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Rio+ 20: After the Speeches, the Work Begins

By Grove Harris

Smarter, More Connected, and Deeply Spiritual

Secretary General BanKi-Moon at Rio+20.

Secretary General BanKi-Moon at Rio+20.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon commented that after the speeches, the work begins. He has it right: after the speeches of the Rio+20 conference, the work charges civil society to insist on changes. Governments will not solve the environmental crisis for us. This massive international conference was a once-in-a-decade opportunity. The outcome document, a product of months of negotiations dominated by nationalistic political interests, is far from revolutionary. To change our course away from environmental devastation we need more than a revolution.

Much of the excitement from Rio+20 came from sharing the ongoing work, learning of people and projects from all over the globe, making new connections, and deepening collaborations. Teenage girls from India leading a large-scale tree planting initiative inspired me. I learned of housing technologies using recycled materials which are energy self-sufficient. I was moved by an installation for the people of Brazil that, when dismantled, can be completely reused, and that dramatized Brazil’s leading role in bringing together indigenous knowledge about living together, African spirituality, and Western knowledge and technology. Can warmer countries revitalize democracy through their ability to convene large groups of people outdoors? May it be so.


Prior to this massive international conference in Rio de Janeiro, the Temple of Understanding partnered with UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) to bring together the religious organizations working at the UN and to offer workshops at Rio+20. We share many values and strategies, with most of us working on multiple levels and agendas, including local and international work, supporting youth empowerment, and lifting up the spiritual resources that can sustain the work and make it transformational.

This kind of inter-sector collaboration is important, allowing us to enjoy the pleasures of working together and the strength that comes from standing shoulder-to-shoulder looking forward. “Business as usual” must end for NGOs and activists as well as for business and government: this must be a time of collaboration and solidarity. The necessary changes are profound. We need the uprising of efforts everywhere, with as much redundancy as it takes to have local efforts in every city, town and village.

Who Came?

People of faith were well represented at Rio+20’s side events. Leading organizations included Earth Charter International, the Baha’i International Community, Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst (EED), Franciscans International, the Baptist World Alliance, Temple of Understanding, Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, Christian Aid, World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, Religions for Peace, Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, Caritas Internationalis, United Religions Initiative, International Alliance of Catholic Development Agencies, Soka Gakkai International, and more. There were many sessions offered by Indigenous groups, where the spiritual and environmental perspective is embedded in discourse and practice. This was a conference on development, with which many religious groups have been actively engaged. The environmental crisis was not the central issue.

Vija Vidyapeeth as been a seed farmer and saver for 16 years.

Vija Vidyapeeth as been a seed farmer and saver for 16 years.

The Temple of Understanding and The Interfaith Consortium for Ecological Civilization, along with other co-sponsors, offered a session on interfaith responses to sustainable development. All the speakers offered wisdom and action plans:

  • Vandana Shiva focused on Seed Saving. The Temple of Understanding will be collaborating with her to further this initiative through religious communities in the U.S. and welcomes interested volunteers.
  • BK Sister Jayanti called us to come together with respect, where we can put down ego, work effectively together, and where “minority consciousness” can shift to “majority consciousness.”
  • Joan Kirby reminded us to open the heart, including deepening the sense of interconnectedness with the earth and future generations, and building a network for activism.

Becoming Personally Involved

People of faith do not all have to become full time activists or scientists to contribute powerfully to a movement promoting ecological sanity. Spiritual insights, practices, and resources from faith traditions are essential for the changes that people of faith can generate. I am hopeful that this strategic contribution can fuel transformative activism, model the sustenance and serenity of spiritual life, and provide courage to cry out as loudly and creatively as we can. Moral outrage is itself a key contribution, as is the presence of an open heart. For many, the spirit-led sessions at Rio+20 were a refreshing change from the talking-head sessions.

A new colleague from Ecuador at a session at the People’s Summit on the Peoples’ Treaty for Ethics and Spirituality asked us about our personal commitments to reduce consumption. It is a leading justice issue and a pre-condition to working together. Particularly those of us in the United States have a duty to our global neighbors to examine and change our consumptive behaviors and to live more in line with our spiritual values.

I had the privilege of speaking at the Brahma Kumaris event on “Aligning Awareness and Action for the Future We Want.” For me that alignment starts close to home, in the body and relationship to the earth and to intimate others. It starts with practical daily actions, and grows from this embodied experience. Key aspects of it are humility, intimacy, and body awareness. Humility is relationship to the soil, the humus, being part of the elemental earth, and as such keeping perspective: I am not called to “do it all” or to succeed, just to do the next right thing. I can (sometimes) keep my fears at bay by practicing humility.

Intimacy is core to this work, as I need support and community to continue to build the counter-culture to the overly consumptive unconscious driven American life. I need to know others and be known by them, to fit in somewhere while I go against cultural norms. A sense of belonging is important.

I also need to affirm aspects of my embodied animal nature and own the pleasures that cannot be bought or sold: the joy of sun, air, and water on my skin, the feeling of a full stomach, of dancing with abandon. Such satisfactions can guide the way towards a culture of sustainable pleasures that come from being in tune with the earth. Action is a key pathway into new awareness. For example, I started composting many years ago, and the practice opened me up to new understanding of the cycle of life and how life makes use of everything.

Love needs to be considered as a source of renewable energy, and its many manifestations, including through sexuality, will be important parts of a renewed culture of life.

May we find ways to invite spirit through silence, song, art, architecture, creativity, and play. May we remember that spirit will move in unpredictable ways. In the links below you can learn from leaders who were at Rio+20 and already hard at work exploring those unpredictable ways. Enjoy your browsing. Blessed be.

Outcomes & Analysis of Rio20+

The Future We Want: Final Outcome Document

Rio+20 Voluntary Commitments

The Cloud of Commitments

Martha Shaw - The Minus of Rio + 20

Women’s Major Group Final Statement on the Outcome of Rio+20

Videos from Women Creating a Sustainable Future

The People’s Summit

Kathryn Marshall’s “Rio+20: Point of No Return?”

Progress on the Sidelines as Rio Conference Ends

The Future We Need? Hundreds of Civil Society Members Walk Out of Rio+20

Ear to Earth