Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
University of Earth


Inter-Sectoral Dialogue and Sustainable Development

Conveying Earth Summit Insights

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Prepared as a statement (see others) on the occasion of the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) for the International Facilitating Committee for the Independent Sectors in the UNCED process (Geneva). Portions of the text were published in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1994-5, vol 2) and in the online version of its commentaries (to which links below are made) shaping the global network of local bargains by decoding and mapping Earth Summit inter-sectoral issues. [IFCD55]


Information overload: One of the characteristics of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro will be the quantity of information, whether governmental or nongovernmental -- and whether in the form of position papers, background documents, handouts, reports or declarations. Both policy-makers and the media will be subject to an unusual degree of information overload. Much of the information will be underused, both at the event and in its aftermath.

Shifting awareness: The real test of the Earth Summit, as many have suggested, will however lie in its ability to "shift the level of awareness". Without a doubt, information is necessary to this process. But the shift will be anchored and given credibility by those few images which can give coherence to the complex insights that emerge to interrelate fruitfully the many powerfully conflicting interests.

Beyond consensus: Much hope is being placed in the emergence of a new consensus at the Earth Summit. It is readily forgotten that consensus is easiest when it is superficial. Beyond such consensus there is the continuing reality of the tensions between groups with incompatible goals and mind-sets. It is the imagery that reconfigures that reality which will open opportunities for appropriate action.

Penetrating power of imagery: It is the few key images -- "worth a thousand words" -- which will focus an imaginative approach to the wealth of information. It is around them that the media can build stories meaningful to a wider audience. It is these images which ensure that the insights are carried where information cannot penetrate -- whether into the interstices of industrialized societies or to the far corners of the Earth. It is the images which will be remembered

long after the Earth Summit is forgotten by all but its participants.


Meaning of "insightful imagery": To fulfil the function indicated above, such imagery needs to go beyond "description" or "prescription", beyond "naming problems" or "envisaging solutions", and beyond "blaming" or "exhorting". Clues to the "Factor X" which can catalyze more fruitful responses may perhaps be found in one or more of the following:

Parables ... for those of religious inclination, what are the "parables" of Rio?

Learning pathways ... for educators, what are the "learning pathways" and "journeys" opened up by Rio?

Wisdom stories ... for those aware of the power of the story teller, what "stories" or "fables" can carry the insights of Rio?

Case studies ... for those with a management orientation, are there "case studies" evoking the policy dilemmas of Rio?

Proverbs ... for those recognizing their power, what are the "proverbs" which can guide initiatives emerging from Rio?

Myths ... for those touched by the power of myth, what "myths" or "legends" capture the challenges of Rio?

Metaphors ... for those challenged by metaphor what are the "metaphors" which reconfigure the challenge of Rio?

On the one hand, we seem to need "catalytic convertors" for our "exhausted imagination". But on the other, our cultural heritage constitutes a huge "gene-pool" of the imagination on which we can draw in response to the planetary dilemma.


Catalytic imagery: Care must however be taken in finding appropriate images. Superficial images will not evoke new ways of acting. What indeed are the "images" which will catalyze more sustainable forms of action -- evoking and guiding appropriate programmes? How can such images best capture and carry the insights emerging from the sectoral and inter-sectoral concerns of the Earth Summit?

Multi-level imagery: The art of appropriate imagery is to permit people to derive different levels of significance from it (by unpeeling it like an onion). At its most superficial level it may offer succinct explanations, or it may provide a symbol or slogan exhorting political action. Much more is required of the imagery from Rio. Somehow it must also carry insights into the nature of the appropriate balance between conflicting priorities. But above all it must be the catalyst for creative insight into the way forward, both for the individual and for groups -- whether in policy-making or in concrete action programmes.

Complementary imagery: The Earth Summit is being organized in terms of 3 working groups (Land, etc; Oceans, etc; and Institutional mechanisms) and intends to have 6 outcomes (Agenda 21, Earth Charter, Conventions, Technology Transfer, Financial Resources, and Institutions). Imagery is required to carry the essence of each of these initiatives and the shift in attitude required to empower them. But that imagery must also render comprehensible the essential complementarity between these initiatives. Much more is therefore required than the sort of unrelated poster images traditionally produced by the different Specialized Agencies of the United Nations.

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