From states to citizens, everyone has a stake in overcoming the inertia that surrounds decisive action on sustainability
In the past few years, political leaders have suffered decisive failures at advancing the sustainability agenda during their gatherings in Copenhagen, Johannesburg and Rio. Even cautiously lowered expectations have not been met. George Monbiot described Rio+20 as "the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war … the end of the multilateral effort to protect the biosphere."
There have been many divergent reflections on the reasons for such immense failure. However, we see signs of a new consensus about how to shape the future. The vacuum left by the absence of political leadership has generated a groundswell of support for collaborative, multi-sectoral processes focused on modest initiatives.
Mary Robinson expressed her deepest regrets about the inaction of political leaders at Rio+20: "This possibility of a once in a generation moment passed us by." In her view, the only way forward to a sustainable society is through civil organising.
Peter Bakker of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development reacted with a sense of anger and urgency. "I don't want self-satisfaction, which I saw at the corporate leaders forum in Rio, or people bringing me stories of CSR achievements.
"The truth is if you add up all the CSR programmes across the world and all the 200-plus commitments from this week, we are not nearly going to save the world." Bakker feels that it is past time for the best business leaders to take on the challenges, work locally across sectors and push for better reporting and more accountability.
At a recent appearance in Oxford at Resource 2012, Bill Clinton laid the blame for these political failures on the ignorance of voters. At the conference he said: "The whole consciousness of a significant number of voters" must be changed to allow their governments to address resource scarcity. This brings to mind Juncker's curse: "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it." Clinton then articulated his view of a multi-sectoral strategy. For Clinton, the way forward is not more conferences with braver politicians; it lies in the ability of governments, businesses and NGOs to work together.
Although these three leaders lay the blame for the failure of Rio+20 in different places, we see a recurrent theme in their visions of the way forward...
Roger Martin is dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and is academic director of the school's Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship. His research work is in integrative thinking, business design, corporate social responsibility and country competitiveness. His most recent book is Fixing the Game
Alison Kemper teaches management at York University and has worked with the Michael Lee-Chin Institute for Corporate Citizenship at the Rotman School since 2005. Her professional background is in advocacy and NGO management.