Monday, 9 July 2012

The Phoenix Effect

-  By Luke Kemp

                Looking back through history and at the process and outcome of Rio+20 it becomes apparent that international society may have to face a stimulus of crisis or collapse before the necessary progress on sustainable development can be made.   

Rio+20 has drawn to a close, and has inevitably been accompanied by a chorus of media voice.  The majority (even conservative ones) have been singing of failure.   I’d say the outcome is not so clear cut- it really depends upon your criteria for success.  Based upon reasonable expectations it really isn’t all that bad.  Some good progress was made on oceans, Sustainable Development Goals and certain areas of the green economy (e.g. education).  Based upon what science suggests is necessary to avoid ecological catastrophes it was woefully inadequate.  

Although, what did we really expect- a conference that saved the world?  Hasn’t anyone learned from Copenhagen?  A single summit, regardless of how many heads of states it attracts, is unlikely to provide the silver bullet for sustainable development issues.  Any negotiator at Riocentro would be more than happy to remind us that the multilateral process is a slow and incremental one.  I agree and I think that given another a hundred years or so of this snail pace progress we probably could address many of our current problems.  Unfortunately our global environmental problems require urgent and radical action.   The nature of the solutions does not match that of multilateral negotiations currently.  The process needs a metamorphosis.

 Most of the major changes (especially institutionally) to global society have spurred on by a crisis of some form or another.  The Bretton Woods Institutions and current international financial order were catalyzed by the destruction of WWII.  The rise of the UN required the complete collapse of the League of Nations.  On a smaller scale many of the greatest steps forward in climate change negotiations have occurred after failures, like at CoP6 at The Hague.   Transformations away from the status quo often require a stimulus of crisis.    Such a crisis could take three main forms within our current world- environmental, social or political.

Environmental disasters could be effective in creating the necessary political will to move forward negotiations.  The O-zone Hole and subsequent Montreal Protocol showed nations are not pleased and will act quickly when their citizens are threatened by mass deaths.  However, the O-zone issue had immediate impacts, climate change, biodiversity and other problems lack this urgency in impacts.  Secondly, by the time any ecological disaster could occur we would already be past the point of no-return.  Social crisis such as a global (or semi-global) revolution are also unlikely to occur quickly enough.  Occupy World Street will not be the answer unless it gains traction (and unity) fast.   This leaves us with one last form of crisis- political.

What shape or form could such a political crisis take?  The failure of the multilateral process could be one.  I don’t mean perceived failure as in Copenhagen or Rio+20, but an actual complete collapse of negotiations.  The break-up of the Group of 77 of developing countries, who are playing an increasingly regressive role (as in Rio), could be another.  

Common rejections of this could be that the complete collapse of the process could disillusion the public to the extent that they move away from the multilateral process.  Another may be that such a crisis could actually set negotiations back by many years.  Both are partially true, but the progress we need will require some risk- Who Dares Wins.  As John F Kennedy once famously noted ‘crisis’ in Chinese is made up of two characters- danger and opportunity.   More importantly people are already losing faith in the multilateral system.  The sad lack of public interest and media coverage at Rio+20 is ample evidence of this.  

So if we need a political crisis to catalyze the current process we just have to wait and watch the fireworks right?  Not quite.  The problem is that any such incident will likely require some courageous action by certain parties.  It will need the short term sacrifice of the multilateral process and the image of certain states, states that will likely be the most ambitious of international actors.  Yet, the most progressive countries are also those who are least willing to see the multilateral process collapse.   It was apparent in the EU refusing to walk away from signing the Rio+20 text despite Brazil treating the bloc like a spoiled child, deleting many of its proposals and refusing to reopen the text (more on this in my next article).  The EU and others care too dearly for multilateralism to see it injured in any way.   They will need to learn that the best outcome in the long-term for the current system will involve some ‘tough love’.  

We need to take a lesson from the mythical phoenix:  an old and damaged bird may need to be burnt so that a renewed body can rise from the ashes.  We may need to be ready to watch large scale shifts in the multilateral process, it's failure or other catastrophes unfold before we can expect a positive revolution.   We need to be ready that when the crisis takes place we can seize the opportunity and are not be blinded by the flames.  Without such a spark it looks as though our future may face a death by a thousand cuts [or conferences]. 


  1. Good piece Luke. Of a similar vein is this piece from Foreign Policy, which you may have already seen:

    Any ideas on how this dilemma - that those actors who need to show some 'tough love' to the multilateral process are those least inclined to do so - might be resolved?

  2. Civil society would be one. If groups like the EU knew they would have civil society support, which provides a lot of legitimacy, despite taking difficult actions they would be much more likely to show some courage. However, as we saw at Rio+20 with the Youth Group's opening speech fiasco, civil society might not have the strategic sight or unity to do so (for now). The second glimmer of hope would be an individual, or group of individuals, who could provide the necessary leadership.