A speech for humanity on the eve of Rio+20

On the eve of Rio+20 it is worth remembering the role of leadership as a catalyst for change and Robert Kennedy’s Day of Affirmation address on 6 June 1966: “Everyone here will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”

Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

This lies at the heart of the conundrum facing those in Rio de Janeiro as they prepare for a summit to put our planet on a sustainable path.

We have squandered 20 years since the last major Earth summit in 1992. Without major progress the world risks multiple catastrophes. The Rio+20 summit is undoubtedly important.

Politicians blame inertia in our global political and economic systems for failure. This is rubbish. These systems can change overnight, just look at the digital revolution, the rise of social media, the Arab Spring, the global financial meltdown or the recent food crises. A case in point, the internet, barely existed in 1992. Now it has changed everything.

Indeed, through the internet we have become a giant interconnected global system. Large interconnected systems confer remarkable stability but are also prone to rapid change. We need to correct the narrative. Inertia is not the norm. We embrace the new. But we must create space for change. We need catalysts. Explosive energy results when visionary leadership connects with grassroots support around a simple idea.

Perhaps clues to new thinking and fresh approaches can come from the Civil Rights movement in the sixties.

“The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present…who prefer the illusion of security.” So said Robert F Kennedy in his Day of Affirmation address to the National Union of South African Students in Cape Town on 6 June, 1966.

The rhetoric of this landmark speech applies equally to challenges facing Earth’s life support system and the long-term sustainability of our societies. This is hardly surprising. The Civil Rights movement demanded social, cultural, political and economic upheaval.

Kennedy saw young people as the solution. “You, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.”

But he listed four obstacles to progress.

The first is futility. We throw our hands in the air before we begin. We accept the battle cannot be won. For this he advocated strong leadership.

The second expediency. Hopes and beliefs come a poor second to immediate necessities. For this he advocated idealism.

The third is timidity. Nations fold under fierce opposition. People buckle under the wrath of society. For this Kennedy argued for courage.

The final obstacle is comfort. The temptation to go with the flow is overwhelming. It is too easy to follow well-worn, familiar paths.

After centuries of inertia and against the odds, Kennedy and other leaders helped create the right conditions for a rapid transformation. Ultimately, they succeeded.

Strong leadership is a phenomenal catalyst for change. It can whip up a powerful groundswell of support. It can energise and mobilise. It can break new ground. It can rip down barriers to progress.

As we approach Rio+20, a landmark event to create momentum, leadership is the missing ingredient. Sure over 135 heads of state said they will join. But the US can make or break the summit.

It could be that the most powerful catalyst for action is missing: Barack Obama. The signal he sends by his presence has the potential to change the course of our future development for the next decade. Yet it seems off his radar.

As global emissions continue unabated, as sea levels rise, as the world warms, as species die, we are sleepwalking to catastrophe. Brazilian climate scientist turned civil servant Carlos Nobre told the Rio+20 science and technology forum that the Amazon rainforest could be lost if temperatures rise 4 degrees. Summer Arctic sea ice is destined to disappear sooner rather than later if we continue on our current trajectory. These are major changes in state of major parts of the Earth system.

Kennedy concluded his Day of Affirmation address, “Everyone here will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.” This is as true now as it was in 1966.

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