Rio + 20

by Terence Jeyaretnam

"A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problems of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital.  How, then, could we overlook this vital fact when it comes to that very big firm, the economy of Spaceship Earth and, in particular, the economies of its rich passengers?"

- E F Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 1973

Erosion of natural capital has continued over the past 50 years, despite the heightened awareness of environmental impact of industrialization and population growth.  Over the fifty years, there’s been a multitude of international conventions, giving birth to a large number of new institutions and protocols on sustainable development.  They have proved just one thing – that there’s no silver bullet for the environmental predicament.

Next in the line of an ever-increasing number of international get-togethers is scheduled for 20th – 22nd June 2012, titled the Earth Summit 2012, or 'Rio + 20' to signify the 20 year milestone since the 1992 Rio Summit, which resulted in Agenda21, Blueprint for a Sustainable Planet.  

The key objectives for the upcoming Summit are:

  • Securing Political Commitment to Sustainable Development
  • Assessing Progress Towards Internationally Agreed Commitments
  • New and Emerging Challenges

 And, the themes around which the Summit would be centered are:

  • Green Economy in the context of Poverty Eradication and Sustainable Development
  • Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development

But, with much of the developed world still under the dark clouds of the global financial crisis, and large developing economies of India and China yet to find their leadership feet on global agendas such as the environment, it may be up to the host country, Brazil to do some of the heavy-lifting.  Australia, with its strong economy is well-poised to take some leadership, but the discussion around Australia’s position at the Summit is deafeningly quiet. 

So, how likely is all this talk to yield some meaningful outcomes?  The sole victory in this road to sustainability was the Montreal Protocol on Ozone, which came into force in 1989 and resulted in real and measurable progress – consumption of ozone depleting substances has largely been reduced in the past 20 years.  Our Earth needs many more such victories.  I, like Schumacher, believe that we may have over-complicated our priorities.

"A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.... The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity. Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity."

- E F Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 1973

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (, 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne.