An Expedition Without a Map

I had a very informative experience at the March UNCSD Preparatory Committee. From my vantage point, there are two concepts that were underlying everything at this conference. One, how we talk about sustainable development and two, whether we need more planning before we choose to restructure institutions at the UN.

First, the world has not yet established a shared understanding of what sustainable development is and how it might work. The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 set out a broad context for it by stating its three pillars: environment, development and social issues. Although these remain as the central tenants of sustainable development, the context in which they exist is drastically different. The world is a different place to from what it was back then. Global sustainable development is so complex that it is very difficult to talk about it all in one setting. Very few people have a broad enough background to be able to talk about the overall context. That is why everybody sees something different. They are looking at the aspects of sustainable development of which they happen to be most familiar based on their political, geographical, economic or social setting.

There are many experts that talk about specific aspects, but nobody has done a good enough job talking about it as a whole. We need to establish a platform from which we can discuss ideas without the conversation being split in different directions. We need a narrative map from which to embark on a discussion about sustainable development. This is why I see the Trailhead Matrix as such a powerful tool. The reason I attend the UN meetings is because I want to study they breakdown in conversation at the diplomatic level. I can then share that knowledge with researchers and help them frame their studies in a context that can help the diplomats bridge the differences in their political, historical and cultural world views. It is the differences in these world views, after all, that make discussing sustainable development from a global shared perspective so difficult.

To this end, I believe that Rio 2012 should create a commitment to map sustainable development not just from a scientific or a financial perspective, but from a perspective that can help make future sustainable development conferences more productive at achieving specific measurable results. We need to agree on a new analysis method that can transcend world views. The Trailhead Matrix can be a tool in this process.

The second idea from the March UNCSD Preparatory Committee is that there is a clear split about what to do about International Environmental Governance. Yes, the environment pillar of sustainable development needs more teeth. However, I am skeptical about encouraging a drastic institutional change at this time. I do think we need a drastic change, but I think we need to get the change right on the first try. It is hard to modify a big change once it is in place. Bureaucracies have legs of their own once they are created. I think we should know exactly what we want out of the UN on sustainable development before we invest too much time and political capital into making the change. I don’t think we can get to the point of knowing what we want until the narrative map of sustainable development has had a chance to mature in a truly deliberate manner.

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