RIO +20

enterrement de première classe pour le développement durable

The first Rio Summit in 1992 was considered an extraordinary advance in human planetary consciousness. And yet… Even if many institutions around the world pride themselves on having followed Agenda 21 to a greater or lesser extent, none of the commitments made have really been kept and the situation has worsened overall. Rio+20 could have been an opportunity for a breakthrough, but unfortunately it was a damp squib. Humanity has just lost another twenty precious years to act(1) and the bill will be all the heavier to pay. The resulting 49-page text, The Future We Want, is « a litany of vague commitments, undated promises, undefined concepts and empty phrases.(2) Worse, we don’t talk about it.globalization, depletion of energy resources, food or agricultural issues, transboundary water management, the economic and financial crisis (3) Regular observers like WWF and Greenpeace spoke of a « colossal » and « epic » failure, Ban Ki-Moon spoke of a « tragic disappointment » and the ex-faithful Nicolas Hulot had thrown in the towel from the start. And still no World Environment Organization (WEO) on the horizon, just a small refinancing of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)… The 193 participating countries have finally decided to… create « sustainable development goals »! Here we go again for a round of small steps politics, while waiting for Rio + 40 which will certainly be cancelled because of collapse.(4) Although it will not result in anything concrete or binding, let’s nevertheless give this summit two small merits: to have opened the eyes of the supposedly remaining minority of consumer-voters who were previously unaware of the systemic perils, and to have lit one more fire against the villainous propaganda of the climate sceptics. But was it necessary to emit tons of greenhouse gases again for such a limited result?

After this assessment, the growth objectors (GOs) will continue to claim what they have always claimed: « sustainable development » (SD) was from the start an intellectual deception imagined by the oligarchy to make the consumer electorate mistake bladders for lanterns, as well as a vast greenwashing operation intended to (try to) greenwash industrial processes as well as marketing and advertising. A major mistake of SD was to put on the same footing the three economic, social and environmental pillars, whereas Karl Polanyi reminded us that before the « great transformation », the economy was « embedded » in the social substratum and that populations and ecosystems were not worse off, quite the contrary. Since then, it has become autonomous, for better or worse. The first to put the iron in the wound was Serge Latouche, the main theorist of de-growth in France. He highlighted the oxymoronic nature of SD, designed to confuse people.(5) Recently(6), he recalled the perverse role played by the leaders of multinationals in 1992, particularly Stefan Schmidheiny, the « king of Eternit » and founder of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Sustainable development, Latouche explains, is not the fruit of nice humanist ecologists, but was imagined by the American industrial lobby to counter the notion of « ecodevelopment » that appeared at the Stockholm conference in 1972. Today, some of his former devotees are turning their backs on him.

« CBOs practice — for the most part — voluntary simplicity, but are aware that this is only one of three legs, is that those of alternative experimentation and politics will be more decisive in the struggle. »

In Switzerland, the philosopher Dominique Bourg, « (ex?)-pope of sustainable development », did not wait for Rio + 20 to be disappointed. In July 2010, he told the magazine Etudes:  » We have been talking about sustainable development for more than twenty years. It was an attempt to decouple GDP growth from energy and natural resource consumption. We now know that this is impossible. […] It is therefore appropriate to close the parenthesis of sustainable development. […] Let’s put an end to the rhetoric of the three pillars and the deceptive and misleading balance between the economic, social and ecological dimensions. « Belgian herald of SD, Edwin Zaccaï (ULB), has mixed feelings: « We thought that by saying the words « sustainable development » we had the thing… But defining a course is not enough to get what we want. However, there have been some positive changes. [On the other hand, we are still unable to manage the major flows, the global transformation of the environment. « (7) In his latest anti-productivist editorial, André Ruwet, editor of Imagine, admits that  » the notion of sustainable development has unfortunately proved to be vague and soft, allowing for very different interpretations depending on the interlocutors. […] The spirit of Rio had [sic] taken a serious blow in the wing. « (8)

On the side of education for sustainable development, the same disillusioned observation is made. Lucie Sauvé, a specialist in environmental education at the University of Quebec, says,  » The imposition of sustainable development in education is the invasion of a reductive worldview that hinders the development of critical thinking and the possibility of glimpsing other forms of relationship to the world. « (9) Jean-Michel Lex, spearhead of education towards sustainable development in the Wallonia-Brussels community:  » There has been an attempt to make greenery rather than change economic systems. Very little thought has been given to how to help people participate in reorienting the economy and consumption, in models of relationship with nature and the planet. « (10)

Has the time for degrowth finally come? Unfortunately! If academics and editorialists recognize today the dead ends and failures of SD, they do not come to plait laurels to the FBOs! In the meantime, two not uninteresting concepts have come along to keep the ball rolling — voluntary simplicity and the transition movement — as well as a deus ex machina, Tim Jackson, on whom the European eco-technocrats have rushed to better overshadow degrowth while taking up his ideas, watering them down to make them soluble in economism and social democracy (or what is left of it). Don’t get us wrong, CBOs practice — for the most part — voluntary simplicity, but are aware that this is only one of the three legs and that those of alternative experimentation and politics will be more decisive in the struggle. They look favorably on the transition movement, while regretting the relative depoliticization that prevails. They note Jackson’s « goat » position designed to reassure the business community and to stimulate the social and ecological conscience of citizens. There are of course many ideas in common with each other, but the FBOs have the merit of a radical posture from which we have everything to gain, because the situation itself has become radicalized, which even Nicolas Hulot recognizes.(11) They are the ones who have shown philosophical lucidity when others were and still are stubborn in the defense and illustration of SD(12) or make amends after years of misguidance. The future is in degrowth.

Bernard Legros


Notes et références
  1. Tout comme elle avait déjà perdu vingt ans entre 1972, année du rapport Meadows du Club de Rome et 1992.
  2. Le Soir, 21 juin 2012.
  3. Le Soir, 23 & 24 juin 2012.
  4. Cf. Yves Cochet, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Susan George, Serge Latouche, Où va le monde ? 2012–2022 : une décennie au devant des catastrophes, Mille et une Nuits, 2012.
  5. Cf. Serge Latouche, Survivre au développement, Mille et une nuits, 2004, pp. 51–68.
  6. Politis, 29 mars 2012, p. 35.
  7. Imagine demain le monde, mai/juin 2012, n° 91, p. 11.
  8. Ibidem, p. 3.
  9. Symbioses, n° 94, p. 10.
  10. Ibidem, p. 11.
  11. Le Nouvel Observateur, n° 2485, 21 juin 2012, pp. 66 & 67.
  12. Le bêtisier du développement durable ne cesse de s’allonger. Cf.
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