Rio + 20 = Business as Usual
The recent talks at Rio+20 on sustainable developments have been criticised by many for achieving very little in terms of tackling the crisis facing the planet. In my view the reasons for this are clear and embedded in the way we communicate science and policy to public demanding critical self-examination and reflection.
The starting point is how the sustainable development message is framed from the environment perspective. 'Doom', 'gloom', 'crisis', 'impending catastrophe', 'threat', 'tipping point', 'failure', 'calamity' and 'disaster' represent some of the most common words. Furthermore such words are backed up with a burgeoning scientific literature with compelling evidence in support. So why is there no urgent collective and widespread public or political appetite to act?
First, we have what I call the 'Osborne' principle where the environment is seen as a bureaucratic brake on development. This equates the environment as anti-progressive and a threat to our future well being as measured by GDP/GNP indicators.
Second, we have the 'what, another crisis syndrome'. Here the word 'crisis' is over-used to such an extent that the term becomes meaningless. This is made worse by the need for more and more sensationalist headlines in order to get the media coverage we all crave. So ironically when there is a real crisis we will be de-sensitised to act properly as beautifully illustrated in the fictional Day After Tomorrow movie.
Third, and closely allied to this, the environmental doom merchants, are promoting messages that stress how we are destroying the planet requiring urgent action which sits uncomfortably within the current austerity programme and the needs of people for affordable homes, good schools, a national health service and the latest phone! Consequently, as the latest environmental thinking gets discussed in conferences, events or workshops it is being shared amongst those who are already converted creating further distance between them and the wider publics and other communities of interest.
Fourth, the policy world is awash with 'greenwash' where sustainable development is widely heralded as the number one goal in the rhetoric and policies of government (eg National Planning Policy Framework ); multinational corporations and businesses. However, in practice the prevailing logic of business as usual proceeds.
Finally, the vocabulary of the new environmental messages (e.g. ecosystem approach, biodiversity, ecosystem services, tipping points) is complex and inaccessible to publics other than the scientific and policy community who are directly involved in the research and policy development. This leaves a huge gap for those who make decisions on the ground at the household level and other communities of interest (e.g. business) that use different models to function and plan. This "disintegrated thinking" leads to many different and unconnected decisions.
Collectively this creates a culture from the bottom-up that hinders significant action with governments fearful to act as it may lose votes and/or threaten economic sovereignty allowing other economies to overtake them in the economic performance league tables.
In my view the problem lies firmly in the way the environmental movement has operated and allowed itself to be hijacked and manipulated by science, politics and its own fervour creating an artificially constructed fear factor syndrome that leads to little reaction. The metaphor of the footballer writhing in agony on the ground only to get up perfectly healed a few minutes later, provides a powerful image of the problem in my mind.
We need to change the 'how' and the 'what' of the environmental message for sustainable development which first needs recognising that we need an effective PR machine to do this. Most businesses spend millions of pounds on getting their messages across so that they have real impact. The environmental profession spends peanuts in comparison relying on academics and emotive political rhetoric which bluntly only appeals to the already converted. So with these limitations in mind I suggest a different way we might reconsider framing the environmental message.
The starting point is to take off the doom and gloom 'glasses' however correct they are and seek to view the world through different lenses, understanding the needs and desires of different groups using a range of different survey techniques. Using this kind of evidence we can then start to think how the different lenses can complement each other rather than divide and polarise. This might be in building new villages, towns or developments or in use of public transport or recycling. At the heart of this is the need for us to work collectively in policy formation breaking the silos and working across boundaries.
The environment and natural resources provide a vast opportunity space to help us develop the kinds of society and places we want and need. The trick is to recognise how the environment might help development needs (flood protection, food production, carbon storage, energy production, disease prevention and cure, health and well being) and then embed such environmental benefits into other business and community strategies, for example. It is also important to highlight how some resources are irreplaceable so whilst many marvel at rain forests how many of us marvel at our peat bogs in the UK which equally perform key services to society?
The key issue is that no one single view, economic, community or environment across one scale (neighborhood local-regional-national-EU-global), can work in isolation and yet we still seek to educate our children into specialist subject silos rather than expose them to more diverse curricula which enables appreciation of the connections across these different boundaries which is where most sustainable development solutions lie.
Plain and positive language is key here and nothing turns people off more than the doom and gloom brigade and academics intoxicated by the eloquence of their own verbosity, so if you have nothing positive to say then perhaps you are better off keeping quiet!