Rio+20: The start of the world’s biggest shoe swap?

As an experiment, I recently took a list of organisations who were present at the COP17 in Durban and attempted, just through reordering their various names, to write a poem. I have to confess the poem wasn’t particularly successful and hopefully it will never see the light of day. However, the exercise highlighted that our debates about climate change and social justice are based upon a common vocabulary of symbols and metaphors. While this shared vocabulary aids building large-scale movements of social change, we have to be careful that we constantly reclaim and refine our language in a bold, radical way. Otherwise, we are susceptible to “greenwashing” and political spin, where our language of aspiration can become hollow rather that substantive.

At the centre of Rio+20 is a complex hub of symbolism, ideas and aspirations but in our campaigning and activism, we strive for tangible outcomes and policy frameworks such as  ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. However, Rio+20 marks a symbolic anniversary and its key theme of ‘The Green Economy’ is, to some extent, a metaphor yet to be defined. There are tangible outcomes we need from Rio+20 but they may only be achieved if we creatively bridge the gap between symbolism and substance, and critique the philosophical aspirations with as much focus as the policy ones.

I recently attended a talk by cultural thinker Roman Krznaric on ‘The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People’. He suggested at the outset that empathy ‘…is a source of radical social change, empathy can be fiery!’ What if empathy could be the way to bridge the gap between symbolism and substance? In his talk, Roman differentiates between affective empathy, where you mirror or share in the emotion of another, and cognitive empathy, the experience of ‘stepping into the shoes’ of another. This ‘cognitive empathy’ could be powerful stuff. However, as many campaigners might tell you, inviting people to empathise across space as ‘global citizens’ is difficult enough. In addressing climate change we need to invite people, particularly political leaders, to empathise across time, into the future: we need to foster ‘inter-generational empathy’. But if the political notion of ‘the future’ at Rio+20 is just symbolic, then any Sustainable Development Goals that emerge will inevitably lack substance. Margaret Atwood, a Canadian science-fiction author, has written in a recent blog:

‘The future is like the afterlife: no one can actually go there and return. So I can’t predict the future; it just looks like that sometimes. I don’t stargaze: I read the newspapers. And the magazines. And the blogs. They don’t tell me the future, either, but from them I can gather bits and pieces that might be fitted together into something fictional, but plausible.’

While climate data offers predictions that engage the mind, empathy could be its necessary counterpart for conceptualising the road ahead in an emotionally grounded way. This needn’t be abstract and wooly. For example, the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ) has established a network where women political and grassroots leaders are in dialogue with one another, an approach where the policy-makers can ‘step into the shoes’ of those marginalised by other democratic processes. At a recent talk, Mary Robinson reflected on a meeting of this kind she had hosted at the UN Commission on the Standards of Women:

‘A sense that I took from that meeting was that this bottom-up and top-down women’s leadership can really change the narrative on climate change, because women are instinctively intergenerational and usually practical in being able to change behaviour…’

This observation, which engages with the inter-generational as a reality rather than a concept, emerged from a cognitive empathy across geography and lifestyle. Those where the affects of climate change are no longer an anecdote but a reality have a profound insight into what lies ahead, particularly women. Therefore understanding the inter-generational in a symbolic and meaningful way comes from a context of openness and empathy, a free exchange of ideas and experiences. Contrastingly, the World Food Programme (WFP) recently hosted a web-chat between a Kenyan girl called Molly and her friends, with some school children in Italy. Molly formed a focal point for part of the WFP’s work as a person we can empathise with in a very direct way, a point of contact with a broader issue. With Molly as the focal point though, the issue of malnutrition begins, and returns to, a human reality and does not remain abstract. As a youth, Molly offered a different insight into the inter-generational as well, her personal goals and aspirations being a reflection of Kenya’s stage of development. Also in Kenya, the photographer Rankin has attempted to capture ‘the human face of hunger‘ for Oxfam. His photographs protrude through the large statistics about hunger and malnutrition, engendering empathy in an artistic, expressive setting. Like Atwood, it is perhaps by gathering ‘bits and pieces’, human insights from contrasting sources such as politics, activism and art, that a meaningful sense of the inter-generational becomes plausible.

The formal proceedings for Rio+20 last only three days. But the numerous side events, official and unofficial, will establish an energy and the many related events happening around the world will draw from, and shape, the conference’s symbolism. The more innovative and creative those events are, the better. The more distinct and original our experiences of empathy, the potentially deeper our sense of the inter-generational might become. Roman Krznaric has the exciting plan to one day create an ‘Empathy Museum’. I wonder though, if it doesn’t need to be physical but an imaginary museum instead. What would happen if Rio+20 embraced empathy like Mary Robinson, between civil society and policy-makers? How would we then understand the ‘inter-generational’ in a context of empathy? And what would emerge if that first plenary session began something like this..?

“Ladies and gentlemen, please find a partner who you have not worked with before. Now, please…swap your shoes.”


This is a blog I am entering into the tck tck tck Rio +20 Blogger Prize.

Their website is