I have bad news and good news about this week’s Rio+20 summit on sustainable development, which has been billed as the biggest United Nations conference of all time. The bad news is that it will accomplish nothing. The good news is that it will accomplish … nothing. That is a relief, since what the summit is demanding would be bad for poor people.
Although everybody knows that Rio will accomplish nothing, there will be lots of news coverage about it. That’s because about 130 world leaders are expected to show up, as well as 50,000 delegates, observers, NGO types, indigenous people and protesters. Like the G20, Rio is a pointless event that’s too big to ignore. Like all its predecessors, it will propose hopelessly unworkable solutions to intractable problems, accompanied by dire warnings that we’re doomed if we don’t implement them.
Twenty years ago, the first Rio summit put the phrase “sustainable development” on the map. Its mastermind was Canadian businessman Maurice Strong. According to him, our consumption-based economic model is driving us toward oblivion and the only way to save the planet is to let the UN run the world economy. (Why the UN would be able to run the world economy any better than the Europeans can run the European economy is a question worth pondering.)
Fortunately, our consumption-based economic model has done more to alleviate human misery than all the world’s environmental treaties laid end to end. In the past 20 years, poverty and hunger have been in sharp decline. Despite our soaring global population, people are better fed and live longer than ever before. That’s not to say we don’t face urgent environmental problems – we do. But they’re not the ones the people who attend UN summits think they are.