Twenty years after the first Rio Summit, the global community faces continued challenges in reconciling economic prosperity and growth with environmental sustainability. At a civil society conference held in São Paulo, Brazil, Michael Mehling of Ecologic Institute in Washington DC framed the debate and laid out major challenges and opportunities on the agenda of the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development ("Rio+20").
Individual economies both in the developed and developing world have successfully begun decoupling their growing economies from a simultaneous increase in their ecological footprint; yet even in countries with a corresponding political will, true sustainability – in the sense of not "compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs" – remains as elusive as ever. Around the globe, rapid depletion of finite natural resources, loss of natural habitats and biodiversity, and the threat of a changing climate all add up to an unprecedented planetary crisis.
What have we learned in terms of reconciling economic growth, social progress and environmental protection? Has sustainable development – a formula that seeks to balance economic, social and environmental priorities – been revealed as nothing more than an astute slogan to appease different political interests and stakeholders, or does it retain the conceptual robustness needed to guide individual and collective action as we face the foregoing challenges? Are we ultimately locked into a paradigm of economic expansion that is intrinsically averse to real sustainability, requiring a radical departure from the conceptual premises underlying our political systems and the global economy?
Surveying the current debate about these questions and proposed solutions for the future, Michael Mehling held the kick-off presentation at the two-day conference "Growing the Sustainable Way? Options for a Progressive Development Model" convened by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Brazil from 3 to 4 April 2012. It was attended by 25 scholars and activists, trade unionists, and decision-maker from Belgium, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United States, and Uruguay.