Twenty years later

It’s 20 years since the first Rio Earth Summit. God that makes me feel old. But it also reminds me of the time when I first started paying attention to the state of the planet. And oh boy, was I full of hope then.

Today world leaders are sitting down to decide on the Rio+20 text. It’s called The Future We Want. The idea is this will lay down a whole new set of targets for protecting planet and people as we march on into the 21st century. Because let’s face it, we weren’t too great at sticking to the promises we made 20 years ago. So it’s time for some new promises.

Does it really matter what that text contains? Are these all just the broken promises of tomorrow?

And have I really become such a massive cynic compared to that young optimist I was in 1992? Perhaps. There’s no doubt that the state of the planet has mostly got worse since then and I know much more about the problems – several new ones have emerged in those 20 years (pervasive plastic pollution and ocean acidification to name just 2), and many of them I’ve seen and experienced first hand (like the terrifying underwater blast of a fish bomb and the eerie white landscape of bleached coral reefs).

But I’ve also been extremely lucky to see some breathtaking parts of the natural world that I only dreamed of back then. I’ve been swimming with whale sharks. I’ve climbed trees in Borneon rainforest. I’ve felt the squeeze of a seahorse holding onto my finger.

So it definitely can’t be all bad.

20 years ago everything was about saving the rainforest with all eyes on the Amazon. It was around then that I became a vegetarian – I wanted nothing to do with rainforest clearance for rearing cattle. And I bored my school friends with facts and figures about deforestation while bugging them about their ham sandwiches (I truly hope I’ve become a bit less of a terrible bore since then).

And I was convinced I was going to Rio, that I would win a competition on kids’ TV to attend the conference (was it Blue Peter? I can’t even remember now), and go along to meet leaders and have my say.

To enter the competition you had to send in your idea for how to save the planet. I sat down with my mum and came up with an elaborate scheme for how human population and natural resources interplay as the underlying drivers of planetary decline, via habitat loss, overexploitation and overconsumption. I drew a little diagram to illustrate how it all interlinked (I wish I’d kept a copy of that).

Obviously I didn’t win. But at the time I couldn’t understand why. The winner was announced – their idea was recycling. Recycling tin cans and plastic bottles was going to save the planet.

Don’t get me wrong I think recycling is immensely important. We throw way too much stuff away and have no concept of where it ends up or what impact it has. But even if every single item we produce was used again or made into something else, there would still be masses of huge planetary issues to deal with.

Heh. Imagine how pissed off that person must be looking back now (are you out there, Rio Earth summit winner? If so, I’d love to hear from you) realizing that we haven’t even really figured out recycling yet.

What I just didn’t get 20 years ago was the appeal of focusing on tangible problems, the ones we could, potentially get to grips with. It made for good TV, right? A visit to a recycling factory; perhaps even a quick visit to a Rio rubbish dump to see the problem first hand. It offered an obvious way for viewers to do something themselves and make a difference. How on earth would they have made kids’ TV out of the ideas I sent in?

Now we’ve reached Rio+20 and this time round I have no desire to go to the conference myself. Instead I shall stay at home and try and ignore the cynic in me as I watch the latest results coming in. Maybe this time will be different? Maybe this time decent targets will be set and nations will stick to them?

We’ll see.

Whatever the immediate and ultimate outcome of Rio+20, there are undoubtedly good things that will emerge from the conference. A very good friend of mine from the Gambia is attending as one of 25 winners of the Equator Prize. These are all small, grassroots projects from around the world selected for their success as forces for local change. They have all been awarded a few thousand dollars – a tiny sum – but money that will be used thoughtfully and effectively. They’re showing the rest of the world how to do sustainable development.

Meanwhile I will continue to reflect on all the things I’ve done and learned about the world since 1992 and perhaps regain some of that the virtuous energy I had back then when I was convinced I was going to help save the planet.

Photo of Malaysian forest canopy by Mike Norton

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