Background image of Spencer Beebe stands in a Northwest forest


Rio: Let’s unleash the power of people back home

Spencer B. Beebe reflects on the Rio Earth Summit.

I recently stopped by an old stage coach stop on the Paradise Bench in northeastern Oregon, with my son Sam and our editor, Gary Miranda.

We were surrounded by old buildings: a crumbling hotel given way to swallow nests, a restored barn, ice house, grocery store, and blacksmith shop. The wheat fields were greening up, meadows and ponds resounding with the calls of territorial yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, ponderosa pine blowing in the wind, mule deer watching intently our every move, and mountain bluebirds setting up nests in woodpecker-hole-ridden standing dead trees. In nearby streams, thousands of steelhead are returning every fall. Bighorn sheep have been reintroduced in a canyon nearby and great grey owlets are fledging again.

This place reminds me constantly of my good father, who traded forestland near Portland for 3,000 acres here in 1980, began the restoration work of forest and grasslands and left them as a legacy for family gatherings.

And thinking of him has me thinking of Rio de Janeiro. It was there, while I attended the first Earth Summit in 1992, that I learned of dad’s death at age 79.

That year and that summit marked a heady period for environmentalists – Mother Earth had been declared Time’s Person of  the Year, the largest gathering of heads of state ever in the earth’s history converged on Rio and put their signatures on new treaties to protect biodiversity and control climate change, and new global guidelines for forest conservation and human development. I had just helped to create Conservation International after leading The Nature Conservancy’s international program and there was a sense that we’d arrived: Finally, finally, after decades toiling in our rabbit holes, pushing for change on a global scale, we were taking a giant leap forward. I left the conference buoyed.

But what I remember just as vividly now, was a moment near the end of the summit when I found myself next to then-Senator Albert Gore. Could we live up to these bold promises back home? I asked him. “I don’t think so,” he said.

He was right, of course. The last two decades have seen the United States abdicating leadership on climate change, among other green issues, and the world hurtling toward dangerous tipping points on nearly every environmental health indicator.

The failed promise of Rio is not that implementation of global conventions proved overwhelmingly difficult — we always knew it would be hard — but that we fooled ourselves, even for a moment, into staking our future in top-down methods.

This time, at the Rio+20 conference which starts this week,  we should push for top-level global deals like the end of fossil fuel subsidies. But the world’s leadership should also be investing time and renewed energy in leveraging and scaling the efforts that have actually demonstrated dramatic systemic change over these twenty years: those at the local and regional level, the level where our actions and their impact are most relevant to the seven billion of us restlessly filling up this planet.

When we look at the world through this lens we see reasons for hope that have been building these twenty years.

Indeed, it’s not the legacy of Rio that we should be looking to, but Brazil’s 8th largest city, Curitiba, where Mayor Jamie Lerner, a visionary architect and planner, has shaped a fascinating, living, breathing, evolving 21st century city. The low-carbon, people-centered ideas cultivated there have spread all over the world – from its rapid, affordable bus transit to its expansion and creative use of green space to its attention to opportunities for the poor. Using similar foresighted investments in transit, my hometown of Portland, Oregon has actually hit greenhouse reduction goals of the sort envisioned in Rio.

Looking back through that local lens, we see what is possible, not what has failed. We see what can happen when you release the energy of people working in the places they call home, rooted in its peculiarities, building on the natural competitive advantage of bioregions, drawing on all the immediacy of local self-interest in improving the health and resilience of the communities and ecosystems on which people depend.

Around the time of the Earth Summit, I had been working with leaders in a dozen Latin American countries, urging them to stop cutting down their rain forests, which had been halved from their original size. What I realized, with the help of some finely grained maps that we produced at Conservation International and Ecotrust in the early 1990s, was that the rain forests of my home, along the northwest coast of North America, had also been reduced to 50% of their original cover. It was time for me to get working in the forests of home, as my dad had.

These two decades we have built a vibrant marketplace for restorative businesses in America’s first LEED Gold historic building, established a regional environmental bank, set up a forest investment fund around the principles of restoration and local jobs, and honored and supported nearly 50 regional indigenous leaders working to create social, economic, and environmental wellbeing for their homelands and people.

We’ve learned that we can create new institutions for the systems upon which we all depend– farming that takes care of the farmer,  as well as his land, water, and marketplace; fisheries that regenerate fishing communities; forestry that mimics nature, enhancing forest health while generating a competitive return. But it takes radical and revolutionary experimentation that is 180 degrees to convention.

And now it will take a radical networking of those experiments to put the world on a more resilient path – where we can adapt to and influence the massive global environmental and societal shifts that are already in motion today.

In that vein, the People’s Convention in Rio, the sideshow gathering for grassroots leaders that will draw few headlines, is the convention we need to be watching.  This is where the transfer of winning ideas will happen between scrappy changemakers working on indigenous rights and neighborhood toxins and urban agriculture in communities all around the world.

Last September, we brought 50 regional change agents from around the world to Portland to convene a network to promote ideas scalable across  regions – a network that could, for instance, develop people- and nature-centered responses to similar proposals for massive fossil fuel pipelines in northwestern Canada and northern Australia. People in the room were decorated with success – founders and heads of some of the world’s leading NGOs, ambassadors to the United Nations, social banking entrepreneurs, indigenous leaders — but the mood was starkly realistic. There was a sense that the time had come to make critical choices: would we think as spenders or savers, live as natives or colonists? “We’re hanging on by our fingernails,” Gerald Amos, leader of the Haisla First Nations tribe said.

I think of that meeting in contrast to our celebratory mood in Rio in 1992. Our latest gathering was more tangible and more revolutionary. We have no illusions about how and where to work. It is together, close to the ground, improving the places we call home. It’s a hopeful journey towards radical change.