Cuddly Toys Could Not Help Environmental Experts Get Their Message Heard

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DAVOS, Switzerland – In the first week of October, experts from around the world met at the third World Resources Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where they discussed issues regarding sustainability and resource efficiency. The WRF, according to the organizer, is a science-based platform to “promote innovations and build bridges among researchers, policymakers, business, SMEs, NGOs and the public.”

What was most striking about the conference’s participants, however, was the absence of politicians, entrepreneurs, women and students. Overall, there was much talk but no concrete decision making. Instead, there were cuddly stuffed animals resembling the marmot, a type of ground squirrel native to the Davos region.

Marmot stuffed animal toys at the World Resources Forum.

Student Reporter

Marmot stuffed animal toys at the World Resources Forum.

At one point, Bas de Leeuw, the WRF’s managing director, threw a stuffed animal to a gray-haired man. “Now you have Marmi, the marmot,” de Leeuw said, adding, “Please introduce yourself.” As he held Marmi high up in the air for all to see, the man introduced himself as a Finnish engineer. On this first day of the conference, Marmi flew through the air at least 10 more times, “so that we can get to know each other better,” explained de Leeuw, before he announced the “parade of workshop leaders.” Lit up by colorful disco lights, the 20 leaders made their way through the crowd toward the stage, while the audience members clapped to the sounds of Midnight Oil. “How can we dance when our earth is turning,” boomed the loudspeakers.

Scientists, scientists and more scientists

With the parade and Marmi, conference organizer de Leeuw wanted to emphasize “the humanity” of the participants to open up the dialogue. The strategy paid off: After just a few minutes, the ice was broken and laughter could be heard. But was there any ice to break in the first place? This year’s WRF attracted a rather homogenous crowd. Scientists were meeting among themselves. Politicians, entrepreneurs, women and students were all missing.

Werner Bosmans, a member of the European Commission, was one of the few politicians present. He observed that there was “broad support for mandatory, international requirements for the use of land, water and coal” among the conference participants. Yet there was no agreement on how this goal should be achieved, and with so few politicians and entrepreneurs present, a group needed to implement such change was missing.

Preaching to the converted

English sustainability expert Roland Clift would have liked to have seen more politicians at the WRF. “Industry has the technologies to enable sustainable living globally,” he said. “Now politics and entrepreneurs need to implement them.” Markus Reuter, product manager at Outotec, a firm specializing in technology and services for the metal and mineral industries, said, “At the WRF we are preaching to the converted.” It isn’t enough to talk with scientists and engineers, he added. “We also have to discuss with young people.” In other words, Marmi wants to reach everyone.

Loneley marmot in the snow

Flickr/ unicoletti under Creative Commons

Lonely marmot in the snow.

Where were the students?

Besides the lack of politicians, entrepreneurs and concrete measures, there was also a conspicuous absence of students, despite the fact that de Leeuw repeatedly mentioned “the importance of the next generation, our future.” Efforts were made to attract more students to the WRF, he said. But collaborations with Oikos Consulting, a student consultancy for sustainability startups, and Student Reporter, which provided media coverage and offered student discounts, did not succeed in bringing more students to the event. De Leeuw said the WRF wants to work with interested students, noting he was glad to see that the few students who attended the conference “actively participated in the debates.”

25-year-old ETH student Hari Chithambaram offered an explanation for why students stayed away: Despite the playful marmot activity, the conference was “too repetitive.” Many of the speakers “presented nearly the same thing as last year.” In addition, the presentations were too theoretical, and there was a lack of concrete measures, Chithambaram said . “The young generation calls for action,” he added.

“Gender balance fail”

Marmi could also not conceal the fact that so few of the presenters were women. Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, a human rights activist and adviser to President Barack Obama, was the only woman to share the stage with seven men on the first day. This inspired participants to blast out tweets, such as “Gender balance fail.”

“That was unfortunate,” said de Leeuw about the gender imbalance. “We had invited more women, but for different reasons they had to cancel shortly before the conference.” The main focus of the WRF was “to find qualified speakers,” he said. “Gender is irrelevant.”

The message goes unheard

The WRF organizers chose for its location the Davos Congress Center, casually referred to as the World Economic Forum conference center, where the WEF hosts its annual meeting every January. A provocation? “The message is, sustainability is just as important as economy,” said Harry Lehmann, who is with Germany’s Federal Environment Agency. “The time has come to say fair’s fair,” sang Midnight Oil in the tune played at the beginning of the conference. Sadly, the message wasn’t heard outside of the prestigious conference center’s halls.

5 thoughts on “Cuddly Toys Could Not Help Environmental Experts Get Their Message Heard

  1. Thanks for this well-written article, Teresa. We shared it on our social media.

    More students, more politicians, more business leaders, it’s all in tune with our objectives. “Scientists were amongst themselves” is however an incorrect observation, and not based on the facts, not on the podium, not in the audience. We had 1 scientist in the opening panel versus 4 politician/government leaders, 2 scientists in plenary panel 1 versus 7 non-scientists, business panel 2 scientists versus 5 non-scientists, and 3:3 in behaviour panel.

    Paula, feel write to and we’ll be glad to inform you about the availability of our marmots, which are actually becoming scarce.

    • Hello Bas de Leeuw,

      Thank you very much for taking the time to read and share my article! I appreciate your comment.

      The article does mention that there were some politicians (Werner Bosmans for instance) and entrepreneurs present at this year’s WRF, yet argues that there weren’t enough. The statement “Scientists were amongst themselves” refers to a general impression of the crowd present at WRF and doesn’t describe one particular panel/event. Although it might be considered being an exaggeration by some, it captures the impression many conference participants (myself included) had from this year’s WRF.

      As you, I am very hopeful that the next WRF will attract more politicians, entrepreneurs & students!



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