50,000 people and I, and I, and I
What happens when over 50,000 people from all around the world, representing virtually every community, come together to discuss the future we want? I get dizzy when I start to contemplate the scope of facilitating such a discussion among a wide diversity of perspectives. And having come all the way to Rio de Janeiro does not make it any easier to describe the dynamics that exist when so many minds converge in one place, as a single wave, to discuss a common theme. It reminds me of a famous song (1966) “Et moi, et moi, et moi” [And I, and I, and I], by French singer Jacques Dutronc who, with lots of humour, depicts the life of a man lost in a world with millions of people different from him. Here, it illustrates the struggle to have one's voice heard.
|A youth from Earth asking a question during the side-event organized by BIC|
I would like to explore one aspect of international conferences on the environment that often seems overlooked, namely the extraordinary influx of people and insights from civil society that accompanies these conferences. On the 6th day of the pre-conference gatherings, a quick review of major western newspapers like The New York Times, El País, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and Le Monde, revealed that only two of them consider the conference from civil society's perspective, and only one does so on its home page. It is true that the responsibility to adopt an implementable agreement rests on the shoulders of the heads of state gathered at the high-level segment of the conference. However, to ignore the non-governmental actors that are also present is to forget how much civil society is engaged in the issues at stake––prior, during and after the conference. Its unique, critical, and above all, non-profit perspective gained through ongoing, practical experience at the grassroots, gives to civil society a powerful voice––one which needs to be heard. So far, it has only longed to.
This is what it is all about––a collective voice, which is actually many, many voices; a multitude of concerns, causes, and campaigns to be expressed, defended, and won; and one goal, a sustainable world for the generations to come. As said above, this will be an exploration, rather than a set of answers, of this massive wave, coming from far and gaining added strength as it approaches its destination, often carrying hidden pearls in the midst of its foam: civil society.
From far and wide
Civil society: We are individuals talking about indigenous women from Guatemala who wish to see the preservation of their traditional knowledge formally recognized in the final agreement. We are students from Florida who travelled to describe a non-profit organization we created to promote sustainability solutions for campuses. We are businesses that would no longer like to be seen as part of the problem, but rather, part of the solution. We are engineers who believe that a simple salad spinner could save lives; we are a global organisation that seeks to provide an ethical framework for sustainable development. And we are many, many more, from every corner of the earth. Each one of us is here with a different agenda, but we are all motivated by the desire for action and for the betterment of the world.
A common language, a diversity of experiences
In the midst of such diversity, certain expressions resonate as slogans: “We need a new economic paradigm”, “we have to connect the dots”, “we need to empower youth/women/small scale farmers”, “we need to build capacity”, “we are one and we are part of a whole from which we cannot be disconnected” etc. What does this tell us? Have we really reached the shift of consciousness—from a top-down and fragmented approach to development, to a more united, bottom-up one—as such slogans seem to indicate? And if so, where do we go from there?
What I can share so far, is that from here, one can truly feel a strong sense of belonging among civil society — belonging to the same planet, within the same finite boundaries. This is manifested in the conversations people have with each other, asking time and again: “And you, what do you expect from Rio+20?”. This is manifested in the willingness to learn from each other and to build bridges. Generally, there is a desire to be on the same page and to raise each other's expectations because you, me — all of us — are affected by what is unfolding here. What is evident is that, despite the many different perspectives and the diversity of cultures represented, a common language and a shared reality still manages to emerge.
Thus, the learning being generated within these multiple discussion areas, formal or informal, is beyond what all universities together could teach. Perhaps I am exaggerating. But how often does one get the opportunity to meet with such diverse groups of people, presenting endeavors and initiatives which help to realize what they believe? I am not trying to idealize civil society, but rather attempting to highlight what I already consider to be one of the major successes of this conference: the gradual emergence of a shared understanding of what is required to establish a sustainable future. This common language reveals that voices, ideas and concerns raised from the world over, whether from Cambodia, New Zealand or Romania, are slowly unveiling facets of a single reality.
In this context, I have identified three main points that I believe no one at this conference would challenge:
- People are not passive recipients. They have the potential to take charge of their own development when they are empowered through capacity-building.
- The current economic model cannot be pursued as it is (and deliberations on the next paradigm are critically needed)
- Our interdependence implies more than mere linkages requiring a necessary cooperation. It carries with it a shared responsibility towards our environment and our fellow human beings.
Are these ideas obvious conclusions? Maybe to some and maybe not to others. But it is indeed warming to hear them stated by so many in this microcosm of humanity.