By Lily Morrissey, roving correspondent

31 July 2012 – I snuck in like a thief, late, to the Sustainable Business Association’s “Post-Rio+20: Outcomes and Processes” panel event last week. Arriving late to intellectual panel talks is, I discovered, very disorienting. It’s sort-of like waking up from a prescription-drug induced nap in the middle of a David Lynch film.

For the first 10 minutes all you can do is squint ahead and endeavour to make sense of it all, while trying to hide your obvious confusion from the person next to you. Actually, come to think of it, that had basically been my approach to Rio 20. How appropriate.

When my mind began emerging from its late-arrival fog, I discovered two interesting things happening in the room. Firstly, what was being said by the panel about Rio was altogether a different beast to what had been reported, and secondly, there were more active iPads in that room than I’d ever before seen in one place. Make of that what you will.

The panel consisted of six green suits, Robert Hill, former Liberal senator and now adjunct professor in sustainability, US Studies Centre, Rosemary Bissett, head of sustainability governance, NAB, Matt Perry, co-founder Republic of Everyone, Caroline Bayliss, director, Australia, The Climate Group, Paul Grimes, secretary, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communitie, and Andrew Petersen, chief executive, Sustainable Business Australia.

All of this clever-cloggs team had attended the Rio summit. They came back with far more optimism than you would expect considering the conference was reported with phrases like ‘Rio 20 opens/closes with shower of criticism/an epic failure/as much substance as an episode of “two-and-a-half-men”’.

But optimistic they were. And why? From what I gathered in the discussion, here’s what we can feel good about from Rio 20:

Touchy feely
Firstly, Bissett, Peterson, Bayliss and others on the panel repeatedly pointed out that the real achievements of the conference related to touchy feely intangibles which, unlike the writing on a piece of paper, we can’t measure or report. New connections were made, ideas and knowledge shared and partnerships forged between developing and developed, governments, civil society and business.

These “links in the genius chain”  as Ed Glaeser might call them, have been criticised as fluffy outcomes held up against the very real need for urgent change, but they can shape historical outcomes. Part of the problem, the panel agreed, was the need to educate people about the complex Rio process, manage expectations, and facilitate greater collaboration outside of the conference setting.

The doing that following thinking
Secondly, Matt Perry pointed out that we have made progress in our activities and approach since the last Rio. This Rio was more solutions oriented, with many attendees eager to share news on what they’re already doing, rather than….um… focusing on the problems… actually, that was one of the criticisms of Rio wasn’t it? But, as Perry pointed out, “There is an everything problem everywhere. We need solutions.”

Left to right: Rosemary Bissett, Andrew Peterson, Paul Grimes

Business – big, small and schizophrenic
Thirdly, the panel were heartened to see how many businesses attending and outside of Rio are getting on board the green-economy train. While on the one hand there are industries and associations still fighting to protect the still-dominant, old system (I’m looking at you, the mining industry, and you- Business Council of Australia), there are a growing number of businesses that not only accept the triple bottom line, but have made it the foundation of their profitability.

It’s this last point that really got my imagination going. I had this mental image of people in ragged suits howling and running at each other, wielding rolled up company mission statements. Some American movie guy with a deep voice announces, “Green versus non-green, young versus old, David and Goliath: it’s one battle in the war for our global economy”.

It was on this topic of a business-model battle that my post-panel mingling chats dwelled.

I talked with Rosemary Bissett about her work on the Business for a Clean Economy campaign. She raised the point that it’s not just green versus non-green business.

Some businesses have a schizophrenic conflict happening between different teams internally. And there’s also a “big business versus small-medium enterprise” element to it- with the green-economy likely to offer new opportunities for smaller players.

I brought my little “company war” analogy to the very friendly Gerry Carrol, Object Consulting, and April Pressler, national manager of Sustainable Business Australia and our gracious host for the evening.

Green fear
Pressler reassured me that SBA is doing its best to represent green business, but both women lamented the lack of green business leadership in Australia lately. This last point had also been echoed by Bisset and the Panel. Apparently in the Australian company war, the green side is on the defensive.

Carrol ominously explained that some businesses that supported the carbon tax had been too afraid to say so. They didn’t want to “put their necks out”. At risk of what, I’m still not sure.

So in all, the night was both comforting and scary. It began with a weird David-Lynch-nap moment and a fairly happy little foray into the positive outcomes of Rio, and somehow ended with a sinister chat about an un-named menace, which has intimidated some business supporters of the carbon tax into silence.

Who knew panel discussions could be so exciting. And, the food was really good.