As the United Nations' Rio+20 sustainability conference kicks off, what impact could the discussions have on the global economy amid growing populations? During today's OnPoint, Brent Blackwelder, founder of Foundation Earth, president emeritus of Friends of the Earth and the founding chairman of American Rivers, explains why he believes the conference could be a game-changer and explains the role the United States could play in the negotiations.
Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Brent Blackwelder, founder of Foundation Earth and president emeritus of Friends of the Earth and the founding chairman of American Rivers. Brent, thanks for coming on the show.
Brent Blackwelder: Glad to be with you today.
Monica Trauzzi: Brent, you've been involved in the environmental community for decades. Looking forward to this week's sustainability conference in Rio, why do you consider it a potential game changer?
Brent Blackwelder: The fact is that this is one of the biggest meetings ever to save the planet from further environmental deterioration and we have almost 200 nations represented. World leaders are there. And the big question is we did this 20 years ago in the same place, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are we just going to have promises that are never fulfilled and 20 years from now we will look back and we'll be in further bad shape? Or are we going to take some bold steps to make a different world, a healthier planet for ourselves and for our children and children's children?
Monica Trauzzi: Do you have any reason to believe that this isn't just going to be another meeting where promises are made? I mean there has kind of been a trend of that lately.
Brent Blackwelder: The trend is very much that way. You look at the draft documents, very big generalities and so forth. So we did a report at Foundation Earth, we called it the "Economic Rethink: Who Does It Well?" We were asking in the major categories, economics, ecology and equity, what are the bold steps that some countries have taken that set a good example? So then you should ask why aren't other countries doing the same thing? It's not as if this is untried or it doesn't work. You've got a success story, let's replicated. Let's not do another study. Let's not make idle promises. Let's just make progress.
Monica Trauzzi: And which countries are leading the way?
Brent Blackwelder: It depends on the category, because, for example, Germany has led the world in clean energy, in solar and wind. They have in the past been number one even though they're not as big, for example, as the state of Montana and their climate is more like Seattle, but yet they've been number one in solar energy. So, they were decisively better as a world example than most every other country in the world. But if you look at other categories, it may be that certain countries don't have the corruption problem that is facing and gripping so many nations of the world. So New Zealand for example, leads in that category. So, the idea is to illustrate with these points. For example, how do we measure economic progress? Well, we use the gross national product. Well, that really only measures how fast you're taking natural resources and turning them into waste. I mean it's as if our economy today is treating the planet as if it were a business in a liquidation sale, not as something to be a steward of, care for our creation example.
Monica Trauzzi: So, speaking of economics, how can we really expect countries to place such a focus on sustainable development at this conference when we have this backdrop of an economic crisis in many countries of the world?
Brent Blackwelder: Well, one answer is that if you started to change the way you do business you would flourish, rather than replicating all of the pollution, health degrading things. Right now poorer countries tend to bear the brunt of all the extraction, whether we're talking about mining, oil drilling and so on. Many of them have actually had to bring lawsuits because the pollution was wrecking the fisheries and the agricultural lands on which these people survived. So, if you do things, there's no sense in repeating all the mistakes of the Industrial Revolution. We should look about a real true-cost economy and how to do things without getting into the throwaway mode. Total recycling and reuse is actually an enhancer and a way in which we can get out of the economy that is now really a casino-based economy more and more and we can talk some more if you want to go into these points.
Monica Trauzzi: I want to focus a bit on the politics here. President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Cameron are not attending this Rio meeting. Does that sort of tell us how significant of a discussion we're going to have here? Are they basically putting a stamp on the meeting by not attending?
Brent Blackwelder: I think it's a very serious, devastating blow that you have great world leaders that are not living up to what I think is by far the most comprehensive challenge. It's the very livability of the earth. In other words, if Brazil is going to transform the Amazon rain forest, the world's greatest, into an industrial plantation so that they can be a leader in global agricultural exports, well, you're going to destroy the rainmaking machine for the South American continent. You are going to push things right to the tipping point. Can't you use things sustainably? Haven't we learned anything about the way the United States laid waste to so much land and polluted so many things? We should take an example from the United States. For example, we were probably the leading destroyer of rivers in the world, but over the last half-century we have removed hundreds and hundreds of dams, placed over 250 rivers in a protected system. You know, other countries, they're not replicating what we did to restore fisheries and bring back water quality. They're replicating the old model. Why not get with it and look at what countries are doing the best things and copy them?
Monica Trauzzi: So, specifically for the United States, how significant is this meeting?
Brent Blackwelder: Well, the point is that the U.S. has dropped the ball on environmental leadership. When I began in the '70s, we had bipartisan Republican Democratic support for 30 major laws and other countries replicated. Now the United States has been the biggest anchor drawing back other countries from making real progress. We have not set the example at the federal level. We have dropped the ball. Fortunately, some cities and states are doing good things, but we ought to step up to the plate. Obama's absence harms us, as does the absence of these other leaders.
Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show. And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
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