Enabling Action at Rio+20

Arthur Dahl's picture


Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland
Co-coordinator UNEP Major Groups and Stakeholders Advisory Group
on International Environmental Governance

Paper presented at the PERL 2nd International Conference, Berlin, 19-20 March 2012


The consideration of the "Green Economy" at UNCSD opens the door to alternatives to the consumer society. In particular, the social dimension of the green economy should be emphasized. The economy should create employment for everyone as a primary purpose, to benefit from the potential of every person to contribute to wealth creation in some appropriate way. The need to maintain ecosystem services and to base the economy on renewable resources will create many opportunities for people to reconnect with nature, with spiritual as well as material benefits. A focus is needed on more human scales of organization for wealth creation in both government and business. The institutional framework for sustainability should include mechanisms to ensure that ethical considerations are addressed at all levels of decision-making. Mechanisms should be put in place to evolve universal dimensions of school curricula and university programmes reflecting global concerns for social and environmental sustainability. A sustainable society will require new kinds of training in systems integration, and holistic and adaptive management. A larger role for civil society should be part of the institutional arrangements at all levels from local to global.


The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 is an opportunity for the governments of the world to create enabling conditions for more responsible living. Prospects are good that the 10-year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production finalized but not approved at the Commission on Sustainable Development in 2011 may finally be agreed. The following proposals suggest some ways that the Rio outcome, which is still being negotiated, could provide alternatives to the consumer society and contribute to responsible living.


Social and green economy

There is a big political debate about the meaning and content of the “green economy”. Developing countries are concerned that the green economy will simply be “green-washing” of continued economic exploitation by multinational corporations. To prevent this and ensure the support of all countries, the social dimension of the green economy should be emphasized in the Rio outcome. Poverty eradication is already at the heart of this theme at Rio+20, but safeguards are needed to ensure that all peoples of the world benefit. While there is strong resistance to change from vested economic interests, the recent financial crises and economic difficulties suggest that the present economic paradigm is failing. The head of the European Central Bank stated in early 2009 that: "We live in non-linear times: the classic economic models and theories cannot be applied, and future development cannot be foreseen" (Seager 2009). The green economy initiative is an opportunity to design a new economic system that is cooperative and altruistic, creates employment for all, and eliminates poverty in the world (BIC, 1998). Such an economy would provide the right foundation for responsible living and generate the resources to enable society to develop the more intangible scientific, cultural and artistic wealth that reflect the higher expressions of human consciousness.

Employment creation

While employment creation is a high government priority, the present system of profit maximization encourages individual companies to raise productivity by shedding labour, and global imbalances drive outsourcing to countries where labour is cheap and social protections minimal. But in a compartmentalized society, what is good for corporate profits is bad for social welfare. The economy should create employment for everyone as a primary purpose, to benefit from the potential of every person to contribute to wealth creation in some appropriate way. Since wealth creation is additive, even the contribution of less efficient workers adds to the total wealth of society, just as in complex ecosystems each organism, even if only marginally productive, adds something to the productivity and balance of the total system. Contributing to society through work is one dimension of responsible living that should be accessible to everyone. It also helps to ensure social sustainability and stability by reinforcing human dignity and giving young people positive perspectives on the future. The system of rewards for individual companies is at cross purposes with the collective needs of society. This is a structural problem in the way corporations are formed as wealth-producing entities.

Reconnection with nature

Environmental sustainability is strongly reinforced by attitudes of respect and appreciation for nature, yet in an urbanized world a majority of the population is cut off from direct contact with natural environments. As non-renewable resources are exhausted, the future economy must turn more and more to renewable resources managed sustainably. The need to maintain ecosystem services and to base the economy on agriculture, forests, and aquaculture will create many opportunities for people to reconnect with nature, and to reverse rural-to-urban migration. Renewable resources and solar energy lend themselves to more distributed, smaller-scale human habitats, rather than the dense urban concentrations of today based on large-scale technologies made possible by the cheap energy subsidy of fossil fuels. Closeness to nature has spiritual as well as material benefits, so a shift to more rural lifestyles will also benefit mental and physical health.

