The holes in the Earth Summit

Pushing the Earth uphill

It turned out the Earth Summit was more of a foothill.

This was a huge event back in 1992. We hoped it would lead to fixing everything.

Looking back I can see it was inevitable that it didn’t get that traction. It didn’t have a big enough picture. In the 1990s we simply didn’t know the right things to create widespread change.

But now our toolkit is better.

The Earth Summit

This was the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro. At the time it was notable for bringing so many world leaders together, and also for the involvement of groups from all sectors of society in lobbying for change and running a programme of parallel activities. Campaign groups were there, of course, but so were local government, indigenous communities and many others.  

One of the main conference outputs was Agenda 21, a framework statement of intent for countries to work together across a wide range of issues from air pollution and forests to poverty and international debt. There were also specific agreements on climate and forests.

Agenda 21 had as one of its chapters the establishment of Local Agenda 21s: processes coordinated by local councils to involve their communities in setting priorities and plans for making their areas better. Take-up varied, I think, but it was a significant movement in the UK for a number of years, pushed by local government umbrella bodies. Then the government of the day decreed that councils had to create strategies of its own design covering broadly similar ground, and the resources shifted and LA21 was gradually forgotten.

I didn’t go to Rio. But I was the legwork guy for a ‘Nottingham Earth Summit’ a few months before it, working with a cross-sectoral steering committee. We got 300 people together, from all sorts of backgrounds, in workshops covering all sorts of topics. It’s still one of the things I’m proudest of doing.

After that I was involved in the Local Agenda 21 processes for several years. Because of Nottingham’s administrative layout there are actually five local authorities covering different bits of it, and I managed to spend quite a chunk of my life as an unpaid meeting contributor!


Well, it didn’t save the world. (We always want the big magic solution rather than the slow stepwise one, don’t we?) It gave us a nudge but it didn’t start an avalanche.

It definitely broke down silos and led to more ‘joined-up thinking’. ‘Green’ issues and global development issues like poverty and trade were forever linked as part of a whole.

Local Agenda 21, at least here in the UK, shifted the way councils interacted with their communities. Local authority culture had tended to be very paternalistic, doing things to the population from on high. Here was a different expectation, backed by national government, of a model based on partnership. I’m not in touch with local government the way I used to be, so I don’t know whether there’s been backsliding, but there have been changes in the wider culture too that would make the old model harder.

There have been UN events to review the Earth Summit at key anniversaries, but they haven’t made much of an impact on the public psyche.

The echoes have faded into the background, but a lot of people’s time and energy went into making them part of the long process. Who can really know what effects they had, how they changed our thinking, and what future they might have staved off? But social systems continued much the same as before.

What was missing?

Why weren’t the shifts bigger? The ideas were there.

It didn’t make enough of a change in the public mindset. And it ran up against the buffers of politicians’ perspectives and willingness to act.

Knowing what I know now, and looking back, I can see the gaps – things we simply didn’t understand in the 1990s, which are crucial to creating change.

We were still operating from the assumption that people are rational decision-makers who would recognise problems, accept solutions and take action. But most people, most of the time, don’t operate in that mode. We are complex, messy, hung-up, distracted creatures. That’s what steering change has to work with.


Back in the 90s we didn’t have an awareness of the psychology of communication, persuasion and change.

It just started creeping in with some of the more innovative practitioners of Local Agenda 21. But mostly the model was ‘tell people, and they will change’.

(The main innovation of LA21 was ‘talk to people, work alongside them and you can draw out what matters to them and do things they’ll actually value’.)

Without that understanding of how people tick, whatever you want to do will spread out among the people who are receptive to it, and then be contained and limited by the resistance of all the others.

Today, this is a growing field of knowledge, and one of the drivers is online marketing. We’ve got this great delivery system that will get messages in front of mass audiences at low or no cost, and a lot of people are very interested in how to use that to make a living (or, indeed, a killing). Also, we’ve had more folks in academic psychology looking at practical applications.

It’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time, and my book ‘Planet of the Bubble People‘ is about worldviews, brains, resistance to change and why people react in ways that seem crazy.

Personal development

The more I’ve thought about this the last few years, the more crucial it seems for enabling change.

Because change is hard. It’s hard when you want to make improvements in your personal life, and it’s hard in relation to your agency in the world.

People are poorly equipped for it. We have programming in our head that wants to minimise processing requirements, and constructs a web of habits that includes the way we see the world, our view of ourselves and the way we react to situations. Most of us have social conditioning that set us up to fit into pigeon-holes to be ‘productive members of society’ and not to cause trouble. That’s what the old system wanted.

If you want people to change, first they have to widen their perspective so they can even see that a different way is possible. Then they have to cope with all the internal forces that try to hold them back from going there: resistance, uncertainty, self-sabotage and flat-out fear. They have to have a sense of their own strength and capability, and support networks to help them.

This why I think personal development and social change are so closely tied together. You need people with a vibrant connection to their values and that sense of being OK to go out and act in their service. The more you can help people to be people clear, healthy and inspired, the more the momentum will build.

Competing stories

I think there’s one more thing we didn’t have back in the 90s but do now: erosion of story.

Things hadn’t got bad enough for mass questioning of the story of the world that’s handed down to us. Our way of life pretty much worked for most people in developed countries.

Now it’s all kicking off. The financial crash, the effects of climate change, terrorism, the step up in large-scale migration… And through it all we can see very clearly that our ‘leaders’ are out of their depth, flailing around and grabbing what they can before the ship goes down: not actually fixing things that are important.

At the same time the internet has given us channels for competing stories to sneak past the lines of traditional media. When old ways of doing things go wrong, we hear. When new ideas go right, we hear. We are no longer imprisoned in the old house, and there are growing incentives to move out.

Wrapping up

The Earth Summit and the processes it generated got as far as they did because of the passion and commitment of a lot of great people. But there were gaps in their toolkit, and eventually the energy ran down.

At the time it felt like its remit, and the spread of topics in Agenda 21, was the biggest picture you could have. But now we can go bigger still and be even more joined up.

This is kind of Earth Summit: the Next Wave right now. We’re looking deeper into the guts of things, and wider at the possibilities available. We have the chance to be so much wiser about how we approach it.

And another big difference is that we’ve moved on from expecting ‘them’ to do it. People with positional power, having polite discussions. Now it’s much more grassroots and based in personal power.

People are seeing through the cracks, making connections, going round systemic blockages and pushing the big blue ball up the hill toward the next plateau and the distant heights.


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