Rio+20: I grew up under Thatcher …

Well, after all of the fantastic entries you’ve read over the last few weeks, it’s time for our winner’s entry.

Ed Byers, a PhD student in the School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences (and what a strong showing that School made overall in the competition – really impressive!) snatched the prize with his thought-provoking, powerful and well-argued entry which analysed the factors most likely to achieve real change following this year’s Earth Summit.

Thanks to the generosity of our main competition sponsors Northumbrian Water, and the support of our partners the Planet Earth Institute, Ed will now travel, along with our second- and third-placed students James Robinson and Claire Chisholm, to the Earth Summit in June this year to witness for himself the debates and discussions taking place there. In addition, Etta, who finished fourth, will be travelling separately to Sao Paolo to visit Brazil’s leading PR firm and work with them and some of their clients. We’re delighted that all four of them have been able to receive prizes in recognition of their efforts – congratulations from all of us to all of you!

Following his competition win, Ed will be tasked, along with James and Claire, with keeping a blog on their experiences in the run up to, and during, the Earth Summit, and you will be able to follow their blog via this site.

So, here is Ed’s entry … enjoy!


I grew up under Thatcher …

‘I grew up under Thatcher. I grew up believing that I was fundamentally powerless. Then gradually over the years it occurred to me that this was actually a very convenient myth for the state.’ Thom Yorke

I make the case in this discussion that it could even be a blessing if there is poor attendance at the Rio+20 summit from some of the world’s political leaders. They represent us at the highest levels, and their past inaction only reflects poorly on ourselves. Now is not the time to sit on the fence. We need action from the people.

That is you, by the way…


Twenty years ago no less than 108 heads of state converged upon Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit. The main issue was tackling the development and environment problems in coordination; that the two must go hand in hand if we humans were to continue living on this planet. This was a continuation of a previous less successful UN Conference on Human Environment (1972) summit and the 1987 Brundtland report from which the all too well known definition of sustainable development derives. Despite Agenda 21 agreements and commissions and conventions such as the UNFCC and the Commission on Sustainable Development, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 was largely viewed as a failure with the attendance many fewer politicians.

So what about this upcoming event, where even fewer leading political dignitaries have committed their attendance? What hope exists for our planet that anything might actually be achieved at Rio+20 if the likes of David Cameron and Barack Obama are too busy to attend? I remind you that this is “the greenest [UK] Government ever” [i]. Perhaps there are good reasons for this across-the-board non-attendance; economic problems are being faced the world over. Yet what could be more important? Matt Ridley makes a compelling yet cornucopian case that “we’ve never had it so good” [ii], and things will only get better. Technology will save the day as it has done for the past century. I wish it were true. The engineer in me knows that truly remarkable things are possible, but we would need to subscribe to a more equitable society before this rhetoric is realised. The techno-fix is not the answer to our problems for the very fact that it is a ‘fix’ – a fix for social injustice and inaction.

This in my view was the compelling result from the second debate at Newcastle University, “Do you have to be rich to be green?”

If we plot the outcomes on a Cartesian axis, my guess is that currently 90% of the world’s population falls below the orange dotted line, and is currently headed for the mirage (purple lines), not the clear blue horizons we should be aiming for. We can see how important it is that future societal transitions recognise the different pathways and directions (orange arrows) that might lead to a prosperous and sustainable society. Sustainability should be an evolving journey, not a destination, hence the use of mirages and horizons.

And herein lies the problem. One disillusioned society mostly resists change, and the other aspires yet is trapped into assimilation. Whilst in many respects we think we are worlds apart from the slums of India and factories of China, we are tied at the hip. They aspire to our technologies and standards of living; we gladly ‘employ’ them in our factories and then sell them the products. What better way to spend a nation’s hard earned cash-crops than to employ the services of expensive European sustainability consultants and engineers to design and sell your water and energy systems? This is not aid!

Even if political and distribution issues were resolved, the techno-fix is only one third of Erhlich’s equation [iii] – as Tim Jackson puts it so well, “efficiency hasn’t even compensated for the growth in population, let alone the growth in incomes”. [iv]

Therefore, I suggest at my peril, that past history strongly favours the argument that few forces are as strong as people power. People power that in 2011 was stronger and more mobile than ever, thanks to enablers like Avaaz and Twitter – #Egypt #Occupy #notw. Such societal action is important because there is a spectrum of activities from a range of actors, from civil disobedience and non-violent direct action, to petitions, community groups and conferences, from Newcastle to Rio. Good or bad, it is action nonetheless. This is infinitely more powerful than governments signing legally binding agreements which they can then renege on, just like Canada has to the Kyoto Protocol [v] and like the UK government of 2045 can do if (when?) we fail to meet the terms of the Climate Change Act. At least the US is upfront about its ambitions. The success of such legislative measures depends too much on top-down management, instead of the people holding the authority to account. A willing and sustainable societal transition needs no complex legislation as the voluntary forces should be strong enough that the government facilitates transition to keep itself in power.

Source unknown

Let’s use the word power loosely because governments have little power. They are subservient in theory to society but often in reality to large corporations. Only since things have taken a turn for the worse (in polite terms) in the past few years have we seen an inkling of justice bestowed upon the perpetrators of injustice. More than ever therefore must we acknowledge and embody the importance of societal change, societal renewal, societal revigoration! Starting within ourselves, we must shape the communities and institutions around us to be the change that we want to see. We must “live simply, so that others may simply live” [vi].

So, whilst we venture deep into the planet’s 11th hour, could it be possible that a lack of politicians at the Rio+20 will actually enable more fruitful dialogue and voluntary agreements towards sustainable development? I certainly think so. We must celebrate our responsibility to those around us, with commitments coming from across the board of NGOs and private companies, taking a leaf from Socrates’ book…

“I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world.”

Only then can we approach the future with the perspective required, from which will emerge leaders of whom we are proud. If not, efforts will be in vain; whilst I would welcome lasting and just agreements from all the nations’ leaders, I know that if we ourselves don’t make the necessary societal transitions now, then we might as well start planning the next earth summit. Let’s make this the last one, it’ll only be harder if we don’t.

Ed Byers, PhD Civil Engineering and Geosciences


[i] Pledged by David Cameron on numerous occasion whilst campaigning pre-election.


[iii] Ehrlich’s equation states that Human Impact (I) is equal to the product of Population (P), Affluence (A) and Technology (T). I = PAT.

[iv] Jackson, T. (2009) Prosperity Without Growth, Economics for a finite planet. Earthscan Publications, UK.

[v] In 2011 following the UNFCCC talks in Durban, Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in order to avoid the fines of meeting obligations. [].

[vi] This quote is usually attributed to St, Elizabeth Ann Seton ((1774-1821) although there is uncertainty about this.

1 thought on “Rio+20: I grew up under Thatcher …

  1. Pingback: Sustainable Development 101 | Sustainability@Newcastle

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.