How to create the change we want?

“The Elders' generation got agreements signed and solutions designed. But let’s be honest here: most actions for sustainable development are cosmetic, ignorant or thwarted.”

27-year old Swedish activist Sara argues for a more radical approach. Exactly one month before Rio+20, she asks how we can make the most of this moment; what lessons we can learn from the Arab Spring and Occupy; and whether it's possible to bridge the gap between the UN and the grassroots movement. Mary Robinson, Marvin Nala from China and Pedro Telles from Brazil respond.

Sara Svensson Tuesday 22nd May 2012 | 14:42 UTC

We live in an era of transformative change, and have come to a point when change is not a choice. To change or not to change – that is not the question. An ever-growing number of people realise that if we don’t transform, we will be transformed.

The only way to impede devastating change is by implementing desired change. But how do we move from this insight to actually make it happen?

The Elders' generation got agreements signed and solutions designed. But let’s be honest here: most actions for sustainable development are cosmetic, ignorant or thwarted. We are told that we need to trust the United Nations, since it’s the only kind of global governance we have. We are told that we must be realistic, pragmatic and patient, since the right conditions for consensus are yet to come. We are told that solutions exist and it’s just a matter of political will.

How much more precious time are we supposed to lose while waiting?

If politics is the art of what is possible, we must redefine pragmatism and expand the room for action. The art of changing what is possible is called 'activism'. But activism can take multiple forms, and is not automatically effective. I believe that we must start calling for change in much more radical ways and to a much greater extent than what the world is used to. If the time for ‘business-as-usual’ has passed, so has the time for ‘politics-as-usual’ and ‘activism-as-usual’.

“The only way to impede devastating change is by implementing desired change. ”

On 18 December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark, the UN Summit on Climate Change concluded without the international commitment so desperately needed. The following morning I was sitting around a candle with a small circle of friends. A bunch of journalists from around the world watched in silence and took photos as I slowly, slowly drank a juice. I could feel the energy from the juice moving through my body, all the way out in my fingertips. For the past 43 days I had been eating nothing and drinking only water. My hunger strike was an urgent call for climate justice and sustainability.

On Christmas Eve, less than a week after these climate negotiations turned the United Nations into the Divided Nations, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to organise the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. Preparations for Rio+20 have been going on over the past two and a half years since then. With less than a month left to the summit, it is obvious that once again negotiations are moving too slow and with far too little ambition to secure a sustainable and equitable future for all.

I still believe that Rio+20 is a crucial moment in history, and we should seize all opportunities there are to use it for creating the change we want. We can encourage everybody to join the Rio+20 Dialogues and make voluntary commitments. We can also use this moment to plan for what will happen after Rio, regardless of the political outcomes. How can we do that – and what else do you think we need to do?

Over the past year and a half, I’ve been watching the peaceful uprisings of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement in solidarity and with hope. It is a sign that the social movement for positive change is growing. It manifests how new technologies and social media can be used as tools for organising and mobilisation. What lessons can we learn and apply to the sustainability movement?

In addition to the official UN events in Rio, the alternative People’s Summit will take place. I’m standing with one leg in the UN and the other in the grassroots movement. Is it possible to bridge the gap between the two?

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson Monday 28th May 2012 | 10:15 UTC

Sara, you are right to say that our generation was good at getting agreements signed. The 1992 Earth Summit was very valuable. It gave us Agenda 21, a comprehensive blueprint for environmental responsibility, the climate conference and a complete set of goals. Many people left the Summit filled with hope.

But since then, our haste to globalise meant the strong countries placed too much emphasis on economic development. We failed to value environmental and social development. The current economic crisis outlines that achievements in only one aspect of sustainability are short-lived without equal attention to the others.

“We failed to value environmental and social development.”

Therefore I’m not particularly proud of the world we are leaving to you and your generation. I’m frustrated that we’re not being more intelligent about our actions, that we’re more selfish than we should be. I worry a lot about the state of humanity and that our great-grandchildren may well say, ‘How could they have been so stupid not to foresee? How could they have failed to understand what they must do?’

Getting agreements is difficult and important work. But you are right – it is not nearly enough. We have an opportunity at Rio+20 to finally put ourselves on the right tracks. We need to revalue real sustainable development – economic, environmental and social sustainability. If we truly commit to equity and fairness in how we will bring the world into a safer future, then I will say Rio+20 has been successful.

Young people today are savvier and have a broader worldview than generations before you. The digital world connects people everywhere – for your generation, it is natural to form friendships with people halfway across the world.

You also have more potential to be part of the decision-making process because of the tools at your disposal. We learned from the Arab Spring how these new tools helped people realise they were not alone, and created new spaces for public conversations about the way they are governed. And they found power in numbers, saying “if you go out into the Square, I’ll go with you” and tens, hundreds, thousands joined them. Technologies were helping to redefine democracy in a way.