Wealth creation at a human scale

As large bureaucracies too easily demonstrate, endless growth is as debilitating for institutions as it is proving to be for economies. There is an optimal size for any human institution, and efficiency requires nested systems balancing coordination and subsidiarity to operate at large scales (Dahl 1996). Such systems ensure adaptability and resilience while ensuring economy and minimal information transfer in control functions between levels of organization. As part of the green economy, studies are needed of the optimal size for different economic functions, setting aside the obvious advantage of concentrated wealth for financial power. A focus is needed on more human scales of organization for wealth creation in both government and business, as well as in community design and land-use planning. One reason for the success of the Taiwanese economy is the flexibility provided by the very high percentage of small and medium enterprises within a strategically-organized economy (Dahl and Lopez-Claros 2006). For many functions, the ideal unit may be the village or neighbourhood, where everyone can know everyone else, and jointly plan and implement community services.


Ethical considerations in decision-making

Policy-makers are often criticized for giving pragmatic political considerations and short-term priorities more weight than scientific facts or the long-term collective interests of humanity. They are easily swayed by powerful vested interests and financial contributors to their campaigns. At the international level, governments are more interested in defending their national sovereignty, trade and economic advantages rather than collaborating for the common good. Ethical concerns are seldom a priority in business and diplomacy. Yet there are internationally-agreed declarations of ethical principles for human rights and sustainable development that should provide the basis for policy making.

The institutional framework for sustainability to be decided at Rio+20 should include mechanisms to ensure that ethical considerations are considered and addressed in the decision-making fora at the United Nations, and ideally at all other levels of decision-making. This might inspire leaders to take more courageous stands on the critical problems facing humanity.

The International Environment Forum submitted to the UNCSD Bureau proposals to bring ethical considerations more directly into UN institutions such as the General Assembly, the Security Council, ECOSOC and the Commission on Sustainable Development or its successor. To ensure that both recognized international ethical principles and the ethical concerns of civil society are considered when adopting policies, programmes and actions, it made two proposals (IEF 2011):

“1. Establish a UN Permanent Forum on Ethics and Religion, patterned after the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where faith-based organizations and those addressing ethical issues, that accept the principles of the UN Charter, declarations and covenants, can consider the ethical and spiritual implications of UN policies, activities and proposals and make submissions to ECOSOC and other relevant UN bodies.

“2. Create within the UN Secretariat an Office of Ethical Assessment to prepare reports, at its own initiative or on request for the General Assembly, the Security Council, ECOSOC and other UN bodies, programmes and agencies, on the ethical implications of issues, policies and programmes, with reference to the ethical principles in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rio Declaration and other instruments and covenants, and to the world's spiritual, philosophical and cultural traditions.”

This would also implicate faith-based institutions more directly in a dialogue with governments, and emphasize their responsibilities in contributing to more sustainable behaviour and to maintaining peace and security in the world.

Universal curricula for sustainability

While education is still one of the bastions of national sovereignty, education for sustainable living is a universal challenge. There are obviously some dimensions that are relative to particular cultures and environmental situations, but much of the scientific and ethical background of sustainability issues and many technical alternatives and management approaches are common to all countries of the world. Sustainability is therefore a topic for which there is a good chance to take steps towards a universal curriculum for the education of the world's children.

Building on the progress already made in developing curriculum materials for consumer citizenship and sustainable living, mechanisms should now be put in place to evolve an initial set of universal school curricula and university programmes reflecting global concerns for social and environmental sustainability. If they are sufficiently attractive and effective, they may gradually overcome the conservatism and resistance to innovation of national educational establishments, and create precedents for further steps towards the international harmonization of education for a world society.

