Rio: Imagineering the future

Rio de Janeiro

In recent years the Technology, Education and Design (TED) gatherings have attempted to position themselves as the modern world's imaginarium, giving people a view of what's possible when you unleash creativity.

So given the huge issues facing humanity in terms of sustainability, I was interested to see what thoughts the TEDx event on the fringes of the Rio+20 summit might provide.

Organisers laid on a two-day thinkfest in Forte de Copacabana, a former military base at the southern end of this most famous of beaches that (rather fittingly given its use today) saw rebellion against the established order in 1922.

On the way in, we were invited to sample a number of artistic installations on themes of humanity, biodiversity and sustainability - presenting the problems, you could say, in a more graphical way than the dry reports in which the bad news usually arrives.

The rooftop vantage point gave a nice little vignette of this city's two faces - playgrounds of white sand stretching into the distance, and the endless convoys of enormous cargo ships steaming in and out of port, plying the trade that's helping to enrich this giant nation at some cost to its natural environment.

At the TEDx session I went to, Canadian psychologist Gabor Mate gave an insight into the modern human condition based on his work with addicts.

Copacabana beach

"If the success of a doctor is measured by how long his patients live, then I have been a failure," he said.

His description of addiction is that it concerns the person much more than the substance; many try drugs without becoming addicted, many enjoy a lifelong relationship with alcohol without becoming an alcoholic.

Dr Mate gave an elegant account of his own struggle against addiction - not to a substance, but to buying classical music CDs, on which he'd once spent $8,000 in a single week and (in a previous medical role) left a woman in labour in order to continue shopping.

Given that the Rio summit (and therefore the TEDx event) is concerned with the state of the world rather than the state of someone's psyche, one could sense there the talk was going - and eventually it did.

Stalin, Hitler, Attila the Hun - all were "quite willing to fight wars and kill people to keep power; power is all about emptiness that you try to fill from the outside.

"Let's not look to the people in power to change things, because people in power are among the emptiest in the world... they're never going to change unless we make them."

Jean-Michel Cousteau Jean-Michel Cousteau

Next up was Jean-Michel Cousteau, scion of the famous ocean conservation dynasty and now president of the Ocean Futures Society.

He told us how as a kid he used to bunk off school to catch octopi to sell for a few francs, finding them under rocks in the inshore Mediterranean shallows.

Now, you don't find them there anymore, he said.

A number of conservation groups are hoping Rio+20 will lead to some meaningful outcome for the open oceans, which are in a sense our world's final frontier.

While land and coastal waters belong to nations and therefore stand a chance of being looked after, the high seas are another matter - hardly regulated at all, and therefore increasingly exploited and polluted, with no government obliged to do anything about it.

Ocean Futures Society is arguing that 20% of this area should be set aside for conservation.

It's highly debatable whether the politics exist to make that possible - significant governments such as Japan are determined to preserve fishing access that is only regulated on the basis that it's a food resource, while others such as the US see major riches in the future from minerals exploitation.

A man takes picture of national flags fluttering at the Copacabana Fort

And on other issues affecting the oceans - climate change, acidification, plastic pollution - meaningful protection needs to start on the land-based sources of the stuff causing the problems.

Nevertheless, the issue is live in the Rio+20 negotiations.

Laurence Kemball-Cook came on stage to talk about the paving slabs he's invented that generate electricity when they're stepped on.

Each green slab contains a light powered by 5% of the electricity. So what you get isn't only current, but the knowledge that a mere footfall can generate it.

They've already been trialled in schools and other public sites, but the biggest installation so far will be at one of the London underground stations in use for the Olympic Games that begin next month.

Will the slabs survive? Will they thrive? In TEDx language - will they inspire?

Perhaps the most impassioned speech of the day came from someone who wasn't actually in Rio but joined in virtually (the power of the networked world and the information society is a constant TED theme) from her home in Canada.

Severn Suzuki, copyright Nick Wiebe from Wikipedia Severn Suzuki

Severn Suzuki - daughter of the renowned conservationist David - went to the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago as a 13-year-old to ask her elders to sort themselves out.

That 1992 speech was caught in full on video and it's now one of the most frequently viewed YouTube offerings on environment and sustainability.

What I think caught people's attention was the mood. You might imagine that a 13-year-old girl would talk about emotive things like dolphins and rainbows, and talk in pink generics such as "making the world a better place".

Not a bit of it. Ms Suzuki lays into the delegates: "I've come to tell adults you must change your ways... I'm fighting for my future".

She points out that as yet there is no technical remedy that can clean up mercury pollution or PCBs.

"If you don't know how to fix it - please, stop breaking it," she says.

This year, back via webcam holding one of her own children, Ms Suzuki was no less impassioned, though the message carried a strong flavour of frustration and an occasional hint of despair.

"Twenty years after Rio, we haven't come close to achieving the sustainable society we knew we needed then," she told TEDx delegates.

A while back, she stepped away from big-picture campaigning to work on citizen engagement - trying to generate change from the bottom up.