The sustainability movement can certainly learn something here: is it possible, using these same tools, to create a global mass movement for sustainable development?

My message to you, Sara, is simple: go for it! Make your voice heard. If necessary, interrupt. Make sure that in any global or national or local context, you are heard because youth account for over 3 billion of the Earth’s inhabitants and we cannot afford to exclude you.

The commitments and sacrifices you’ve made in your young life tell us all how deeply you care. In answer to your question: it seems you straddle the worlds of activism and the UN effortlessly.

I know we face momentous challenges, but let me tell you what encourages me: your passion for change shows me the world exactly as it should be.

Marvin Nala
Marvin Nala Tuesday 29th May 2012 | 08:58 UTC

Dear Sara,

Thank you for the opening note on this very interesting topic.

The Arab Spring and Occupy Movement have reminded the world that we people are the ultimate key to most problems we face today. And at the end of first decade of the 21st century, the global community of social media empowered citizens are making their voices heard, getting support for their actions from people living in other parts of our world. Very recent innovations like Facebook and Twitter have connected people all around the world and make our planet much smaller.

“For many people in the world, globalisation means 'westernisation'.”

This means that local problems can be easily conveyed to the top level of policy-makers. At the same time, politicians have been learning to generate public support to push their own policy agenda via these social media. Outstanding examples can be the election campaign of President Obama, who used social media to mobilise huge grassroots support. Or the EU Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, who used Twitter to spin public opinion during UN climate negotiations last year in Durban.

Regarding the paradigm shift to the sustainable future we want, I do believe that the policy demands of the grassroots at the local level have been given much greater significance in decision-making processes due to the use of social media, which has helped to shape a global community of citizens on many issues. Even in China, our own online social networks like Sina Weibo have made unbelievable and positive changes on important issues – from terrible air pollution to fake food scandals.

Even so, I'm also a bit concerned that the trend of globalisation will aggravate fundamental cultural and religious distrust among countries without effective and equitable dialogue. For many people in the world, globalisation means 'westernisation'. We fear that this power is so overwhelming, we won't have the patience to hear different voices.

However, no one will deny that technological breakthroughs will lead to a dramatic shift in the ways we understand and change our world. As the young generation, it's time to take advantage of this and make the future we want a reality.

Pedro Telles
Pedro Telles Tuesday 29th May 2012 | 12:20 UTC

Dear all,

Both Sara and Mary Robinson raised an important point: we have the commitments and agreements, but they haven't become reality as needed. Ultimately, I believe, they haven't been connected to strong and effective measures of tracking and implementation, so many people soon fall into disbelief or forget what was agreed.

Being so, I sense there are two things we need to work on hard. As civil society, we need to get stronger and louder than ever to guarantee that we are not only being heard, but also being included in decision processes and in the monitoring of activities that affect public interests. As society as a whole, we need to foster pragmatic solutions that can 'walk the talk'.

In one of her questions, Sara mentioned that we need to use Rio+20 as a moment to stick together, send our message and plan our actions, regardless of the official political outcomes – I couldn't agree more. But unfortunately, due to a series of delicate issues we've been observing in the preparatory process for the conference, I don't see the Rio+20 Dialogues or voluntary commitments as being sufficient.

“We need to foster pragmatic solutions that can 'walk the talk'.”

The Rio+20 Dialogues, that are being organised by the Brazilian government together with the UN, were announced as an innovative participatory space for civil society to be heard in its plurality. The core objective is really positive. But despite many requests and advice, the organisation of these Dialogues – from the drawing of the programme to the list of invitees – was kept away from civil society, with almost no participation by anyone but governmental agents, and this has led to much criticism. The Dialogues are a interesting step, and hopefully will be improved in future – but if the idea is to allow civil society to express its opinion in a legitimate way, it is crucial to have civil society participating in the construction of the whole thing since the beginning, instead of only being invited to a process that was already set up by someone else.

And when talking about voluntary commitments, they are important, but we must be careful because they are sometimes used to draw attention away from multilateral negotiations and public policies. Both governmental and private actors who are not interested in being charged or monitored frequently use voluntary commitments as a way to avoid other measures, and that might weaken Rio+20 negotiations outcomes. Voluntary commitments surely have their role, and must be fostered – but we have to be mindful of their limitations.

To conclude, I would like to add to Mary Robinson's and Marvin's comments an additional question, to which I don't have a complete answer yet. New technologies can be of great assistance for mass movements, as we have seen recently. But they are usually more praised for being catalysts of old-fashioned activist initiatives (or 'activism-as-usual', as pointed out by Sara) than for bringing really innovative means of mobilisation. So what are some really innovative types of activism brought by new technologies, and how can we go even further?

It would be great to hear your thoughts on all of that!

