone has said this, Jacques Attali and others have forecast the same but somehow Jorion delivers the gloomy news with more force) and that anyone who lives here is going feel some degree of fear and unease at the prospect of violent change. The second, however, is much more important – the complete disconnect between Jorion and his journalist interlocuteurs. They were unable to understand eachother at the most basic level, and I find this very worrying.

We’ve already seen how the media has reacted to Occupy Wall Street, and its European counterpart, the “Indignados”. They accuse them of having no agenda, and then hope that they will go away. Governance expert and blogger Guy Janssen writes intelligently about this here. Who needs an agenda when you have a vision?

Journalists are trained to extract sound bites from their interviewees. They are programmed to corral an interview towards closure, in the same way that their own stories have to have a beginning, middle and end. The end can often be a “good quote”, a nice ringer of some kind that sounds a closing note. You get the idea. So an interviewee who does not obeys those laws is, invariably, punished in some way, or at least never invited back. Public relations firms train their clients to perform for the media in this way with their messages and sound bites. The whole system is the antithesis of authentic. And I believe that it’s now getting in the way of our ability to adapt to what’s happening.

Good questions should invite curiosity and inquiry. They do not need to promote action or problem solving immediately. Connecting to ourselves in order to better connect with others can transform the way we engage and help to build better solutions for the future.

An open-ended question is one that does not have a simple yes/no answer. It’s one that invites inquiry and curiosity. If trust is present, the question will surface good ideas and possibilities. It’s what we need more of in all our relationships, but especially in the nexus of politics and media.

It only takes one person to start a movement – which journalist is going to be the first one to start asking open-ended questions and not be afraid of what will happen next?

Summer reading list

Bastille Day signals the start of summer in France, and, as if by magic, the weather has gone from grey and chilly to picture perfect for the national holiday. Here’s my list of books to read for the summer. What’s on yours?

“Une mer sans poissons” by Philippe Cury and Yves Miserey

“Resilience Thinking” by Brian Walker and David Salt

The Geography of Hope” by Chris Turner

“Deep Economy” by Bill McKibben

“The Green Marketing Manifesto” by John Grant

The Bottom Billion” By Paul Collier

Carbon Weevils

Brilliant and very dark. Reminds me of the wonderful children’s illustrated story by Jeanne Willis “Dr Xargle’s Book of Earthlets”.

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What needs to be done

Weathercocks and Signposts” is such an awesome report that I had to excerpt a bit more from it. This part focuses on the complexity and challenges associated with building an authentic, values-based approach to the inevitable consumption descent. The report invokes Churchill: “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

“It is WWF’s experience that many public figures are privately voicing concerns that the ‘business case for sustainable development’ and ‘decoupling of economic growth from environmental degradation’ will not offer sufficiently far-reaching responses to the challenges we face. Often these voices are submerged by dominant establishment discourse.”

The report concludes:

  • there is an urgent need to introduce a broader set of values into public policy debate
  • the dominant marketing approach currently adopted falls far short of what is necessary
“Increasing numbers of senior business people are recognising the limitations of green consumption as a response to the environmental crisis, and the ultimate imperative for society to consume less rather than differently.”
“As this report outlines, recourse to consuming greener products, buying fewer and more expensive products, or sharing products, will not be sufficient. Moving beyond these models will require the creative engagement of people in business, NGOs and marketing agencies.”



On values, communications and thinking for ourselves



A new report from WWF has put both “green” marketers and “post-environmentalists” on notice. Entitled “Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environment Movement at a Crossroads”, the report demonstrates that it is no longer sufficient to rely on marketing techniques to promote behaviour change for the environment. Instead, it argues that any effective strategy for tackling environmental challenges will require engagement with the values that underlie the decisions we make as well as our sense of who we are. Primarily aimed at NGOs who are seeking to re-define themselves in the era of “green” consumption, the report is a dense, but thought-provoking read and well worth the effort. 

In particular, it highlights the fact that communication campaigns for environmental change should “avoid focus on ‘things you can do’” and instead “urge the audience for a particular communication to begin to think for themselves about what they can do. Prompting such reflection may facilitate the integration of these external reflections into a person’s sense of self.” This is wonderful news! No more editorials from Thomas Friedman about the pointlessness of changing lightbulbs because unsustainable behaviours in China will wipe out our efforts! No more “10 easy ways to go green” from the mainstream media? No more discussions around the water cooler on the futility of buying a Prius because of the battery issue?



Saturday Nov 24 is Buy Nothing Day

Financial turmoil and peak oil: join the dots

This month’s La Décroissance has an interesting interview with an unnamed senior official of the European Central Bank. Here are some extracts:

Interviewer: “Why did the world’s stock markets fall sharply at the end of August?”