In Canada, at least, it hasn't worked - maybe not in many other places either. Politically, Canada has shifted away from environmental positions, weakening endangered species legislation, backing fuels such as tar sands, and most recently deciding to leave the Kyoto Protocol.

"The collusion between governments and corporations that we've seen in the last 20 years is enough to make anyone lose faith," she said.

But... the next generation demands better: "I'm a parent and I can't afford to be discouraged".

I don't know if Ms Suzuki could hear the applause she received from the TEDx crowd, but it was huge.

As far as I know, none of the government negotiators who will spend the coming few days attempting to patch together an agreement in the official talks were there to hear it.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    #59 MangoChutney

    This is yesterday's news. I doubt he'll change the acronym now, though looking at the TED website, there is a considerable emphasis on education
    Most of the useful thinking seems to be around the edges with groups like TED and Ocean Futures.
    The politicians still seem to be locked in vested interest mode.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    something we both agree on :)

    i notice Richard hasn't changed the misleading TED acronym yet (it should be Technology, ENTERTAINMENT and Design NOT Education)

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    #57 MangoChutney

    Isnt that what we've got now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.


    Just spotted this - an answer to your question:

    "Ineptocracy (in-ep-toc’-ra-cy) – A system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing, and where the members of society least likely to sustain themselves or succeed, are rewarded with goods and services paid for by the confiscated wealth of a diminishing number of producers."

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    in 400 characters, not possible, but i'm sure global governance, especially by unelected activists, is unacceptable to the vast majority or people

    it would be like the EU on steroids

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    #41 Cariboo

    I estimate that the affluence at which birthrate reduces to 2 per family is equivalent to consuming 3 barrels of oil per person per year.
    We produce enough oil now to sustain 10 billion people(the estimated world poulation in 2050) at 3 barrels a year. Hopefully this would stabilise the population at that level long enough to find alternatives before the oil runs out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    #51 MangoChutney

    Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to design political structures, preferably democratic, which will make all of the world's population affluent enough to reduce their birthrate.
    Aim to stabilise the population at 10 billion, which we may just be able to sustain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    @52 true, especially financial interests such as Goldman Sachs etc who have heavy investment in everything green including the $176b carbon market (psst want to buy some stale air?). Oh and the Bank of America received $45b bailout a few years back and then immediately pledged $50b to combat climate change

    Corporate interests these days are as much Big Green as they used to be Big Oil

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    #51 Mango
    "No need to replace an unelected bunch of activists with any global government, especially one that is self-appointed"

    In the absence of government, the globe is still governed - largely by corporate interests, able and willing to buy entire governments.

    The absence of government isn't freedom, it's surrender to the powerful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    The Stakeholder Forum is a lobby group not a political party, nor are they elected to represent the people. They are self-appointed activists believing their vision is best for the masses being given too much prominence by organisations such as the BBC and RB in particular

    No need to replace an unelected bunch of activists with any global government, especially one that is self-appointed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    #44 MangoChutney

    The mechanics of Third World aid are easy, sanitation, etc, as you say.
    The problem is political, persuading governments to do it on a global scale.
    The Stakeholder Forum is catalysing this political process. Before you eagerly discard them, I would like your suggestions for a political structure to do the job they've started.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    "Stalin, Hitler, Attila the Hun - all were "quite willing to fight wars and kill people to keep power; power is all about emptiness that you try to fill from the outside."

    That is very interesting especially when read alongside Wendys comment

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    i have to laugh at alarmists - why do they mark down a comment pointing out an error in RB's post, just because the author of the comment doesn't agree with cAGW?

    You guys need to learn to play the ball and not the man

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Oh, and btw, TED stands for Technology, ENTERTAINMENT, Design not Technology, Education, Design. TED has nothing to do with education

    I assume Richard wasn't trying to mislead his readership with this obvious mistake and expect an immediate correction

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Severn Suzuki is a glass-half-empty kinda gal.

    In the real world people are happier, healthier, richer, live longer and have more freedom than 20 years ago.

    The polar bears are thriving and the whales are doin' just fine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Time to move on. This eco-Munchausen's is sooooo last year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    If you want to know about the Stakeholder Forum see here

    And you think $8m is reasonable? If SF are spending $8m, how much are the organisers, the UN, spending?

    I have on many occasions offered suggestions on how to help the millions affected every year by lack of clean water and sanitation - a problem that affects people NOW

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    #42 MangoChutney

    Comment on Stakeholder Forum? They've pulled a lot of governments into discussion of long term international problems.
    $8million is quite a reasonable cost for a conference this size. It would have cost the same if you'd held it in SLOUGH!
    You've spent your time sniping at this whole thing. I'm disappointed that you've no concrete suggestions for an alternative .

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    @38/40 no comment on stakeholder funding i note

    "If we could persuade..."

    or we could put resources ($8m would help) into developing reliable alternatives to oil - we are perfectly capable of this and for much less $$$b than trying to combat natural events or $$$t on the corrupt carbon market

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    40.Entropic man
    to use 3 barrels a year we could support 10 billion until the oil ran out.
    or 30 barrels a year we could support 10 billion until the oil ran out.

    You make a mute point.


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