A friend of mine invited me to attend the World Ocean Summit titled “Sustainability and Governance” hosted by The Economist recently at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Half Moon Bay, CA. Sponsored by Shell, DNV-GL, and Google among others, it was attended by three hundred people representing government, intergovernmental bodies, NGOs, and the private sector – basically a group of self-proclaimed “type-A strong personalities” who believe in the need for top-down, hierarchical, control-based solutions. These aren’t the heads of state in attendance, but they are some of the people who are responsible for advising them. Each attendee paid (or rather their organizations paid) $3000 to attend the two and a half day summit whose goal was to confront the many crises facing the ocean from overfishing to ocean acidification to pollution and to come up with “practical” (i.e. we still need to make a profit) solutions.
Please, let me preface what I am about to write by saying that this is just my subjective opinion. I listened intently only to a small minority of the conversations at the event, but I also used my intuitive, empathic listening skills to try to feel the emotions of the people in the room. The following is a generalization of my bluntly honest, sometimes facetious, personal interpretation of the desires of the entire group as a whole. I fully acknowledge that there were many individuals in attendance that do not fit this characterization.
First off, I believe that most of them really do care about the planet. They are aware of the significant crises facing the ocean that threatens all of life on Earth and they believe it is their job to find solutions. The problem is they don’t have any solutions – none which fit within the framework of economic growth and enough profit for investors to risk their fiat money, none which deal with the many established international trade agreements guaranteeing resource extraction rights and shipping lanes for world commerce.
Most of them are pretty sure that whatever the problem is, the solution will be another governmental or intergovernmental regulatory body that will figure out all the answers. The approach is the same: use more control to solve the problems caused by the failure of control. This option is appealing to many because working towards a framework for coming up with solutions delays the embarrassing reality that they don’t have any solutions, despite their Phds.
One thing was for certain. If they can’t exercise control over the world, they can certainly exercise control over the schedule of the conference and over themselves, exemplified in a number of ways:
One of the main solutions discussed was the attempt to place a monetary value on “ecosystem services” or Nature. Notice the implication in the word “services” that Nature is there only to provide a service to humans. It still has no intrinsic value. It is astonishing that anyone could try to value life on Earth in a fiat measuring system created by strokes on a keyboard. It is almost as if these people actually believe that if you valued a hive of bees at $1000 that you might be able to create a hive of bees too with a few strokes on a keyboard.
Paul Nicklen was the keynote speaker at the “gala dinner” (they like to save the world in style). He told incredible stories about his journeys into the wilderness for months at a time as a photographic journalist for National Geographic. One story was about a beautiful and rare “spirit bear” that lives in a remote region of British Columbia. Some estimates put their number as low as two hundred left. As the region was targeted for oil and gas development, Paul’s amazing photos helped lead the successful (so far) campaign to prevent development in this delicate ecosystem. I asked many of the policy wonks after this visceral and moving experience we all just had, “So I wonder how much money that spirit bear’s existence is worth?”
Sylvia Earl was there representing life on Earth, asking the tough questions like “how much is life itself worth?” But answers to that question falls outside of the realm of practicality as defined by our grow-or-die consumer economy.
On the last day, the group dispersed into breakout sessions to discuss each crisis facing the ocean individually, failing to recognize the root cause of nearly all global issues today – an economic system which wastes resources to create more fiat money. They have a flip chart at the front of the room where they will capture the solutions but no one wants to write on it – maybe they sense the futility of the exercise?
As frustrations set in that yet another global summit will end without any new solutions, goals begin to be regurgitated as solutions. How can we stop overfishing? By stopping and preventing overfishing. I kid you not – someone actually said that.
They talk on and on using their preconceived talking points but if you listen they aren’t really saying anything. It’s just a fancy use of language to sound knowledgeable. It really seemed as if they believed that if you repeated the words “technology,” “sustainable,” “balance,” and “affordable” in the right combination that a solution would materialize.
But they want a solution so bad – one that will leave the same top-down, hierarchical system of control and the globalized consumer economy intact. Whatever the solution is, they know it will come from more regulatory bodies, laws, and enforcement of those laws. The problem is that even though they are masters in making rules in regulations, they know very little about what they are making rules and regulations about. After all, these are lawyers and economists, not marine biologists and fisherman. If there were a “practical” solution, I am certain they would find it. But we live in a world where being practical is actually hastening the pace of our own demise.
So let me be clear – OUR LEADERS ARE NOT GOING TO SAVE US. They will try but they will fail because their world view will not allow for the unpractical solutions that are needed to revolutionize how people think about themselves and the role we play both individually and collectively in the world. I believe it is participation that will bring humanity back into harmony with the natural world – active participation from as many people as possible in the decisions that we must make as a species that affect all of life on the planet. Control hasn’t worked. Perhaps we should try trust?