On reading news and analysis from the Rio +20 Earth Summit, I can just about cast my mind back to the 1992 original in Rio. It felt like a big deal at the time, and probably for many of my generation, was something of a wake-up-call to environment/development/what a mess type issues.

It seems amazing to see some of the old coverage of the 1992 Summit, with leaders such as the UK’s John Major and the USA’s Bush Senior commenting on the importance of seizing the day and bringing sustainability and the environment into focus. What a contrast to the current Earth Summit, with UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, not in attendance, despite fronting the UK’s ‘greenest government ever’. But the same goes for US President Obama, and Germany’s Angela Merkel. A pretty poor turnout.

Finding out that leaders from many of the world’s poorer nations will be attending, along with various corporate leaders and non-government organisations, puts a different focus on to the 2012 Summit. You could interpret this as reflecting a global shift away from the industrialised West and/or just that most of our leaders just don’t see it as a high enough priority and are a bit rubbish. On that basis, you could argue that globally we have taken backward steps over the past 20 years. You could say the same for the majority of local government in the UK who have at best a tenuous grasp of concepts such as climate change or ecological footprint. Don’t even go there with peak oil and energy descent. The question should be, ‘why are we surprised?’

On watching BBC4’s documentary, Punk Britannia part 3: Post-Punk, it made me think of a presentation I’ve done called Transition in Five Objects. The final ‘object’ was punk (a photo of Johnny Rotten to be precise). The story here was that punk was a revolution in music in which any Tom, Dick, or Harry (or maybe Johnny, Glen and Paul) could pick up a guitar and start a band: they didn’t have to wait for anyone to tell them what to do, or have permission. Sometimes it sounded rough, but at least they were doing it. That was a bit like Transition, I suggested, you just have a go and do it. Although probably without the ‘no future’ context . . .

In the documentary, Johnny (or John as he is now) stated, ‘the punk ethos is do it yourself, because nobody’s going to do it for you. Don’t sit back and try and learn the set formats. If you do that you become institutionalised and you become as tedious as everything else in the top 30.’

Lovely! You could just transpose this statement into Transition and it gives you a starting point. It’s like that statement about not being able to solve these problems by using the same kind of thinking that got us into this situation to begin with . . . said by someone famous. Most institutions are too set in their ways to break out with really radical ideas, and the bitter experience of years waiting for those at the top to do something about it, is one of continuous disappointment and disillusionment. ‘Worn down by hope’ was how George Monbiot put it. Much better, to say ‘You know what? I’m wasting my time hoping that someone else is going to do it. I might as well channel my energy into having a go myself and doing something!’

We in the Transition movement need to be mindful of Johnny’s wisdom too. It is too easy to be sucked into tedium and institutionalised thinking, and become comfortable. Punk often doesn’t make easy listening, especially 30 years on, but at least it grabs your attention, makes you question things and destabilises your comfort zone. Once we find ourselves mired in boring, unproductive meetings, maybe we need to be radical and change things. Transition is like a quiet revolution in itself, but the revolution doesn’t end once the Transition Town is set up. It needs to keep going with a radical, ‘we’re doing it ourselves’ spirit.

The stance of governments to the 2012 Summit is at the same time tragic and predictable. None of us should be surprised that the outcomes will be completely worthless, but we should learn from the lack of leadership, commitment and vision that it is us that are the ones that need to do a bit of DIY.

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