Photo by John LeGear.

As those of us who attended the Rio+20 Earth Summit get back into the daily grind, and those who weren’t in Rio have already forgotten it ever happened, we begin to realize the mistakes that were made and the lessons we can learn.

As a young person who will live with the results of Rio+20 for years to come, it is already feeling like a missed opportunity for something much better. The slogan that was bandied about, plastered onto the wall of the conference center, and put at the top of the final “outcome document” was “the future we want,” but the “we” clearly didn’t refer to the young people who were at the summit, or the many who didn’t even consider going.

The future we want was never going to be made in Rio, but a few things sealed its dim fate:

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

1. Most people declared the game over before they even jumped into play.

In the schoolyard, the kid who sits on the sidelines and poo-poos the game is always the biggest annoyance to the kids trying to play it. In Rio there were a lot of folks declaring that the United Nations was the wrong forum, that a summit was the wrong tool. Rather than suggesting, or starting, a new game, far too many just sat on the sidelines and griped.

Sure, the U.N. is a bureaucratic mess and has been woefully inadequate in addressing our environmental challenges, but is anyone really expecting the nations of the world to come together and come to agreement smoothly? Just because it is hard, does that mean we can let our political leaders off the hook?

From the press coverage of Rio that condemned the conference from the beginning to the absence of major environmental groups and President Obama, the cynicism bug was pervasive and turned out to be self-fulfilling. No one came into Rio believing they could win the game, so in the end, no one really did. It turns out inertia is a pain in the ass to overcome, especially when you don’t really believe you can overcome it.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

2.The game was played by an outdated set of rules.

Okay, so there were a few that came to play the game — to dive into the policy and plow a path forward. The halls were filled with veterans of U.N. negotiations. But rather than being played like a great chess game, it was more like checkers, with the usual cast of characters posturing and stonewalling.

There was the U.S., which wanted any mention of “equity” scratched from the final agreement; the Vatican, which seemed able to exercise a supernatural ability to erase mentions of reproductive rights from the text; the European Union, which wanted to bolster the U.N. Environmental Programme and build better governance structures; and then the G77, a group of developing countries, that did everything it could to make sure growth and development could continue unfettered. The path plowed forward was essentially the same as the path we came on.

What if, instead of the same-old-same-old, the U.N. had really taken to heart input from a wide array of stakeholders? What if negotiators had really looked to their citizens to advise them on what direction they should take? Rio afforded an initial attempt at this, the Dialogue Days, but the results had no formal way of being incorporated into the negotiations and so, like so much, they fell short.

3. It isn’t actually a game, although leaders treated it like one.

It would be nice if this were all just a game — one where we could play it again and it would come out differently. Unfortunately it is no such thing. The Rio+20 conference was about us, and our home — our one home, Earth. As Rio+20 began and world leaders arrived, they posed for pictures and gave nice speeches, but there were no actual negotiations at the summit itself. The lackluster outcome document was declared agreed upon before the conference began, as if it had all been figured out and we had time to spend three days patting each other on the back.

Where to now?

Rio+20 was just one attempt to catalyze global coordination toward a future where all people can live well. While our leaders dealt us a full dose of disappointment, we will move on and learn lessons that will enable us to overcome the blades that keep our social fabric torn and the greed that makes our natural resources scarce.

Here in the vacuum created by inadequate international policy, an array of solutions is springing up. People are recognizing that our national governments aren’t capable of fixing our problems; instead, we must fix them ourselves while holding our governments accountable for enabling our progress.

On the grave of the famous futurist Buckminster Fuller, who popularized the idea of a spaceship as a metaphor for Earth, it says, “call me trimtab.” The trimtab is the very edge of a ship’s rudder, which turns first to disturb the water so that the rest of the rudder can turn much more easily, which then turns the entire ship.

Let’s call Rio+20 — and the crucial new space for action that was born from it — a trimtab, and go on to do more than we ever imagined.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.