Rio +20 and the (UN)canny Future of Human Sadness

In 2011 Ray Kurzweil made headlines for pointing out that solar energy technologies had been subject to the Law of Accelerated Returns for the past two decades. “It is amazing how predictable this is,” he told an audience in Florida. By 2026, 100% of our energy needs will be satisfied by sunlight.

So sit back and take it easy. Nothing to worry about. Except, perhaps, the logistics of how such innovation will be implemented in time and space.

One objection frequently leveled against Kurzweil is that political and financial interests will not vanish into compliance as these doublings of information technology (bandwidth, processing, storage, etc) impart the capacity to solve global environmental crises, satisfy energy demands, and transform human nature. In response, Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near points out that the Law of Accelerated Returns has always taken shape in a context of social conservatism. The Law finds a way, come what may.

Try telling that to officials at the Rio +20 summit.

The official proceedings of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio +20, begin tomorrow. Much of the press coverage in recent days situates the summit in a context of “global pessimism.” Pessimism, naturally, has led many others to vocally announce that Rio +20 is the planet’s last chance to address environmental crisis and other long-term ills. Ban-Ki Moon, in a dutiful expression of sheer willpower, called the global summit “too important to fail.”

The pessimism I share with a large mass of humanity coexists with a long-term commitment to developing mankind’s capacity to will things into existence. I am therefore torn. This mixture of pessimism and brute force erupted today as I strolled through Cherry Hill Park in Falls Church, Virginia, on my way to a local coffee shop, into a form of laughter that expresses sadness. None of my reasons for feeling this way have anything to do with Kurzweil’s portrayal of inevitability, which, if accepted, would cast Rio +20 in a pitiful light. Far from seeing Rio +20 as sheer folly, I view such convenings in terms of an on-going international struggle among “the Three D’s”: Development, Diplomacy, and Defense.

Does Rio +20 offer yet another Archimedian pivot toward a world with a green economy, aware of environmental crisis, planetary boundaries, and human values beyond the GDP, as some have suggested? Or does the elaborate event planning, document drafting, and proclamation of institutional commitments crumble beneath the harsh weight of Development’s famous bodyguard, Defense, and spokesman, Diplomacy?

Is it not cause for sad laughter when 130 Heads of State convene to develop a working consensus about anything? Those of us cruising the Happy Hour scene in Washington DC are also induced to sad laughter by candid conversations with mid-level US officials, who almost universally see nothing substantive emerging from Rio. And if you think mid-level officials are uninformed, think again — they are the ones doing the prep work and back-of-stage negotiations.

In the United States, development never leaves the side of its defense-diplomacy entourage. Simply put, it is “the Three D’s,” rather than development per se, that frame the Rio +20 discourse. As such, attempts to frame sustainable development in terms of planetary boundaries and environmental crisis must contend with the mighty powers of state interest, national defense, economic competitiveness, and the martial arts of mass persuasion.

From this vantage, the UN Conference could be viewed in a light similar to the way Jacques Derrida viewed the global student movement of 1968: “It does not disturb” the institutions it seeks to modify. The moment it begins to disturb, dominance behaviors emerge. When specific countries insist on amendments to the language of proposed agreements, or refuse to sign on the dotted line, this is typically a sign that development’s entourage feels a bit uneasy about something.

If these remarks suggest I have made a statement of outcome before the event has officially commenced, that is exactly what living in Washington and studying public policy has done to me. There may be dozens of outputs, in form of documents, advisory panels, and commitments to further meetings, but there is quite a big difference between outputs and outcomes.

In defense of Rio +20, consider Kurzweil’s response to the objection of social conservatism: energy innovation, technology transfer, and international development have always occurred in a context of conservative forces. But then, sustainable development has never been attempted at this scale. There is no clear indication, even in the presence of new international agreements, that the distrubution of benefits from energy innovation, for example, will suddenly reach every hut and hamlet on the planet in the coming decades. While tremendous gains have been achieved in the past 50 years — one billion people saved from poverty, 80% reductions in global infant mortality, etc — development still entails a tough slog through history. UN Millenium Development Goals are a long way from achievement, even as the Rio +20 summit delegations seek to expand those goals to include environmental and natural resource features through new sustainability metrics.

But outputs are not outcomes.

The angel of my better nature believes this is what muddling through looks like. Good ideas must influence millions of human decisions in order to have systemic impacts. There is no magic formula for implementing solution options. I may find it sadly comical that convening 130 Heads of State is viewed as a recipe for anything successful, but who doesn’t love surprises?

Is Rio +20 subject to a collective act of will? Can we muddle through a swamp of social conservatism and achieve any of the goals frequently set by the UN, such as the Millenium Development Goals or the newly-proposed Sustainable Development Goals?

History remains a solid ground for measuring expectations of global social change. In my estimation, Rio +20 does not seem poised to overturn such deeply human madness as expressed in 2002 by the President of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, who refused to accept GM corn as emergency aid during a food crisis: “We would rather starve than get something toxic,” he said. (Who is this We he speaks of?) The result of this refusal was that rural Zambians were eating poisonous berries and nutritionless twigs for supper. As this stark example demonstrates, considerations of diplomacy and defense frequently trump aspirations for human flourishing through sustainable development.

When Rio +20 takes off tomorrow, the Three D’s will begin their elaborate dance. I am prepared for something uncanny, and wish the planet all the best. You can watch it unfold from your living room, from outer space, or from the middle of the jungle (ah, the Doubling!) here.

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