Training in systems integration

One of the major institutional challenges to achieving sustainability is the compartmentalization of government, international organizations, business and academia into fields of specialization across the economic, social and environmental dimensions (often described as pillars or silos) of sustainable development. This both reflects and results in strong resistance to exchange or collaboration across disciplinary and institutional boundaries. Ministries jealously guard their territories and responsibilities; academics frown on anyone stepping outside their field. Since the time in the Renaissance when being a universal man was possible, specialization has been necessary to achieve mastery in an increasingly complex world. As a result, we have lost the perspective of the whole system and its behavior, and attempts at holistic integration are criticized if not falsely discredited and rejected, as was The Limits to Growth back in 1972 (Meadows et al. 1972; MacKenzie 2012).

A sustainable society will require systems generalists able to take a broad view of how all the components of civilization and the biosphere fit together and how the different trends interact. They could contribute to mechanisms for global policy-making and management able to overcome the inertia of present institutions that is leading our civilization to overshoot and collapse (MacKenzie 2012) and provide guidance for preventive and precautionary action. Educating such people will require new kinds of training in systems integration, and in holistic and adaptive management (Dahl 1996; Dahl 2010).

Participation of civil society

In the complex and globalized world of today, national governments have less and less power and control of their situation. Imbalances and speculation in the world economy can drive them into recession or default. Multinational corporations have become larger than most national economies and wield enormous power and influence. One counterbalance to this loss of national power can come from increased participation by organizations of civil society. The institutional arrangements for sustainability must include a larger role for the different components of civil society, including the Major Groups identified in Agenda 21 (UN 1992) at all levels from local to global.

The UNEP Major Groups and Stakeholders Advisory Group on International Environmental Governance (co-coordinated by the author) has identified a number of ways that the civil society participation in governance can be strengthened (AGIEG 2011):

1. Allow substantive involvement of civil society in discussion and policy-making processes, including granting major group representatives full access and active participation (not only observer status) in international/regional/national conferences and forums, and establishing processes to engage them in negotiations.

2. Develop inclusive and transparent guidelines/standards for civil society engagement in these forums and processes across the UN system and intergovernmental institutions, including special sessions for presentations by civil society.

3. Set up expert advisory groups from civil society at the highest level of UN bodies to participate in policy development.

4. Recognize the major role of civil society in scientific advisory processes, giving weight to scientific expertise (including the social sciences) as well as indigenous and local knowledge with relevance to sustainability.

5. Include civil society representatives regularly in national delegations to intergovernmental deliberations.

6. Implement the principles of transparency and access to information, meaningful opportunities for public participation, especially by parties at interest, and accountability as fundamental elements of institutional arrangements for sustainability, and provide access for civil society parties at interest to effective legal remedies, mediation and dispute settlement mechanisms at the international level, such as a complaint procedure (like at the Human Rights Council) and a dispute resolution mechanism (like at the World Trade Organization).

7. Support knowledge generation and sharing among key players, civil society and social movements within and across countries.

8. Empower indigenous peoples as stewards of nature, particularly ensuring land rights and using the international system and instruments to constrain behaviour by nation-states and the private sector that is undermining indigenous governance, value systems and sustainability.

9. Create a viable and stable financial mechanism to assist and support the participation in international governance of civil society organizations from the global south and of those constituencies that are most directly affected and might not have the means to participate without encouragement and support.

10. Link the institutional arrangements for sustainability to the educational processes, media and institutions of civil society that play an important role both in building the human and institutional capacity to implement sustainability and in preparing public opinion to support the necessary actions to ensure equity and protect environmental systems and resources.

These are some of the ways that civil society can communicate their views more directly into intergovernmental processes and put pressure on governments to take decisions more supportive of responsible living. Efforts for change at the grassroots, essential as they are, will not by themselves be enough if there is not also action at higher levels of human organization.


It is too early to say whether the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 will take significant steps such as these to start to move the world economy and society towards greater sustainability. Negotiations are going on at the moment. If short-term interests and the defense of national sovereignty win out, then the world is almost certainly leading towards severe environmental, social and economic crises and human suffering. If courageous leaders are willing to overcome the vested interests in the status quo and create a strong international framework for sustainability and a green economy, then cultivating sustainable lifestyles around the world will help us through the transition towards a brighter future.


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