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We are not mere supplicants to the politicians and bureaucrats at Rio. We are also potential co-designers and co-producers of solutions.

At the Earth Summit in Rio, June 20 -22, some 70,000 [1] people will meet up to talk about sustainable development. The 2012 summit comes 20 years on from the original Earth Summit in Rio.

One of the things that's changed in those 20 years is the development of information and communications technology. Today's world includes social media and the spread of mobile communications.

Prior to the Rio 2012 summit a variety of social media projects have attempted to gather the voices of citizens from across the world. The UN's 'The Future we want' [2] is one example of these initiatives. Visioning the future we want of course is an important step. If we don't know where we're going we're unlikely to get there. But how will we get there? How will we get the future we want?

Of course we need to move from talk to action. And that includes all of us, not just the politicians. We need to move on from just using social media to connect, important though that first step is. We need a more mature use of social media. Uses which promote collaboration. Collaborative platforms such as Ushahidi [3] hint at what's possible. But of course we need uses way beyond reacting to emergencies, important though that is, to include proactive action for more sustainable communities and a better quality of life for all.

Civil society better informed, more influential

"What gets measured gets managed" Sorry about the 'management speak'. Just read that as 'done or at least attempted' instead of 'managed'. The open data movement and initiatives such as FuturICT [4] which explicitly recognize the centrality of civic participation will increasingly aid us with the information we need to make better sense of our world and what we can do to help change it. I'm optimistic that the spread of open data, social media, mobile communication, etc. can and will enable mass participation of one kind or another whatever government does. If we're heading toward an age of transparency, for government to continue to ignore the concerns and well being of the many beyond the few seems an increasingly unsustainable stance.

Yes we can, the importance of local action for sustainability

In our local communities is where it all becomes real for most of us. Too often this is about reacting to, and resisting inappropriate development. We haven't really developed enough capability for pro-actively building sustainable communities, although no doubt ICLEI's (Local Governments for Sustainability) forthcoming Local Sustainability 2012 study will point to a number of success stories [5]. That'll need to change. We all need to be able to influence decisions affecting our local communities. As NRDC's Jacob Scherr puts it "we need to crowdsource sustainability." [6]

All who want to help, and have been helping towards a more sustainable future need to be recognized, trusted, valued and respected. The choice for government at all levels isn't about either massive top-down bureaucracy or just getting out of the way. Government can help facilitate the involvement of civil society, and again this must mean genuine influence for the many beyond the few, but that will inevitably mean at least some real resources behind it. It's encouraging that within the Joint Messages of Local and Sub-national Governments, Recommendation 1: A new multi-level governance architecture is needed, they say "We emphasize the importance of citizen participation and the ability of the local community to involve the many actors including citizens and groups, civil society and the private sector. " [7]

The importance of celebrating civic action

It's perhaps inevitable that major groups will write history from their own point of view. So in assessing achievements since the first Earth summit 20 years ago, few if any will be assessing the role of civil society. If we, that is all of us within civil society's movement for sustainability in its widest sense, want be involved, valued, respected and trusted by others (for example government) we need to do that also amongst ourselves. Whether you've been involved in action for sustainability for an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, many years, or decades even, celebrate what you've achieved in that time.

After summits there can often be an air of gloom as people focus on what the politicians have or haven't done. Some would say it's important to tell it how it is, especially after recent climate change conferences. There's also quite rightly a focus on how much there is still to do. But it's important also to celebrate what has already been achieved. If you've been involved with a community project take the opportunity around the Earth Summit to celebrate it and your achievements. Civil society has achieved a lot in the last 20 years. Value it. You have a choice, no matter how the Earth Summit turns out this time, you can decide whether to add to the hope or add to the gloom.

Just say no to victimhood

OK so why haven't I mentioned world leaders so far? Why haven't I said more about the politicians? It's important to say that the scale and scope of the challenges we face mean that we need both civic action and political action. It isn't a question of either, or.

And yet there's a sense maybe in which we, especially in the West, have become too dependent on our politicians. Maybe they deserve our ire for each failure at successive summits? Old style media have been perhaps a little too keen to trot out this style of reporting. They betray perhaps their own stake in our overdependence, in our continued victimhood. Don't you believe it!

Irrespective of what the politicians achieve or fail on at Rio, or future climate change summits, we can say no to victimhood. It isn't even really about whether our politicians are willing to share power with us, though of course that would be nice! Increasingly it's less about them and more about us. What are we doing for a more sustainable future for our own local communities, for a more sustainable world? What will we do in the future, the future beginning the minute Rio+20 ends? I just love this quote from João Scarpelini [8]: "The burning question for #rioplus20: "what are we going to agree that we want to do together!?"

Instead of seeing ourselves as victims of a perhaps imperfect outcome to Rio+20 we can see ourselves more as participants. More and more as co-designers and co-producers of our own futures. Together we can. Believe it! Then and only then do we have a chance of getting the future we want.

Phil Green, founder Sustainable Community Action

This article was first published on GreenMagz, June 2012


Links and references

Rio 2012 group on Wiser

  1. IPS
  2. The Future We Want
  3. Ushahidi on Wikipedia
  4. FuturICT
  5. Local Sustainability 2012 study
  6. Reflections on the Race to Rio
  7. Joint Messages of Local and Sub-national Governments
  8. João Scarpelini on twitter

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