Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the work of an extremely dedicated team who make up Abbots in Transition.  I joined this group as a litter picker (my way of making a difference to our local environment) and it has very happily broadened my experience of the village. There are many initiatives that are inspiring and can truly make a difference to all of us and I encourage everyone to get involved and do their part and have fun at the same time, making new friends with a common aim of improving our community and society.

When I mentioned that I had attended the Earth Summit in 1992, I was asked to contribute an article.  I had tried to write it in my head a few times, but it is now, with the COP 26 (the 26th such meeting) happening, that I really feel re-connected to the experiences of the Earth Summit.

As the leaders of the world gather in Glasgow, Scotland for COP 26 this week, I find myself recalling the experiences I had of attending the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil back in 1992.  I can hardly believe it was more than thirty years ago!

I hear the same rhetoric today but more urgent. We all made pledges and hung them on the “tree of life”.  I hope that I am still faithful to those I made about more recycling, but these days, what we pledged then would not be considered enough.  Whereas then there were few of us actively considering how to remedy the world’s situation, others were looking to see how they could benefit. Greed, sadly, continues to be at dastardly play.  It must be curbed.

We can see that the problem and the opportunity of learning how to protect and prolong life on this planet is now the domain and responsibility of every one of us human beings, wherever we live in this world, for the sake of future generations.  The programme “Costing the Earth” that I used to listen to in my car was calling on the poets and creative artists of the world to document and expose the calamities facing humanity and even come up with solutions, I believe… natural disasters are increasing and more people are becoming displaced because of them.

Returning to the Earth Summit, a clear divide was evident between the worlds of heads of state and industry giants versus the non-governmental organisations.  But it was and is complicated. I believe it is only a combination of ideas and working together across the community that will bring peace and prosperity to all and where humanity’s baser nature can be reined in, in favour of the good of the wider community.

On one side of Rio were the global leaders, while in another part of the city, the Global Forum for the non-governmental organisations was getting under way. I spent most of my time there, even though the representation of Susila Dharma International, the charitable arm of our spiritual organisation, was a little haphazard.  Two very different worlds and points of view and yet a third point of view – that of the inner or spiritual connection, was also represented.  It was this third aspect that drew me. It is also this part that cannot be tied down exactly – there is room for things to “happen”, as you will hear later on in this piece.

Speaking to others in the Global Forum, I found that my experience was not unique. Others had also been moved in various ways to become involved in some capacity or just simply wanted to be there.  Mother Earth was speaking to those who would listen…

Just prior to the Earth Summit, members of the Kogi, an indigenous nation from South America had been recorded in a BBC programme which I had watched.  They used that opportunity to explain that they had been told to speak out. They were pleading for us to take care of Mother Earth. Their own culture did not allow the formation of roads as we know them.  That was then.  I wonder what they must be thinking now.

They knew then that the planet was in grave danger and today, we have stepped further towards the precipice.

My son Conrad aged 9 had watched the programme with me. I had not realised how much he had been touched by it until he referred to the concept of not polluting Mother Earth, in a later experience.

Conrad also wanted to know “what you are up against, Mum”, so I let him watch with me a documentary on the City’s preparations, including the efforts to “eradicate” the problem of “street kids” living in Rio.  My son watched silently. At the end of the programme, he got up, turned off the television and said “Before I saw that programme, all I ever wanted was a house.  Now I realise I have so much.  I have food, clothing, go to school, what more do I want?” With these words, he educated us about the difference between want and need. Powerful.  Out of the mouths of children – as we see today with Greta and others.  What a world we are living in, where children are teaching the adults how to behave towards Mother Nature herself.

My own experience started with a book.  It was called “The Mystic places of the Earth”.  In the book, as I turned the pages, an image of the earth caught my attention.  What follows some may not believe but to me it is as real today as it felt then.  As I looked at the page, I saw a red line snaking down the page and it started to become liquid – it was actually flowing.  Mother Earth was bleeding and I was Mother Earth and I was bleeding too.  I had to do something.  I had been changed forever!

