Take me to your leader

“The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present…who prefer the illusion of security.” So said Robert F Kennedy in his Day of Affirmation address to the National Union of South African Students in Cape Town on 6 June, 1966.

The rhetoric of this landmark speech applies equally to today’s global challenges pertaining to globalization, the Earth system and sustainability. This is hardly surprising. The Civil Rights movement demanded complete social, cultural, political and economic upheaval.

Solutions to the global sustainability challenge will require even greater societal transformation. Kennedy saw youth as the solution. “You, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.” He listed four dangers to progress.

The first danger is futility. We throw our hands in the air before we begin. We accept the battle cannot be won. For this he advocated strong leadership.

The second expediency. Hopes and beliefs come a poor second to immediate necessities. For this he advocated idealism.

The third danger is timidity. Nations fold under fierce opposition. People buckle under the wrath of society. For this Kennedy argued for courage.

The final danger is comfort. The temptation to go with the flow is overwhelming. It is too easy to follow well-worn, familiar paths. We are sleepwalking to our destiny. For this the US senator concluded, “Everyone here will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”

Against the odds, Kennedy and other leaders created the right conditions for a rapid transformation. Ultimately, they succeeded.

Strong leadership is a phenomenal catalyst for change. It can whip up a powerful groundswell of support. It can energise and mobilise. It can break new ground. It can rip down barriers to progress. It is the essential ingredient.

Every 20 years nations gather to focus on solutions to our global environmental problems. The third such gathering, the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit, comes at a crucial time for our global society and the Earth system.

Since the last summit, also held in Rio in 1992, science has shown that humanity has grown into a global powerhouse on par, or even exceeding, forces of nature such as ice ages or meteorite impacts. We are now the prime driver of change on the planet. Indeed, many argue we have entered a new geological epoch dominated by humanity – the Anthropocene.

Research also indicates humanity is pushing the Earth system towards thresholds. If the planet crosses these thresholds it is unlikely we can simply return to the relatively stable state that has allowed civilization to flourish.

Rio+20 has the potential to be a landmark event. It has the potential to create the right conditions for rapid transformation of our global society.

So it may be surprising to learn that the UN Rio+20 Summit gained scant attention in the world’s media as they heralded in the New Year. Politicians, journalists and opinion formers waxed lyrical about the US presidential election, the Middle East and Arab Spring, the Euro-zone crisis, and more broadly the global financial crisis.

So far, Rio+20 is off the radar. The summit is failing to excite those it must excite most. It seems immediate necessities are trumping a long-term vision for the planet.

As global emissions continue unabated, as sea levels rise, as the world warms, as species die, we face a leadership deficit. And without leadership it is difficult to imagine how we overcome the inertia needed for societal transformation.

As in 1966 when Senator Kennedy gave his Day of Affirmation speech, the US remains the dominant global power. How many prospective candidates at the start of the US presidential race have the leadership qualities, the courage, the idealism and vision to take on planetary-scale challenges?

More to the point, is the future direction of the planet even on their agenda?

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