The conditions that led to low expectations for the Rio+20 conference tell us more about the prospects for addressing collective global problems than a focus only on its substantive outcomes. Three conjectures on why expectations were so low are put forward: a lack of vision and modest ambition at the conference's core; unresolved and unconfronted normative contestation that limited progress on potentially transformative ideas such as the green economy; and practices of multilateralism that have not caught up to structural changes in the global system, exacerbated by the inability or unwillingness of key actors to move from entrenched identities. Some surprising institutional outcomes of Rio are also assessed in light of the three conjectures. This form of analysis turns attention to the politics that the outcomes reflect and opportunities and pitfalls going forward.

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