Humbled, Troubled and Inspired in Rio

By Professor Guy Poppy

Director of Multidisciplinary Research at the University of Southampton

Guy Poppy at Rio+20 Earth Summit 'Looking down on Rio De Janeiro - a city of contrasts in so many ways. I've been humbled, troubled and inspired in Rio'

I write this blog sitting in a hotel lobby in Copacabana as the staff prepare for the arrival of the world’s political leaders. I’ve already seen the retinue around the King of Sweden, the red carpet treatment at waiting and the bouquets of flowers which are ever present as those in a position to make historic decisions arrive in Rio. So why does this trouble me? The Rio+20 Earth Summit is about equality and justice for the poor as much as it is sustainable development and the environment. The move from poor and clean often rises through rich and dirty before it can become rich and clean. We realise that sustainable development means trying to climb this curve without going over the top – somehow trying to tunnel through to the richer and cleaner society. Rio is a city full of contrasts – the super rich live next to those in the favelas and the dangerous side of Rio involves both communities who often blame each other for the crime statistics. Returning to my hotel lobby, it is interesting to see the powerful people of the world arriving to make decisions which affect the poor of the world. Let’s hope the huge transformation in the business world represented here in Rio sends a message that economic growth and prosperity can go hand-in-hand with sustainable development!

Being in Rio has been a humbling experience for me in many ways. I have met and listened to brilliant people who have really made a difference and the younger generation seems to be even more engaged in the debate and search for solutions. Mohan Munasinghe has been a monumental figure in sustainable development and coined the term sustainomics at Rio 92 and was also awarded the Nobel Prize with Al Gore for his role as Vice Chair of the IPPC AR4.  I was fortunate to share the stage with Mohan and felt humble in his presence. I spoke about Global Food Security and introduced our new Assets project which will try to deliver food, nutritional and ecological security to over 2 million people in Colombia and Malawi. I am so energised to really make this project deliver world-leading science which makes a real difference to people across the world.

The session was held in the opulent botanical gardens and included the CEO of Vale and the Brazilian Minister of Science and the Minister of the Environment, both of whom gave excellent and passionate speeches. The sessions also included many people from the green cross, the global reporting initiative and other bodies/fora in any list of influential bodies concerning global environmental issues. These inspirational people are showing leadership and are generating the solutions the world needs. Yet, they are going home now as the political leaders and their retinues arrive. The sign of good leadership is to do right things and to offer solutions and not just mention the challenges.  Let’s hope the people called leaders show leadership in the same sense as those now leaving Rio prior to the summit itself.

I return to Southampton and the UK inspired to generate solutions. In the words of Professor Munasinghe “We cannot solve the problems of the 21st Century using the tools of the 20th century”.  During the reception, Mohan and I shared our experiences of undertaking multidisciplinary research and he has agreed to visit me in Southampton – I will ask him to give one of our multidisciplinary research seminars we are launching in the autumn 2012. Science has much to offer, especially multidisciplinary approaches.  My new role as Director of Multidisciplinary Research at Southampton has made me proud that our university has shown leadership in promoting multidisciplinary research and the creation of the University Strategic Research Groups has already generated solutions, impact at many levels and a community embracing the world’s grand challenges.  A University like ours is best placed to undertake research and education which will generate the solutions and personnel able to make a difference. Our political masters are looking to us as much as we are looking to them to make the right decisions. Let’s hope there will be no need for a Rio+40.

Follow me on twitter @GuyPoppy1

Related research projects- ESPA Assetsproject ‘Attaining Sustainable Services from Ecosystems.