Written By Rod Oram, Rod’s Rio Blog #6, Wednesday 20th June:
When the United Nations meets, every country is entitled to have its say. So with 175 countries scheduled to say something at the Rio+20 sustainability summit, most of the three-day meeting will be consumed by the words of wisdom of heads of state or their substitutes.
This may sound tedious but it can be fascinating. Many speakers bring a little flavour of their country by dress, language, pre-occupations or sheer force of personality.
As it happened, New Zealand was the first to make its mark shortly after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had drily dispensed the opening formalities this morning.
Picked in a global competition to represent the youth of the world, a student from Queen Margaret College, Wellington, stepped up to the podium:
“My name is Brittany Trilford, I am 17 years old and I’m here to fight for my future.
That’s it. I’m here to fight for my future. Because I have to fight for it…
I may be young and not educated in the ways of commerce, but I still take maths in school, and even I can recognise things are not adding up.
We plunder away our natural resources, diminishing our biodiversity, our oceans, our forests… We have used the planet like we own it. But even when I own something, I look after it. We are taught these things in school.
Things just don’t make sense…
They made great promises [at Rio 92]. These promises are left not broken, but empty. They remain, but are unsupported.
…I would like to now ask you here today: why are you here? Are you here to take strides for the common good, or succumb to corporate greed?
I hope you are here ready to commit and work hard for a future we can look forward to. Are you here to hedge your bets, and save face? Or are you here to save us?”
Here is Brittany’s speech to on Youtube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=karQQb-B8Uk
Such is the magic of the UN, the next-but-one speaker was Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe. He was looking remarkably well, considering his ill health and destruction of his country.
Maybe his triumphs won his this introduction in the text box for translations on all the screens around the vast hall: “President of O.J. Simpson”.
Did an interpreter have a wicked sense of humour? Had a human rights activist hacked the system? Whoever it was spoke truth to power.
Mugabe relished his opportunity to fulminate against dark forces blighting his country. But he did apologise for Zimbabwe’s “failure of the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental dimensions.”
He promised to do better, arguing that a green economy would work wonders for his country.
Actually, as the despotic leader of a failed state he could do more for his country by simply leaving, or at least halting the decimation of its people and the collapse of its agriculture.
Trumpeting like a rogue elephant, he trampled the allocation of five-minutes per head of state into the dust of his obfuscation.
Ever the contrarian, he delivered this stunning insight into sustainability: “The green economy is not synonymous with abandoning the use of natural resources that we have in abundance, such as coal.”
Once he finally departed the stage after 30 minutes, compassion and common sense swept back through the cavernous auditorium like a warm, comforting breeze.
Who was not moved by the pleas over climate change by Willy Telavi, Prime Minister of Tuvalu? A microscopic Pacific Island nation of just 24 sq km, at least until rising seas engulf its land, it is still determined to do its bit to combat climate change. It plans to generate 100% renewable electricity by 2020.
Next up, Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, Prime Minister of Bhutan, resplendent in joyous traditional dress, gave a short but gripping discourse on happiness and how to measure it in all its glory across “nine domains and 72 variables” of national life. Bhutan’s doing its bit too. They’re brining their methodology to the UN’s general assembly when it considers Genuine Progress Indicators next year.
New Zealand was the 14th country to present, represented by Amy Adams, Minister for the Environment. In efficient Kiwi style she had boiled her prepared speech down to a bunch of talking, the first speaker to meet the five-minute limit.
The essence was New Zealand took sustainability seriously…e.g. 30% of our land was already in the conservation estate (she didn’t mention the government’s hopes to mine it) and we generate virtually 100% of our “energy” from renewables (no we don’t…only electricity. Oil remains our largest single source of energy, accounting for about 60% of the total we use).
She reminded the assembly that New Zealand had played a vigorous role in the summit negotiations on issues such as protecting fisheries and ending subsidies on fossil fuels.
True, but our petrol and diesel are among the cheapest in the OECD because they are so lightly taxed and we are the only OECD country without vehicle fuel efficiency standards. We might have more clout at the table if we used fossil fuels more responsibly.
Still, every country was putting on its best show in the assembly, promoting its achievement and pledging to pursue sustainability even more vigorously.
Outside the assembly hall, later in the afternoon New Zealand unselfconsciously gave its own little private demonstration of sustainability.
Some 35 Kiwis, delegates to the summit, gathered to swap notes, to share this taste of the world, this mind-expanding experience of Rio+20.
Cabinet minister, government officials, diplomats, a young Dunedin councilor, youth delegates, a young doctor-activist, experts of various kinds, a journalist, some veterans of the Rio Earth Summit 20 yeas ago and sundry others mingled – people of every main cultures in our country — each appreciating the contribution of others.
So if the 7bn people in the world are struggling to come together on sustainability, perhaps a microcosm of 4.4m Kiwis can help by showing the power of community.