Rio and Rationality

What Happened in Rio

Dreamstime - RioAbout 50,000 people representing 188 nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro last week for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. I am told that the Conference was the largest the UN has ever conducted. The Conference, dubbed “Rio +20”, was intended to follow upon and expand on the ambitious Agenda 21[1] that resulted from the original Earth Summit held in Rio 20 years ago. Agenda 21 — a 600 page document — marks the formal beginning of actions toward Sustainable Development on a global scale.

Rio +20 was hyped as a once in a generation opportunity. The outcome from the Conference, a 286 paragraph document entitled the “Future We Want”, however, was not well received. The UN Secretary General for Rio +20 called it “an outcome that makes nobody happy”. Mark McDonald, blogging for the New York Times[2], says:

 The final statement from Rio, “The Future We Want,” is 283 paragraphs of kumbaya that “affirm,” “recognize,” “underscore,” “urge” and “acknowledge” seemingly every green initiative and environmental problem from water crises and creeping deserts to climate change and overfishing. Women’s rights, indigenous peoples, children, mining, tourism, trade unions and the elderly also get shout-outs in the document.

Clearly, top – down political muscle was missing, because commitments to actions — who, what, by when and how much money actions are missing. While about 100 heads of government were in attendance, top leaders from the U.S., the U.K. and Germany were among the missing. Why? Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits[3] taught a generation that Urgent trumps Important. Covey should have added that More Urgent pushes Less Urgent aside. Just now, partisan gridlock and the coming elections dominate political urgency in the U.S. The Euro crisis dominates in much of the Europe.

Because there were so many interested and influential people gathered in Rio, there were also many side conferences, formal and informal. Some of those were considerably more up-beat and conclusive, including a conference of big city mayors and several gatherings of business people.

What Now?

Absent some very visible environmental catastrophe, smaller manufacturers might expect few new government mandates, at least until the U.S. elections are over and the Euro crisis is resolved. Global pressures on the natural world continue to increase. The importance of Green measures continues to increase. Urgency will return, perhaps with a vengeance.

The lack of urgency is on the geopolitical level. The smaller, more focused meetings in Rio suggest that a lot more actually happens when people think and act within their own purview. Smaller manufacturers should likewise follow their own lead — act prudently within your company, your industry and the local communities you serve. Hold the kumbaya.

Jero LogoThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated. Click on the title of this post to open the comments section.

…  Chuck Harrington (

: When it is time for your firm to seriously pursue Sustainability, contact me. — C.H.

A .pdf version of this post is available at:

Photo (Rio – Cityscape): Dreamstime,

[1] Agenda 21 is available from the U.N. at:


[3] Covey, Stephen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, New York (2004)