After Rio+20 and Beyond 2015: Advancing the Campaign for a Global Citizens Movement

Uchita de Zoysa: author, strategist and frontline leader in mobilizing civil society and stakeholder alliances for shaping the global sustainability movement – is Global Coordinator of The Widening Circle campaign for a Global Citizens Movement, Chairman of Global Sustainability Solutions, Executive Director of Centre for Environment and Development, and the initiator of the Peoples Sustainability Treaties. He is the author of ‘It has to be Climate Sustainability’, and has contributed to hundreds of global conferences during past two decades from the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and up to the recently concluded Rio+20 Summit.



Abstract: The 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro mobilized a massive network of civil society and non-governmentalorganizations and engaged in a historical dialogue on sustainable development. This year, in June 2012, when the world reconvened in Rio de Janeiro for Rio+20 Earth Summit the fragmentation of civil society was more obvious than ever. While the nations of the world tussled with the official documents and the statements and proclamations, a vigorous initiative to formulate Peoples’ Sustainability Treaties begun to take shape that presents an alternative, grass-roots view of peoples aspirational pathways to sustainable futures. The Widening Circle (TWC), a campaign for a global citizens movement, joining forces in Rio de Janeiro to see beyond the summit and plan collectively our transition to the great transition towards sustainable futures. Knowing that time is ripe for catalytic campaign to evolve a powerful and coherent movement expressing a supranational identity and building new institutions for a planetary age the mission of TWC is to reenergize the dispersed and frustrated civil society towards advancing a diverse popular movement of engaged citizens the world over.

Key words: 1992 Earth Summit, Civil Society, NGO, Sustainable Development, Rio+20, Global Citizens Movement, The Widening Circle, Future. 


Después de Río+20 y más allá de 2015: Fomento de la Campaña por un Movimiento Ciudadano Global

Resumen: La Cumbre de la Tierra de 1992 en Río de Janeiro movilizó una red masiva de la sociedad civil y de organizaciones no gubernamentales, donde se participó en un diálogo histórico sobre el desarrollo sostenible. Este año, en junio de 2012, cuando el mundo volvió a reunirse en Río de Janeiro para la Cumbre de la Tierra de Río+20, la fragmentación de la sociedad civil fue más evidente que nunca. Mientras que las naciones del mundo se peleaban con los documentos oficiales, las declaraciones y las proclamas, una iniciativa vigorosa para formular Tratados de Sostenibilidad de los Pueblos comenzó a tomar forma, presentando una alternativa, cuya base era el punto de vista de las personas que aspiraban a un futuro sostenible. El Amplio Círculo (TWC), una campaña a favor de un movimiento ciudadano global, une sus fuerzas en Río de Janeiro para ver más allá de la cumbre y el plan colectivo de nuestra transición a la gran transición hacia un futuro sostenible. Sabiendo que el tiempo está maduro para la campaña de catalizar y desarrollar un movimiento potente y coherente que sirva de expresión de una identidad supranacional y la creación de nuevas instituciones para una era planetaria, la misión de TWC es revitalizar la sociedad civil dispersa y frustrada para promover un movimiento diverso popular de los ciudadanos que participan el mundo.

Palabras clave: Cumbre de la Tierra 1992, Sociedad Civil, ONG, Desarrollo Sostenible, Río+20, Movimiento Ciudadano Global, El Amplio Círculo, Futuro.


Rio+20 and the future we don’t want?

Rio+20 never promised to inject life to a sustainable development agenda. On the contrary, it ridiculed forty years of serious attempts to place the world on a sustainable development path and tried to change the direction established twenty years ago through Agenda 21; these attempts were made by redefining sustainable development from a narrow green economy perspective, by drowning the calls for equity, and by trying to slaughter the rights to sustainability. One thing was obvious from the beginning; we had to fight to keep the true sustainable development agenda alive while Rio+20 tried to murder it.

The first real evidence that Rio+20 could seriously damage twenty plus years of sustainable development work was when it released the Zero Draft of the outcome document. For many of us it was a zero minus draft, and a red alert warning to rally civil society for a greater battle. The zero draft ignored the hundreds of submissions made by national governments, civil society organizations and major groups and came up with a document that even shocked government negotiators who called for greater imagination by the UN Secretariat for Rio+20. This document not only lacked any imagination but took us twenty years backwards in the sustainable development agenda. The zero draft of the outcome document was ironically named as “The Future We Want” and lead to an immediate outcry and a campaign that was to be called “The Future We Don’t Want”.

Challenges after Rio+20 

Rio+20 was a summit of nothing that could not draw any vision for sustainable futures and derive political commitment from our leaders to further the sustainable development agenda drawn in 1992. Indeed, since 1992, there has been a retrogression in the consensus that was reached at the Earth Summit—and reflected in such principles as burden sharing, articulation of rights, mobilization of support, and protection of the vulnerable. Repeated attempts to revive this consensus—at Johannesburg in 2002, Bali in 2007, Copenhagen in 2009, and now Rio de Janeiro in 2012—have come up empty handed, thus thwarting efforts to build upon it. The failure of Rio+20 Summit goes beyond the lack of political will power. It showcased the lack of institutional acumen required to address the level of consciousness towards cultivating a sense of identity that reaches across space to embrace the whole human family, across time to recognize the rights of future generations, and across nature to acknowledge humanity’s place in the wider community of life.