ECB official: “Hum! Which version do you want?”

Interviewer: “Pardon?”

ECB official “Officially growth and trade are flourishing.”

Interviewer: “And your own analysis of the situation?”

ECB official: “We’re in deep shit and everyone who works as a professional in the economic field knows it…We are surfing on mountains of debt, private and public, which will never be repaid….The Enron and the Parmalat scandals are just a drop of water in the gigantic economic lie. All the players in the global economy are ruined, incapable of repaying even a tenth of their debt tomorrow. The system is holding on by a thread…The central banks throw money at the system so that nobody runs short of liquidity and no-one gets the crazy idea that they should collect on a debt. More than 500 billion dollars have been created by the central banks since the beginning of the crisis.”

Interviewer: “All this is appalling! What to do?”

ECB official: “Do you still have your house in the mountains, with a wood-burning stove, a chicken coop and some good soil for a vegetable garden? Do you have some space for me?”

What about peak oil? Christophe de Margerie, CEO of French oil giant Total came out earlier this month in the Financial Times with some surprising comments on oil production. Contradicting forecasts by the International Energy Agency that oil supply will reach 116 million barrels a day by 2030, up from about 85 million barrels a day at present, he predicted that 100 million barrels a day would be difficult to attain. “Reserves have never been so big,” he said, adding that the constraints were the industry’s ability to produce the oil quickly enough and oil-rich countries’ willingness or ability to develop their reserves.”We have been, all of us, too optimistic about the geology. Not in terms of reserves, but in terms of how to develop these reserves: how much time it takes, how much realistically do you need.” 

Is it therefore surprising to learn that investment money from the oil-producing Middle East nations is increasingly shifting into investments in renewable energy projects, particularly wind turbines? Or that investment professionals themselves are quietly shifting their portfolios into cash?

Nobody wants to say any of this on the record, for obvious reasons, but if you listen carefully all the dots are starting to join up.

Doom update

The crisis narrative is widening, deepening and darkening with every day that goes by. Economic indicators, food stocks, the price of oil, the world’s financial system – there is a kind of “perfect storm” convergence for the much-dreaded disaster scenario. Read John Feeney’s opinion piece entitled “Humanity is the Greatest Challenge” at the BBC’s Green Room. “Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we’ve created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over. We’ve outgrown the planet and need radical action to avert unspeakable consequences. This – by a huge margin – has become humanity’s greatest challenge.” Another worthwhile gloom update from George Monbiot here.

Is the Grenelle only good for the rich?

What’s the price tag for the ambitious plan announced at the Grenelle to improve energy efficiency and insulation in all of the existing homes and office buildings in France? Three thousand euros per household per year, according to Remy Prud’homme, professor at the University of Paris Xll. “The building lobby and construction industries…the media, the Greens and the bobos are all applauding,” he wrote in an opinion piece in Marianne magazine this week. But he warns that the cost might be too heavy to bear for a country where consumption is drying up and economic growth has slowed to a crawl. According to his calculations, French consumers will get a return on their investment of 130 to 140 euros of energy savings per year (a bit more if the price of oil breaks through $200/barrel) plus a reduction of carbon emissions by 37 million tons a year. Certainly worthwhile for the well-heeled, but, he asks, is the investment defensible for the working classes and those living close to the poverty line?

This strikes at the heart of a big contradiction that Sarkozy is going to have to arbitrate soon: how to reconcile the central plank of his campaign platform – a pledge to raise purchasing power and deliver more economic growth – with the commitments undertaken at the Grenelle. In December, the Attali Commission to promote growth in France (its ultimate aim is to deliver 5 percent growth) will deliver its final conclusions. Among the proposals aired in the media in recent weeks are some which are at loggerheads with the Grenelle, such as the suggestion to abolish the precautionary principle, which Attali considers an obstacle to innovation. The precautionary principle means that when (on the basis of available evidence) an activity may harm human health or the environment, a cautious approach should be taken in advance – even if the full extent of harm has not yet been fully established scientifically. It is the guiding principle (so far) of the French government’s policy line on GM crops.

The working groups at the Grenelle framed the terms of reference for economic growth as follows: “The economic challenge of environmental policy is not to promote a de-industrialized economy, but an economy which is more sober in carbon, in energy and non-renewable natural resources.” Attali, however, maintains that it is not economic growth that engenders pollution, but rather production. Last month, he told France Inter radio: “The best way to not pollute is to go back to the stone age.” As always, Sarkozy will have the last word.