Rio+20: Plan A for Planet Earth

In the face of unprecedented global change, the next ten years is a crucial period for our global society. Rio+20 could well be “Plan A for Planet Earth”? If so, we all must be part of the plan.

Joel Pett, 2009.

The media often describes geoengineering — large-scale deliberate interference in the climate system — as Plan B for the planet.

By default, this makes the UN’s Rio+20 summit in June this year Plan A for Planet Earth. So, will Plan A work?

These so-called Earth summits, Rio+20 will be the third, occur every 20 years. They’re once-in-a-generation opportunities to save the planet, or at least minimize risk to the planetary components humans need most to support seven billion people and counting.

Since the last summit Earth-system scientists have shown the risk is indeed great. Some talk about threats to civilization. Others discuss unprecedented destabilization of the Earth system. Rio+20 comes at a time when science is saying we need to make great leaps in the next ten years or miss the boat and risk facing a global environmental, economic and humanitarian crisis. But the next summit seems to be missing too many ingredients to ensure success.

The two summit themes, the green economy and institutional frameworks for sustainable development, are meant to kickstart genuine progress towards a sustainable planet. But so far, as the BBC’s Richard Black has reported, the summit is failing to excite the very people it needs to: world leaders and finance ministers. Moreover, this summit must inspire people everywhere.

There is room for some optimism. Ban Ki Moon’s Global Sustainability Panel has published its report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet: a future worth choosing. The report contains 56 recommendations for global sustainability. Many agree it is significantly more inspirational than the soporific Rio+20 Zero Order Draft.

But as a Plan A for Planet Earth, Ban Ki Moon’s panel couldn’t solve the biggy. No matter how you look at it, we lack leadership to deal with the challenge and massive grass roots support to prod leaders to action. And of course real progress is increasingly hampered by lobbying groups and the oil industry that ensure many democracies operate as plutocracies in all but name.

And besides, as academics such as Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom point out, given the nature of how societies work, there is a danger in relying on single global solutions to global sustainability. We need a plan that works at local, national, regional and global levels to provide essential safety nets should single global policies fail.

Another biggy is how to manage change in highly complex interconnected systems like our global economic, political and cultural systems. We are seven billion people made up of politicians and voters, employers and employees, parents and children, consumers and producers, teachers and students, and so on.  Attempting strategic comprehensive change within such a vast, complex, and highly dynamic system is mind boggling, as the global financial crisis demonstrated.

Do we have a wildcard? The Invisible Children campaign, Kony 2012, is intriguing. To date, 67 million people viewed the 30-minute documentary about a Ugandan warlord within days of release, which has been promoted almost entirely through the power of social media. This is an interesting development particularly as it follows the Arab Spring and Occupy movements that show a new power flexing its muscle.

Curiously, these events demonstrated an uncanny sense for how to affect rapid and large-scale change in complex interconnected systems. Economists and world leaders watched helplessly as their top-down strategies for stemming the financial crisis failed, elsewhere, more organic approaches to state change in complex interconnected systems yielded remarkable results.

The digital revolution in its current form is barely more than ten years old, but these events show how networks can use our newly-connected global society to take on traditional power bases — and win.

If we want a Plan A for Planet Earth that stands a chance of success — within ten years — perhaps the digital revolution is the wildcard.

One third of the world’s population is now online. The rise in online connectivity has been dramatic. Five years ago, only one fifth of the world’s 1.8 billion households had internet access. In this period, developing countries increased their share of the world’s total number of internet users from 44% in 2006, to 62% in 2011. Today, 25% of all internet users are in China.

These figures are dwarfed by the explosion in mobile phone use. Mobile phone networks now reach over 90% of the human population. There are nearly six billion (5.9) mobile cellular phone subscriptions for seven billion people, though many have multiple subscriptions.

By 2020 internet and mobile phone coverage will reach all but the most marginalized in societies everywhere. As we frantically scramble to understand tipping points in the Earth system, we are rapidly heading towards a tipping point in our global society with little clue how this will play out.

Plan A for Planet Earth should not be left to a small handful of people engaged at the top of international negotiations. It must be driven by us all. At an early Rio+20 preparatory meeting delegates discussed two things: the need to engage many, many more people; and the need to make better use of digital communication technology to communicate more widely. Perhaps, if you join the two together you could conceivably think about the world’s first global referendum. And the subject of the referendum: global sustainability. That would be a tipping point worth crossing.

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