The failure of Rio+20 deepens the challenges of a sustainable world order. The challenge is to recognize the legitimacy of the global polity as an outer layer of a nested system of affiliation that reaches across regions and places to build processes of democratic global governance for managing our collective affairs on this planet. We as citizens of the world are now left to look after our own sustainable futures. In this realization, advancing global citizen’s movement to shepherd the transition to a sustainable, equitable, and democratic future, one in which ethics is both a right and a responsibility—at the level of the individual, the community and the planet has become more important than ever.

Time for the Sustainability Transition 

We have entered the new planetary phase of civilization. This is new era also carries unprecedented challenges and demands a deep shift in the direction of development. A dangerous chasm is opening between the imperatives of the Planetary Phase and the ways of thinking and acting that persist from the past. Failing to close the gap invites a slide toward catastrophe and barbarism. Can our common sense prevail to heal the earth, vanquish poverty, and create a planetary civilization of secure, just, and diverse places? For this to happen, forms of consciousness and democratic institutions that reflect the condition of the twenty-first century must essentially emerge. This calls for a sustainability transition, one that envisions a profound and historical transformation in the world-views and values that shape the organizing principles of human society.  These necessarily new ways of thinking, and the urgently needed transformation in our values, attitudes and beliefs, must emphasize human solidarity, affinity with nature. A dramatic re-emphasis on the idea of a decent quality-of-life for all must prevail.

Architecture of an emerging new world order

We need to grow the processes of democratic global governance that implements the necessary transition toward planetary sustainability. For this a post-national citizenry, nested in a formation of an interlinked and interpenetrated global, regional and local phenomena, is required. The dominant model of development has entirely failed to lift large sections of humanity out of unacceptable levels of poverty, misery and desperate want. It has also dramatically increased the inequitable gap between the wealthy and the poor, in a world where real wages stagnate even as work productivity rises exponentially. What’s worse, it does all this while degrading planetary bio-geo-chemical processes and laying waste to natural landscapes, and destroys the resource base for future generations. The status quo in development is predatory of both nature and people, ecologically unsustainable, and socio-economically inequitable. A radically different vision of human well-being is the call; one that is in tune with nature and respects other species, promotes socio-economic equity amongst all people, enhances the cultural, material, economic, social, and political opportunities for all, empowers each person and community to take part in decision-making affecting their lives, even as it leaves the natural world a better and much improved place.

Principles of an alternative economic system

The current proposals for a green economy that focuses on a singular growth-driven, high technology, free-market, Intellectual Property Rights-dominated system, is no green economy at all. What is needed is a vision of a networked system of decentralized, community based, sustainable economies in a diversity of settings, which stands on a foundation of ecological integrity, social accountability and an economically equitable distribution. The core idea is that all economies are made sustainable, not just a drive to maintain a singular, monopolistic and dominant global corporate-capitalist economy. A truly just and sustainable economic order will be one that increases the resilience of natural ecosystems, enhances the quality of life for all individuals, and creates a level of prosperity that allows all of humanity the opportunity to attain its full potential. A new economic order will be one that leaves both humans and the planet better off, in perpetuity.

Manifesto of the peoples sustainability treaties

Sadly, Rio+20 was also a demonstration of how fragmented the global civil society has become. While many civil society groups were competing to build their own image at the side events in the official Rio Centro tents and other locations, the so called Peoples Summit in the Flamingo Park was a chaotic demonstration that lead to thousands of civil society representatives from across the world being stranded and lost without any sense of direction or coordination. Alternately, fourteen Peoples’ Sustainability Treaties evolved through a consultative process with hundreds of civil society organizations converged at the Rio+20 to launch a Manifesto on the final day of the summit. They declared that another world is possible after Rio+20 and pledged their commitment to a transition toward increasingly sustainable futures on earth. The signatories to this Manifesto refused to sit idly by in the face of another failure of governments to provide hope for a sustainable future for all. They announced their own responsibility for undertaking actions, inviting and encourage similar actions and commitments by other rightsholders and stakeholders, communicating a vision for healthy communities, sustainable and equitable human well-being and its associated strategies, and coming together in the form of a global citizen’s movement to shepherd the transition to a sustainable, equitable, and democratic future.

