Rio + 20 must empower the grassroots

Adrian Smith was one of a number of researchers and activists recently invited to write a short piece for the UN journal, Natural Resources Forum, about priorities for the Rio+20 summit next year. With UK policy-makers prevaricating in their support towards community energy, and hostility towards sustainability initiatives at the Treasury, I decided that empowering the grassroots needed to be highlighted as a priority. You can see my piece below, and others can be found on the journal web-site. There are many interesting points from people like heterdox economist Herman Daly, Oliver Greenfield from the Green Economy Coalition, Ashok Kholsa at Development Alternatives, and representatives of the Northern Alliance for Sustainability, Sustainable Europe Research Institute, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, the South Centre, UNDP and the World Future Council amongst others.

My own contribution reads as follows:

“Rio+20 must remind us all that innovation for sustainability is neither the monopoly of the corporate world nor conventional science institutions. Solutions for environmental sustainability and social justice developing in civil society arenas need to receive the high-level political support they deserve. Throughout the history of sustainability, there has been a significant undercurrent of grass-roots innovations developed through networks of activists and organizations, generating novel bottom-up solutions for sustainable development; solutions that respond to the local situation and the knowledge, interests and values of the communities involved.

Whether it is community food and energy initiatives, local (re-)manufacturing and tool swapping, complementary currencies, community sanitation and water projects, housing cooperatives, and so on, there remains a ferment of grass-roots activity. This diversity generates resilience by ensuring options are kept open in the face of uncertainty about how to proceed. It also provides flexibility, preventing us from being locked into a course inappropriate to changing circumstances. Often developing in the social economy, grass-roots experimentation continues generating “user-led” ideas for appropriation by business partners in wider markets.

However, their contrasting settings, origins, and purposes suggest that theories and policies for market-generated innovation may not be suitable for grass-roots innovations. Grass-roots innovators remain excluded and disadvantaged by conventional research and development institutions, and innovators often lack the resources and political power to scale up their solutions. Rio in 1992 catalysed local agenda 21. Rio+20 must now empower grass-roots innovation.”

The STEPS Centre at Sussex University, of which SPRU and I are a part, plans to carry this and other messages forwards as part of a collaboration for Rio+20 with Johan Rockstrom and Per Olsson at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. We will be taking forward arguments made in our recent New Manifesto project, that argues innovation that respects planetary boundaries has to be socially just and attend to issues of distribution, diversity and directions in development.

The history of community energy in the UK over the last decade, as well as initiatives elsewhere over a much longer period, demonstrates how the right kinds of support can reveal a wealth of solutions and sustainability potential, whilst concerns arisinf from recent shifts in policy reveal how important is consistency in support. The UK government spent over £8 billion on R&D in 2009 (32.6 per cent of gross domestic expenditure on R&D), and the sums remain large even in the context of cuts (though this could change). A fraction of this deedicated towards grassroots innovation would make a tremendous difference.

Adrian Smith