Here, in a single clause, is the reason why the Rio +20 statement is a useless document:
We recognize that urgent action on unsustainable patterns of production and consumption where they occur remains fundamental in addressing environmental sustainability and promoting conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems, regeneration of natural resources and the promotion of sustained, inclusive and equitable global growth.
This sentence (one of the shorter ones, I should add) contains two points that are stating the obvious, and one that’s a logical impossibility:
- Stopping unsustainable consumption is vital to sustainability
- Stopping unsustainable consumption is vital to the sustainable use of resources
- Stopping unsustainable consumption is vital to the promotion of sustained economic growth.
Point three is nonsense because global growth is itself an unsustainable pattern of production and consumption. It would make sense if it said “a sustainable economy”, or even “sustained economic prosperity”, but it’s meaningless with the word growth in there. We live on a finite planet. Nothing can grow forever in a closed system, and therefore permanent economic growth is impossible.
Unfortunately, the Rio +20 agreement is passionately dedicated to this impossibility. There are 283 numbered points in the statement. A commitment to economic growth turns up in point five, and then is repeated throughout. “We commit to work together to promote sustained and inclusive economic growth”. Bizarrely, it the summit appears to have agreed that growth is actually a route to sustainability rather than an obstacle to it: “We reaffirm the need to achieve sustainable development by promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth.”
As it moves on to other topics such as conservation or managing forests and seas, it still returns to growth constantly. A long list starts to emerge of things that can supposedly promote economic growth. It includes democracy, good governance and the rule of law, soil, the UN, farmers, biodiversity, jobs, macroeconomic policy, mountains, the sea and coastal areas.
- “Sustainable transportation can enhance economic growth”
- “We reaffirm that international trade is an engine for development and sustained economic growth,”
- “We recognize the economic and social significance of good land management, including soil, particularly its contribution to economic growth”
- We acknowledge that good governance and the rule of law at the national and international levels are essential for sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth
- We stress the need to provide social protection to all members of society, fostering growth, resilience, social justice and cohesion,
These things don’t appear to be valued for their own right, but for their potential to “invigorate”, “foster” or “drive” sustained economic growth.
Economic growth is, in short, a mantra. It is a guiding force, the lens through which everything else is assessed. Yes, by all means address sustainability, the agreement says, but only if your sustainability measures are a route to growth.
We encourage each country to consider the implementation of green economy policies in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, in a manner that endeavours to drive sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth and job creation, particularly for women, youth and the poor.
Of course, economic growth is vital for poor countries, and they are absolutely right to orient growth towards the poor. Where the document fails is that there is no distinction between those who have too little and those who already have too much. ‘More’ is the common prescription to underdeveloped and overdeveloped economies alike.
I live in a country where a quarter of us are obese, and where we throw away a third of the food that we buy. Over the course of their lifetime, the average British person will spend over £10,000 on clothes that they will never wear. Why is it so wrong to suggest that we might have enough?
Naturally, the diplomats and world leaders are concerned about the economy. We still have an economic system that demands growth, and you can’t just switch it off. But we should at least be asking the questions. We could acknowledge the finite nature of the planet. This is, after all, supposed to be a summit about sustainability.
As I mentioned last week, nobody expected any planet-saving solutions from Rio. I didn’t expect it to be quite this bad, but I’m not surprised either. Reading the statement only confirms what I said before – that we can’t wait for our national and international leaders. This will have to be a grassroots movement. It also confirms my belief that economic growth is the most important blind spot of our time.