This manifesto calls for action that helps move simultaneously toward a more localized socio-economic structure and toward a supra-national mindset that helps us transcend the parochial concerns of a corporate-capitalistic globalization to activate a global citizens movement. The signatories have pledged to:

  • Equity is the overarching demand from the civil society world, and must be the foundation of the collective global response. We call for equity within generations, equity across generations, and equity between humans and nature. For this we need to revert back to making individual and societal decisions based on equity and ecological factors and not merely on monetary factors. A different sort of economics, a new approach to learning and education as a process, a revised understanding of ethics and of spirituality then become the ways in which we can work toward a more Equitable society; one that recognizes our integral relationship with the natural world
  • Localizing our systems of economies, decentralizing governance, and advancing sustainable lifestyles and livelihoods becomes the new social order of sustainable societies. Localism is the theme emerging across the board which is linked to the principles of devolution, of decentralization and of subsidiarity, turning localism into a world-wide movement becomes the key to unpacking many of the complexities we face, whether in the case of sustainable consumption and production or in the case of radical ecological democracy. Protecting the rights of Mother Earth and of humans, transforming our governance systems through radical ecological democracy, respecting cultural diversity, and strengthening sustainable economies is the way towards sustainable futures for all. It is thus essential that we create a more effective, responsible and democratic system of global governance
  • A Global Citizens Movement is the collective response towards transitioning to a sustainable world. All sections of society must thrive to converge upon their visions and convictions and find common ground for collective action that can bring about the transformation required to ensure the wellbeing of all on the planet—humans as well as nature. Such a global citizens movement would catalyze for a peaceful and prosperous new world that generates widespread happiness and contentment – thus propagating widespread practices of mindful intentional action. For this, a new sense of ethics, values and spirituality must be seeded within current and future generations through a redesigned system of learning, education and enlightenment.

The widening circle campaign for a global citizens movement

A global citizens movement that engages masses of people for a Great Transition remains latent, ready to be born. But can it crystallize with sufficient speed and scale? Awakening this movement begs for a focused and directed effort. This is mind The Widening Circle (TWC) was launched as a new organizing initiative with the explicit aim of catalyzing the Global Citizens Movement (GCM), a sustained campaign that will spread across regions and issues in “widening circles.” TWC is not the GCM itself; it is a catalyzing campaign to advance a GCM. It is a campaign to bring coherence to the global movement by fostering a shared vision, an effective strategy, and a “politics of trust” that seeks to balance unity and pluralism on the road to our common future.  TWC nurtures the idea and practice of global citizenship, while actively promoting unified action in civil society. Corresponding to the polycentric character of the GCM, the core structure of TWC is built on an expanding set of globally-allied semi-autonomous territorial and issue circles linked through representative global circles.

A GCM would work on all fronts, understanding the various struggles for the environment and justice, as well as the search for meaningful and responsible ways of living in our interdependent world, as different expressions of a common project. TWC, the campaign for a GCM, has passed through two distinct phases. The Conceptual Phase (2002-2010) saw the formulation of the Great Transition scenario and identification of a GCM as the critical change agent. The Launch Phase (2010-2012) – “TWC 1.0” – introduced and defined the campaign, establishing the soundness of its conceptual framework and preparing the ground for a more ambitious phase. On that foundation, the time is ripe for moving the campaign forward into a three-year Development Phase (“TWC 2.0”). To significantly advance a coherent and vital GCM, TWC will decisively move the campaign to a higher level of intensity that attracts participation from all geographic and demographic groups, link with allied movements, and inspire large numbers of people the world over.

After Rio+20 and Beyond 2015  

Humankind faces multiple and daunting crises that are more than likely to confront and impact billions of people in the decades to come. In addition, research is showing us that our actions are very likely going to cause us to transgress multiple planetary thresholds and boundaries. Despite unprecedented growth in the global economy since 1992, governments are trapped in making insatiable demands for still more unsustainable growth and rising inequity to remedy problems that economic globalization itself has caused.

Just after Rio+20, international NGOs are quickly shifting their focus on the beyond 2015 development agenda. The next three years, 2013 to 2015, will demonstrate another circus of UN global agenda setting and reactions from the civil society and rest of the stakeholders. While like Rio+20 this process too will provide a forum for an international conferencing circus, civil society should not let loose the focus on the need of getting together around a campaign for a Global Citizens Movement (GCM). A GCM is the collective response towards transitioning to a sustainable world. All sections of society must thrive to converge upon their visions and convictions and find common ground for collective action that can bring about the transformation required to ensure the wellbeing of all on the planet—humans as well as nature. Such a global citizens movement would catalyze for a peaceful and prosperous new world that generates widespread happiness and contentment – thus propagating widespread practices of mindful intentional action. For this, a new sense of ethics, values and spirituality must be seeded within current and future generations through a redesigned system of learning, education and enlightenment.


i. 2013-2014 Strategy of The Widening Circle,

ii. Peoples Sustainability Manifesto,

iii. Synthesis Report of Peoples Sustainability Treaties,

iv. Post Rio+20 World Order: The Need for Advancing A Global Citizens Movement, Uchita de Zoysa,

v. KOSMOS Journal, The Widening Circle After Rio+20: Advancing the Campaign for a Global Citizens Movement, Uchita de Zoysa,

This article was published on October 17th: International Day for the Eradication of Poverty in Global Education Magazine

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