Esther Agbarakwe
Esther Agbarakwe Thursday 31st May 2012 | 09:59 UTC

Dear Sara,

While I was reading your blog and the pondering the great questions that you asked, I was immediately taken back to thinking about governance in my native country of Nigeria and the role young people – who make up over 60 per cent of the population – are playing.

Many years ago as a child in primary school, I was told I will be the ‘leader of Nigeria tomorrow’, meaning that children will grow up to be leaders at all levels of governance. But now I am 27 and I am seeing and reading stories about those same leaders who were fighting to lead the country when I was a child – and still are today.

“Governments and the UN have been negotiating our lives.”

Today our world has changed so much, from whatever angle you may see it. Sara, I remember seeing you and your peers in Copenhagen, strengthening youth leadership capacities, protesting and even fasting to call for change. I was deeply inspired by these efforts, led by the youth climate movement that you and I are part of now.

It is a shame that governments and the UN have been negotiating our lives. I had the opportunity to speak at one of the high level sessions at the Stockholm+40 Partnership Forum on Sustainable Development in your home country Sweden, an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the first UN Conference on the Human Environment. At the event 500 participants – young people, researchers, decision-makers, representatives of the business community and civil society from 72 countries – had the opportunity to meet, listen to and participate in panel discussions, seminars, workshops and conversations during the breaks. Young people were seen as an integral part in moving towards a more sustainable society.

But these conferences are not enough. We need a more radical change in moving forward as the ‘old way’ of doing things hasn’t helped. This radical change must also start inwards as well as at local and national levels.

The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring have given us so many things. Last year, my country Nigeria witnessed a transformation in the electoral process with young people mobilising, engaging in civic education and monitoring the elections as citizen journalists and as voters. We were involved, and we even made getting involved fun. We saw for the first time how the power of young people combined with access to technology and information can lead to the radical change we all so desired.

Earlier this year, Occupy Nigeria Movement was born. The movement has inspired a greater sense of ‘engagement’ in governance and has helped to keep government and its actions in check. The use of social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook has been a prominent feature within the movement.

I must reiterate what Pedro said: that “there are two things we need to work on hard. As civil society, we need to get stronger and louder than ever to guarantee that we are not only being heard, but also being included in decision processes and in the monitoring of activities that affect public interests. As society as a whole, we need to foster pragmatic solutions that can 'walk the talk'.”

Responding to Mrs Robinson’s question on lessons learned from the Arab spring and Occupy movement, I will say yes – #OccupySustainableDevelopment is possible, and it begins now and should not stop at Rio. We have all it takes to push and hold leaders accountable for a more just and sustainable world. The time is now!

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson Thursday 7th June 2012 | 09:44 UTC

I know that Esther, Pedro, Marvin and Sara are used to our praise by now. That they are able to engage in this dialogue, in addition to all of their other commitments – and all in the run-up to Rio – speaks to their commitment and to their generosity.

But I was also struck, reading this page, by some of the wonderful messages sent in by others. Joachim Ramakers writes a very thoughtful and inspiring message about the financial crisis, economic indicators, social movements and social media. I encourage everyone to read it. I am also struck by how much it echoes the contribution from my fellow Elder, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in launching the next week of discussion. So Joachim – if you read this! – I very much hope you will continue to explore these issues with us. And I hope many others will continue to join.

There is a theme that runs through this whole discussion, which is about the role of technology in creating change. Joachim raises it. Marvin talks of how the social network Sina Weibo helped to create momentum in reaction to food safety scandals or pollution in China – which truly shows how movements for sustainable development can be borne out of popular, broad and justified anger. Esther describes how the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ movement was both inspired by the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, as witnessed on social media channels, and in turn enabled by the use of these networks across Nigeria itself.

These tools are clearly broadening horizons and making engagement easier. And Esther, while ‘Occupy Sustainable Development’ may not trip off the tongue too easily, I think we are genuinely onto something with that idea!

But I also take Pedro’s and Sara’s point: there is such a thing as ‘activism as usual’ and no one can say whether new technologies have fundamentally reduced political apathy in the wider population. This means those of us who know what kind of change we want need to be much smarter in how we engage with as many people as possible. So far, we haven't seen anyone really meet that challenge.

So I don't believe we have an answer to Pedro's question: "what are some really innovative types of activism brought by new technologies, and how can we go even further?" I echo this question - and you can expect me to press you on this when we meet in Rio!

I leave you with two thoughts I think we broadly agree on. The first is about bridging the gap between institutions and the wider world. The isolation of civil society from some of the proceedings at Rio+20 is terribly frustrating in that regard, as Pedro points out. It is a point I hope we can return to in this discussion, closer to the summit - only in three weeks’ time.

The second is about living sustainably, of “being the change we want to see”, as both Sara and Julia, in the comments, suggest. This, of course, is far from being a satisfactory answer – let alone a solution. But it points to the fundamental point at the heart of change: if we demand change from others, we must demand it from ourselves.

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