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BioRegional at Rio + 20

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Simon McWhirter reports

Riot; panoply; effusion? I’ve been lexically stymied as to how best explain the sheer scope and scale of colour, garb, people and sights that a global political summit can engender. With over 40,000 people having descended onto Brazil’s cultural capital Rio de Janeiro for the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, a gathering about the planet’s very future known as the Rio+20 Earth Summit following, as it does, twenty years after the seminal sustainability conference in the same city.

BioRegional at Rio+20

The formal outcome of the Summit looks like something of a mixed bag. The half glass full version is that we have managed to get agreement on a way forward - the official document is entitled ‘The Future We Want’ - from the governments of all 190 countries present. But a more cynical eye would say that the content and its associated promises are so fragmentary and diluted as to be meaningless. As with so any things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and it remains to be seen with what vim and vigour countries, businesses and indeed wider society pick up and deliver on the promises made.

Deputy PM Nick Clegg in the rain at the Rio+20 Summit

Deputy PM Nick Clegg in the rain at the Rio+20 Summit

But Rio+20 wasn’t just about the formal summit for heads of state or their noble seconds (for instance Cameron and Obama couldn’t be bothered coming, sending Clegg and Clinton in their stead). There has been a plethora of events in and around the city percolating ideas and enthusiasm into the mix, and our BioRegional team threw itself at these wider opportunities with as much gusto as the (intensely frustrating) formal process.

A wealth of One Planet Partners pitched the business case for the One Planet Living (OPL) framework at the Global Compact Corporate Sustainability Forum to real acclaim. In fact the central role of One Planet Communities in delivering a more sustainable future was recognised in the closing address to the forum - no doubt encouraged by the tranquil forested retreat of Portugese developer Pelicano’s Mata de Sesimbra and the dreamlike promise of a better future offered by Masdar, the new Foster + Partners-designed desert city gliding from Abu Dhabi’s sands, both of which were showcased.

BioRegional at Rio+20

Planning and executing events at this conference is a tense process, as to journey to Rio only to have an empty room would be soul-destroying. But thankfully at our first event, a hands-on, sleeves rolled up workshop for delegates to learn how to apply OPL principles, saw over 90 people participate and at our official UN side event - on the Sustainable Development Goals - more than ten governments send delegates to suss out the potential beneficence of OPL for them.

We had queues of questioners for Sue and Pooran - BioRegional’s co-founders - and that is what this and indeed our entire presence is about at this conference. To get in front of people, get the message out about the lower impact, more sustainable way to do business / design products / design and construct communities that One Planet Living is. To the outside eye the approach at these conferences can look a bit scattergun, but you start the day with a string of planned events to host, participate in or attend, and then a list as long as one’s arm of people to meet, corral, hassle - but by about 10am another ten opportunities have arisen to engage, enthuse and persuade people to take action. 

BioRegional at Rio+20 - Favela Champions

Between Sue corralling Clegg (from whom she extracted a commitment to host a post-Rio meeting about the possibility of the UK and a developing nation producing twinned One Planet national plans) and the Prime Minster of Bhutan (who agreed to sign the Natural Capital Communiqué at her insistence) and Pooran’s ears perking up amid the flow of Portugese at the event from the Governor of Acre (a state in Brazil), when he and BedZED were name-checked as an inspiration which will lead to BioRegional-involvement in their City for People plan, an impact was being made. 

BioRegional at Rio+20

Key to me was a new strand of work looking at how OPL can cope across extreme disparities in income. OPL is about creating aspirational lifestyles but there is no avoiding the fact that it is easier to create a shiny vision of a sustainable future for those living lives of comfort and joy, than those in impoverishment. For those in the lowest income groups; what does it, or could it, mean?

Prompted by a request from the Mayor of Rio to come and do some OPL work in the city, Bioregional explored that particular problem in a three day, community-driven workshop with people from the Tabejaras and Babilonia/Chapeu Mangueira favelas (very low income areas threaded through the city, sometimes unfairly aggregated under the term ‘slums’, which some are far from) of Rio as part of a parallel forum on social entrepreneurship.

BioRegional at Rio+20

And as for the rest of the time here, it was a flurry of corridor conversations ably navigated by BioRegional International Policy Adviser Freya Seath. The not-so-much Panopticonic, just huge, makeshift General Assembly auditorium wasn’t quite the place of studied concentration and quiet reflection that we expected. As a procession of world leaders took to the stage to set out their country’s position, intentions and hopes for the process, there were a multitude of whispered conversations and side discussions going on all around the room.

Outside, there were people’s summits, trades unions congress, naked protests (what could a conference be without one?) and a UK activist scuppering Nick Clegg’s address to UK organisations, when she donned a Nick-mask, stood up and declaimed the UK’s selling off of our natural assets. 

So, riot; panoply; effusion? All of the above I think. A lot has been done, and a lot achieved. The results however, remain to be seen.


Simon McWhirter is Director of Hab Housing and ‘faugh a ballagh’.

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