“Hey, I care about the planet—can I go to Rio?”

English: Aerial view of Rio de Janeiro city ce...

My latest Green Chain column for the Lake County Record-Bee.


Last month the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) marked its 20th anniversary of the “Earth Summit,” meeting once again in Rio de Janeiro. In 1992, Earth Summiteers envisioned the future they wanted, which included uplifting the “social and economic development” status of the world’s poorest people and protecting the environment all the while using sustainable development. And, much of what they then hoped for has begun: The numbers in heart-breaking poverty are down for the first time in history, the rate of hunger is down, infant mortality is down, illiteracy is down–the list of achievements continues. In short, we are healthier, wealthier and better educated now than in any time in our world’s history. Much work remains to be done, but the numbers show that the problems are not intractable.
After making progress on the social and economic front for the past 20 to 30 years many in the environmentalists worry that those achievements happened because we allowed evil corporations to unsustainably use our earth’s resources, and we must stop corporations from massively gouging, plowing, polluting, and consuming too much. We need to rein in our appetites and think smaller, dimmer, and slower.

Or, put another way, if you liked the ‘Great Recession’ you will love your ‘green’ future.

Your lifestyle is the problem, according to many greens, but the answer is easy, explained Ronald Bailey in an article on the 1992 Earth Summit. “Let the government divest you of your excess goods, such as your carbon-dioxide-emitting automobile; your alienating, too big house or apartment; and foods imported from outside your bioregion.” Wahoo! Haven’t you always wanted to live the life of a 12th century serf? Hello grinding poverty and dysentery!

So, last month some 50,000 people including world leaders, government functionaries, private sector people, non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and others converged on sybaritic and raucous Rio for a week in June to consider how to “reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want.”**

The crowning achievement of this latest Earth Summit was, not surprisingly, a document: “The Future We Want.”

Obviously, the “future we want” must be done sustainably which means, according to the U.N. website, using resources to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Of course we know what those future resources will be, right?*

The final document displeased most of the NGOs, because, those charged with finalizing it did so by cutting any quantifiable commitments from any nations and not really defining “sustainable (but salting the word throughout the document).”***

“It is nothing less than a disaster for the planet,” said Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, in their press release. “This is a hollow deal and a gift to corporate polluters that hold UN decision-making hostage to further their economic interests.”

The Greens need not worry. As Ronald Bailey notes, “The Future We Want” launches “a process to define a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” with the “newly created Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)” to list and define the SDGs. The IPBES will be similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It bears noting the IPCC started out cautious in its assessment of the state of knowledge of climate change and became increasingly strident when it learned that money flowed to it when its predictions became ever more catastrophic.

I fully expect the IPBES to follow the IPCC’s lead and make increasingly gloomier predictions periodically. I just wish they could have these meetings in some way that didn’t result in thousands of people flying thousands of miles to wring their hands about other people’s pollution. Minding other people’s business seems to be the only sustainable activity they can all agree on.

* Aren’t you glad our Neolithic-age ancestors saved rocks; otherwise we might have run out by now.

** It’s amazing how these conferences often happen in places with sun-soaked beaches (such as Rio and Cancun). I am sure that the UNCSD planners picked Rio de Janeiro because it showcases the economical use of resources, especially on the famous beaches. After all, as P.J. O’Rourke has noted, Rio’s beachgoers use “very few of the Earth’s precious resources on clothes.”

*** You can drive an oversized truck and trailer through the current definition–one research paper noted it could mean anything from “exploit as much as you wish as long as you do not infringe on the ability for people in the future to exploit as much as they wish” to use “as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful life.”


Bailey, Ronald. What I Did on my Summer Vacation. Reason magazine, 1992. pp46-48  http://reason.com/assets/db/13396383287448.pdf

Bailey, Ronald. Sustainability Semantics. Reason magazine, July 2010.   http://reason.com/archives/2010/07/06/sustainability-semantics accessed 5 July 2012

Bailey, Ronald. Rio +20 Earth Summit: Greens Fail to Get The Future They Want. Reason.com. http://reason.com/archives/2012/06/21/rio-20-earth-summit-greens-fail-to-get-t accessed 2 July 2012

Rio+20 – United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/about.html accessed 4 July 2012

Friends of the Earth International. Rio+20 Declaration: A Gift to Corporate Polluters. http://www.foei.org/en/what-we-do/rio-20/blog-posts/rio-20-declaration-a-gift-to-corporate-polluters accessed 5 July 2012

Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015. Brookings Institute. http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2011/01_global_poverty_chandy.aspx accessed January 27, 2011

Opening Gambit: Best. Decade. Ever. Charles Kenny. Foreign Policy magazine. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/08/16/best_decade_ever?page=full accessed: January 13, 2011

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