I believe it was the following day that my children had been invited to London to take part in a “Spellathon”, holding up letters misspelling Dyslexia, with Susan Hampshire and an actor from London’s Burning, promoting understanding of Dyslexia.  Against the response from the children’s head teacher, I argued that they would benefit greatly by the experience of helping others and an all-expenses paid day out to London, with the afternoon free for us to have new experiences together.  I am so grateful that we did that!

Following the photography session with those famous actors, we made our way to the underpass under Exhibition Road.  Along the whole of the underpass, there were boys with placards round their necks saying “homeless and hungry”.  We had passed several, when I decided to stop and ask why this particular boy was homeless and hungry.  He told me his story and I gave him a 20p piece for a phone call and told him to phone me and I would ask if a friend could give him a bed for the night.

That night my daughter had a dream.  “Because you gave a boy in the street 20p, you got £1,000”.  That gave me the courage to go to my bank.  As a single parent, I did not think they would give me such a large loan.  However, the lady was very kind. When I told her the reason for wanting the loan was to go to the Earth Summit in Rio, she said “I don’t think I can do anything to help this world, but I feel you can, so I am going to help you.”  I got my loan for £1,000 and bought my ticket.

Before I went, a friend gave me “The Turning Point” by Fritjof Capra.  Such a powerful book.  It talks a lot about how when official structures become too inflexible and stuck, that is when the grass roots and people’s initiatives start.

The Global Forum was a demonstration of that very principle.  I am really grateful to have been there.

Earlier, I mentioned the spiritual aspect of the Earth Summit.  On the night we arrived, there was a vigil where all the religions of the world asked forgiveness of Mother Earth.  That was powerful.  Then everyone listened to a very learned man who told that all the major religions had prophecies about the choices that we as humanity would have to face. 

The evening finished with everyone hugging the person next to each other and we discovered it was actually the morning, the sun was high in the sky – we had spent the whole night together. Then we just got on with our day but with a feeling of greater connection with each other.

Thinking now about humanity’s future, Cop 26 surely has that element of precipice.  What about asking forgiveness of Mother Earth today?  It’s about our awareness of the effects of our own human activity on the natural world as well as our relationships to each other.

Remember what I said about the spiritual aspect not being “tied down”, here is one experience that might not have occurred, had it been so.

One day there was to be a press conference with Greenpeace which I wanted to attend.  I had stepped out from our friend’s flat where our delegation were all staying, and instantly was approached by a lady driver (rather rare at that time, I believe!) asking where I was going. When I told her, she said “jump in, I’m going there too!”  I still believe she was probably an angel. I had no fear getting into a strange car! 

When I got to the building, a man asked me if I had a “pass” and I did not.  “Never mind”, he said kindly, “Come with me” and took me through several rooms to the Greenpeace conference. After a little while, I stood up, said my name and asked a question and sat down.  Two reporters came up to me afterwards.  One only spoke Portuguese and we could not understand each other.  The other spoke English and interviewed me for a couple of hours on the inner connection of the Earth Summit. People have told me since that they had heard the interview on the radio.

The vigil held just before the opening of this crucial COP 26, was to remember those who had died in natural disasters around the world. So many similarities with the Earth Summit and especially those island homes that are so vulnerable to climate change, where the people are contemplating such a different future, torn from their cultural traditions.

I myself have joined an interfaith, inter-community group where we sent two forty-foot containers to St Vincent following the volcanic eruptions and just a couple of weeks ago, another forty-foot container to Haiti following the two devastating earthquakes.  These two major disasters point to the need for understanding our interconnectedness and how we need to support each other, right across the world.  That was also illustrated to me when I provided a pair of “Afghan” socks to a collection for the Afghan refugees now in our midst.

Let’s hope and pray that the decisions made this week at COP 26 will herald a new more sustainable future.  May we join the leaders and all involved in contributing   our personal efforts, not just for all of us living now but so future generations will be able to enjoy the abundance that is our world.

Little did I know that this experience would lead later to my involvement with Aboriginal Peoples – but that’s another story!

From Rio to Glasgow – The journey continues. By Maria Butcher.