Social Contract event at Rio+20

23 June 2012, Rio de Janeiro.  Does the world need a new Social Contract to address the sustainable development challenges of the 21st Century? This topic was at the heart of a debate of a high level panel convened by UNITAR and the Ethos Institute on 23 June, one day after the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), with the support of Globo and Planeta and sponsorship of CPFL Energia, Itau and Natura.

The event brought together leading international thinkers to review the outcomes of the Rio+20 Conference and discuss a new holistic vision for humanity and nature. Drawing on the powerful ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the eminent philosophers of the Enlightenment period whose tercentennial birth is celebrated in 2012, the Panel called for a new Social Contract of governments, civil society and all stakeholders to implement the outcomes of the Rio+20 Conference. The audience comprised over 300 participants, with broadcasting provided through television and radio.

Gilberto CarvalhoThe event was opened by H.E. Mr. Gilberto Carvalho, Chief Minister of the General Secretariat of the Presidency of Brazil, speaking on behalf of the President of Brazil, H.E. Ms. Dilma Rousseff. Mr. Carvalho pointed out that the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UN CSD) formally ended on 22 June. “Governments and civil society need to take forward the commitments made at Rio and fight for sustainable development”, he emphasized. A new Social Contract needs to be based on solidarity, inclusion and an appropriate level of living for all in harmony with nature.

Paulo Itacarambi In his introductory remarks, Mr. Paulo Itacarambi, Vice-President of the Ethos Institute, acknowledged the partnership between Ethos and UNITAR in organizing the event and thanked all partners for their support. Mr. Jorge Abrahão, President of the Ethos Institute, who moderated the panel, emphasized that a new Social Contract will not come from one single mind or a privileged group but needs to be framed through an inclusive global dialogue.

Ignacy Sachs Prof. Ignacy Sachs, a globally respected economist and sociologist and researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo and Honorary Director of Studies at EHESS (Paris), highlighted the importance of strengthening planning capacities at all levels to protect public goods and achieve justice. “Each country defines its own Social Contract, but the world also needs a “mega-planetary” Social Contract through the United Nations”, Prof. Sachs suggested. The objectives of such a Contract would be to prevent social catastrophes and ensure decent life for all, with food security and energy security as main pillars. As practical measures, Prof. Sachs proposed the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, investing in renewable energies, the establishment of a global fund for sustainable development, a tax on carbon emissions, and new models of ecosystem governance.

André Correa do Lago H.E. Ambassador André Correa do Lago, Chief Negotiator of the Brazilian Delegation at the UN CSD, drew the audience’s attention to two overarching priorities that emerged from the Conference: eradicating poverty and changing production and consumption patterns. He highlighted that the Rio Outcome Document included many opportunities for action and stressed that national governments alone cannot move these issues forward. He expressed the hope that civil society and other actors can develop excitement about the Rio Outcome Document and initiate action from the bottom up through communities, cities and other actors.

Mr. Carlos Lopes, Executive Director of UNITAR, pointed out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a provocative agent fighting against established ideas. He highlighted that Rousseau’s critique of inequalities and his call to reconnect with nature provided important lessons for today’s societies.  “In multilateralism, fundamental change and great ideas need time until they are consolidated”, Mr. Lopes said, citing the specific case of human rights. “Governments cannot decide anymore on their own and new ways of engaging with citizens need to be developed” he noted, suggesting that “we need new methods and processes to express opinion in an organized and structured way at all levels” under a new Social Contract.

Achim Steiner, Carlos LopesMr. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), indicated that a Social Contract developed after the 2nd World War and enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations eroded with the Cold War. The 1992 Earth Summit had created momentum for a new Social Contract. but today this Contract is broken, with conversations of government and civil society taking place in separate fora.  “Agreements reached in Rio are not sufficient to change the trajectory of unsustainable development in the direction of a green and inclusive transition” Mr. Steiner said. He compared the Rio Outcome Document with a half-written cookbook that does not provide a whole menu or complete recipe, but only some ingredients. Yet, some provisions may provide an opportunity for some groups to take action, Mr. Steiner said.

AbrahãoDr. Rajendra Pachauri, Director of The Energy Research Institute (TERI) in New Delhi and the Chair of the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, emphasized the importance of using scientific knowledge for policy making. He criticized that at international conferences, like Rio and those dealing with climate change, negotiators rarely consider the scientific rationale for their gathering. “Time has come that knowledge becomes the major driver of action”, Dr. Pachauri noted. He also emphasized that challenges like climate change require transformational change through the right set of policies that link adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development.

Throughout the debate and interaction with the audience several additional points were raised and ideas were exchanged including the following:

  • The negotiations in Rio focused on tactical moves instead of addressing overarching objectives.
  • A new Social Contract is needed that can create a new economic and social paradigm emphasizing principles of sustainability, equality and justice.
  • Governments need to ensure that the will of the people is represented, rather than special economic interests.
  • Civil society is tasked to offer alternative concepts for a new social and economic order beyond their criticism of the current system.
  • New means of technology offer unprecedented opportunities for civic participation under a new Social Contract.
  • Leadership can advance social change, even if institutional structures and rules fail, as demonstrated by Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
  • New metrics to measure wealth and happiness that go beyond economic indicators need to be identified.
  • Leading by example is important, but broader policy frameworks are required that create the right incentives, for example, for systematic recycling.

Reflecting on the future and next steps, Mr. Lopes reminded the audience that Rousseau admitted himself that he was not perfect and had to change. He suggested that it is time for the global community to change mindsets and attitudes and catalyze innovative change. Mr. Lopes concluded by encouraging the audience to spread the message of a new Social Contract through their diverse organizations, networks and initiatives.

Photo 1 (from left to right): Jorge Abrahão, Rajendra Pachauri, Achim Steiner, Carlos Lopes, Ignacy Sachs, André Correa do Lago
Photo 2: Gilberto Carvalho
Photo 3: Paulo Itacarambi
Photo 4: Ignacy Sachs
Photo 5: André Correa do Lago
Photo 6 (from left to right): Achim Steiner, Carlos Lopes
Photo 7 (from left to right): Jorge Abrahão, Rajendra Pachauri