Rio+20, Riots+30?

July 13, 2012

The Rio+20 conference is over. Announced with much publicity, accompanied with many tactically timed media articles and other conferences about sustainability, it has been the occasion for many to demonstrate their apparent concern about the future of the planet. A couple of weeks after the conference, the excitement has faded away, and the tweets that were so abundant on the subject have become rare. This is rather symptomatic of the current behavior of short attention span. Much has been written about Rio+20 and the dominant conclusion is that it has not achieved much, as expected.

For obvious reasons, I followed the part about agriculture and food security with special attention. Since I did not expect anything, I was not disappointed. To me, this conference has left me with the impression that the world leaders are resigned. The text was written before they would meet and it was far from bold. I read it and I could only shake my head. To me it looked like a very politically correct list of commitments that would fit nicely in typical New Year’s resolutions. The principles and statements mentioned in the text are noble but who can seriously think that effective action will follow? Just like world peace, everybody will agree on the principle of a sustainable livable planet where hunger does not exist. The reality is different. Human nature is not that noble and our many flaws hinder us to achieve such goals. In We Will Reap What We Sow, I wrote among others a chapter dedicated to the human weaknesses and how they affect our ability to deliver what we all secretly want. In the book, I also discuss how we can overcome these weaknesses and work toward a successful change. The theme of Rio+20 was “The future we want”. It was not clear to me who we might be, and whether it should be about wanting. Is what we want the same as what we need? The theme should have been “The future we need”. That would have been more precise and more relevant.

I also followed the webcasts dedicated to food and agriculture of the conference, and they disappointed me. I would have loved to see people clearly expressing their frustration about the resistance our world faces to go in the right direction. I would have expected strong calls on the leaders for effective action. I would have expected to see clear action points with clear and non-negotiable deadlines. I would have expected clarity about who should be responsible to do what. I did not get these. Instead, I saw some well-rehearsed PowerPoint presentations carried out by speakers who were rather satisfied with the work of their countries or organizations and who sounded like they found that at least their contribution was excellent and so would it be in the future. I am always suspicious when I hear people justifying themselves while nobody is asking for justifications. I believe that the overwhelming majority of people who work in agriculture to produce more and better food in a better manner do a good job. Most people go to work with the desire to do something good. Such presentations did not add much to the objectives of producing more food in a sustainable manner.

What would I have liked to see happening at the Rio+20 conference, you might ask? Very simple: I would have liked to see people arguing quite vividly and even getting angry, even leaving the negotiation room and slamming the door. This would have been the sign that the right questions had been asked. Considering the complexity of growing more food and at the same time maintain the potential of agriculture to keep producing for generations to come, difficult issues and really annoying questions are inevitable. I really would have liked to see the likes of a Nikita Khrushchev who in the UN took off his shoe to bang it on his desk in the 60s. Although his behavior was somehow out of line and by today’s political correctness standards totally unthinkable, it would be good to have leaders engaging in robust arguments. After all, if the survival of humanity is indeed at stake, this would be a cheap price to pay. Instead of that, the leaders came only to pay lip service, show up on the group picture and went back home knowing that the conference did not address the issues as it should have. At least everybody felt good about a text that was not threatening for anyone, that did not ask for any significant sacrifice and thus life can go on. As soon as they left the building, they returned to business as usual. All the principles listed in the text are correct as such. The only problem is that it is written as if the UN expects world leaders to become altruistic, long-term oriented and good-hearted. It is a bit naive. They are politicians! Yes, in a perfect world, there is no doubt that the world would feed itself sustainably, just as it would not cause climatic change and there would be no poor and hungry people, either. In a perfect world, there would be no need for the UN or the FAO.

What can happen if the economic model derails and collapses if it does not make the right choices to become sustainable? That is not very difficult to figure out. A number of events from the last few years can give us some clues. The riots that took place when the price of food increased sharply in 2008, affecting the lives of many people in developing countries, show that food will play a crucial role for the stability of many regions. It will not take much for such riots to happen again. Because of the economic crisis, a number of heads of states in democratic countries have been defeated during recent elections. The people clearly asked for a different leadership. In Arab countries, a similar demand has been met through social unrest, riots and near civil wars, and the process is still ongoing. The people asked for a different leadership. The intensity of the economic crisis has actually been reduced substantially by the massive printing of money and the large amounts of debts that many countries have had to issue to keep their economies from stopping abruptly. If money printing has softened the short-term impact of the financial meltdown, it also will lengthen its duration quite significantly. Considering the amount of debt and the demographics of Western countries, it will take generations before the debt can be paid back entirely, if that ever even happens. To restore a sound ratio of debt on GDP, most of these countries would actually need a new baby boom to ensure a growth that matches the challenges. Of course, another approach could be to allow immigration numbers to increase strongly, but that does not seem to be on any of these countries’ plans. Moreover, a growth based on the same economic model of consumption society does not appear sustainable and before the right numbers would be met, one can wonder if our species would have survived.

I often tell that the difference between the effects of the financial, the social and the environmental parts of the economy manifest at different speed. Anyone can follow share prices live on the stock market, anyone can follow his/her bank account on a second-by-second if desiring to do so. Social consequences can take months or longer to manifest, and environmental effects can take decades to manifest. The financial crisis has been the result of postponing actions to ensure that the money world could be sustainable. It is still far from being there and the financial crisis is not over, but at least there was the possibility to print money and to emit debt. That entertains the illusion. When it comes to environmental sustainability, our leaders are also postponing actions to ensure that our physical world be sustainable. The main difference is that there is no printing of Nature possible. Printing of wheat, rice, beans or other essential food items is not an option. If we lose the ability to produce enough, there will be fights for food. That is inevitable.

An unsustainable economic model, and in particular an unsustainable agriculture, will result in shortages, not just local but everywhere and anywhere to some extent. It will result in large numbers of people left with few options to survive. Some cultures might deal with it in more orderly manner than others might, but overall, the result will be social unrest that could have the potential to turn into riots and probably even into regional conflicts. A quick look at the world map gives an idea of where it can happen and the potential risks. The Rio+20 conference should have presented prospective scenarios of what will happen if we do not act properly and timely, and it should have asked the leaders on solutions. Leaving a conference handling such a sensitive and complex problem without a genuine brainstorming and a solid and courageous action plan made by the leaders for the world in order to preserve peace and stability comes short of leadership.

Considering the pace of economic, social and environmental change, this was the least that should have been done. Are we going to wait another 20 years for the following conference? Will it be as lame as this one? Will the result of Rio+20 be Riots+30, or +40? I tend to think so more and more. I am increasingly convinced that only a really scary crisis affecting the rich will shake the lethargy. I think that political change will come from the street before it comes from leaders who have apparently already given up. In the food and agriculture sectors, I also expect salvation to come from the ones who are the most involved in production: the farmers, the food producers and the food distributors, simply because their livelihoods will depend directly on an agriculture that is sustainable. Politicians will only follow later, when they and their constituents become food insecure.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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