If the World Economic Forum is ever mentioned, the first thought you’d probably have is of a collection of global heavyweights “committed to improving the state of the world”. Of course, like with any other conference or organization, the extent of such slogans is a careful media construct while simultaneously subject to their scrutiny.
The attraction of a Davos Open Forum session is obvious as the audience arrives much in advance to guarantee themselves a seat. Normally, we would enter the transformed swimming pool to find a neatly arranged row of chairs on the stage. The blue and white colored name tags are an early announcement of who will speak during the evening. But Thursday evening was different. Instead of chairs, we have a set of instruments and no label revealing the upcoming star of the evening.
Keeping true to Swiss clichés, the World Economic Forum (WEF) press meeting in Geneva last Wednesday started just as the clocks struck eleven o’clock. The rows around me were already remarkably filled with members of international media even though there were still some days to go until the Annual Meeting.
Language is an interesting device. It helps us communicate with each other, share our ideas, thoughts, feelings. Yet, more often than not, all of the above get lost in a morass of misinterpretations and misunderstandings. The concept of sustainability isn’t safe from this either. It’s easy to overuse the S-word these days.
This article is co-written by Tim Lehmann. “We recognize the severity of the global loss of biodiversity…” says paragraph 197 in the The Future We Want declaration. The same can be said for media-diversity, particularly in print. “Breakthrough in Rio+20!“ is a headline you would not find in any mainstream news outlet. Indeed, the declaration more closely resembles a 50-page work of art, merely painting a picture of importance without actually making commitments characteristic of a historical document. Nevertheless, the general media missed the point of Rio+20 in various ways, arriving too late, as most of them arrived just for the last 3 days, and with headlines already prepared in mind to be filled with celebrity statements. Sorting through some of the mainstream news with similar dramaturgy, we extracted the following predictable key statements:
The final declaration is weak. An article in the center-right newspaper Economist is titled “Many ‘mays’ but few ‘musts’ – a limp agreement at the UN’s vaunted environment summit”. There is no historical breakthrough. Editors of the center-left German Sueddeutsche Zeitung justify the unnecessariness of Rio: “If all countries are satisfied with the lowest common denominator, if they no longer want to discuss what needs to be discussed …, then the dikes are open. There is no need anymore for a conference of 50,000 attendees. Resolutions that are so wishy-washy can be interpreted by every member state as they wish.
Water, food, and energy are fundamentally inter-connected. Before I began learning more about this water, food, and energy nexus leading up to the World Water Forum, I didn’t understand the full implications of this. Water is necessary for providing food and energy to populations in modern societies. Water is used to grow vegetables and grains that we consume and to feed animals that we consume. Water is used to cool power plants that produce our electricity and to process the gasoline used in our vehicles. Have you considered how much virtual water you “consume” through the food you eat and the electricity you use? The impacts also occur in other directions: access to energy allows easier transportation of food to those in need and the ability to utilize effective water-purification technologies. In a world increasingly concerned about water, food and energy security, it is important to understand the connections between them all. A threat to any one of them would impact the other two. While much of the World Water Forum focused on those lacking access to water and sanitation, there are 1.3 billion people lacking access to electricity and 1 billion people undernourished worldwide. Because water, food, and energy issues affect and are affected by one another so much, it is important to consider than together rather than in isolation. The High Level Panel: Water, Food, and Energy Nexus on Friday, March 16 discussed these interactions and proposed solutions.
The speakers at the high level panel included individuals from a range of countries and backgrounds: Uschi Eid (UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water, Gérard Wolf (Electricité de France), Rodney Cooke (International Fund for Agricultural Development), Dilip Kulkarni (JAIN Irrigation Systems, India), Yasar Yakis (Turkish Parliament), Diego Bravo (Columbia), Jane Madgwick (Wetlands International), Thomas Chiramba (United Nations Environment Programme), Rhoda Tumusiime (African Union), Alain Vidal (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, Challenge Program on Water and Food), and Lee Yangho (Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Korea).
What is the Key to ensuring that we can continue to have access to water, food, and energy in the future?
At a conference of this size, conference planners ponder how to create ways to facilitate valuable personal interaction and discussion between people of different backgrounds. A good example of an interactive event at the Forum happened on Tuesday as one of the interactive program facilitators chatted with people wandering around in the Village of Solutions. She encouraged more than half a dozen people to come in and participate in a collaborative event. This event, intended to make people feel like they were being observed and responsible for serious decision-making, was entitled the ‘fish-bowl negotiation’ session. People gathered around a table in order to discuss a topic. Christine, a zoologist and biologist from Switzerland, led our group comprised of people from around the world including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Mexico, France, U.S.A., and Switzerland, in typical moderator fashion.
If you are a resident or a tourist in Marseille this week, you have probably noticed that not only are you surrounded by a beautiful Mediterranean port packed with water related industry and activities, but also by numerous exhibits celebrating the beauty of water. Art is an amazing way to communicate because it takes many shapes and forms while allowing people to interact in very personal ways. Art speaks. Art educates. Art can be in your face, shouting out at viewers as a huge sculpture, or subtly displayed in a corner shop, quietly awaiting the passerby. Currently, many interesting exhibits showcasing water are available throughout the city and Forum.
Yes we can! Obama was not the first to use this empowering sentence. Roger Baud founder of ACTIS, a spin off of ETHZ, already used it in 2000 to promote the first Youth Encounter on Sustainability (YES) course. Bring 35 young people from all around the world together for 17 days. Hold interactive classes on sustainability from 8 am to 8 pm.
Whenever I go backpacking, I choose a flask of liquor over beer, even though I prefer beer. Why? Because the flask is lighter than a few bottles of beer. But in the ecological backpack, beer is among the lighter items you can bring! An ecological backpack, or rucksack if you prefer, measures a product’s impact by expressing its natural resource consumption in ratio of how many kilograms of natural resources are used to make one kilogram of the product.
Harry Lehmann, Director of Environment Planning and Sustainability Strategy at the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA), just dropped off this video ‘Flow’ aiming to explain the resource challenges we face to non-scientists. The video was made by UBA and the Sustainable Design Center eV. While the graphics are attractive and the video gets more dynamic as it progresses, the monotonous computer voice drives me crazy and switches off any sense of humanity, for me. On the other hand, at least this voice can’t sound moralising and patronising, like other educational and campaign videos do. What’s your view- does it effectively inform newbies to the resource field?
In the first plenary session of the day the speakers showed incontestable facts demonstrating that keeping business as usual is not an option that will allow our children to enjoy the same living standard we do. Beside showing the need to change, every speaker proposed it’s own approach on what and how to change. What lacked was the connection between the different solutions presented. It was like looking at the pieces of the same puzzle – on sustainable resources management – but without seeing the whole picture. It is not an easy task to address such a complex question in 15 minutes. Moreover the large amount of information provided by each speaker did not help the participants to gain a clear message to take home.