Intelligent Futures Insights
Monday, July 13, 2009
  Brain-Expanding Days on the Road

I’ve had a crazy couple of weeks.  First, I was up in Iqaluit as part of my climate change adaptation project.  Then, I moved onto Switzerland to participate in the Global Environmental Governance Forum.  After that, I headed to London to meet up with some friends from the LEAD Network.  I’ve been writing as I go, but frankly, by the end of each day, my brain has been too full to do spend time uploading my thoughts. 

The result is this super-entry – a collection of writings on my experiences over the last few weeks…..

 Become the sponge

 June 29, 2009

I’m in Glion, Switzerland at the Global Environmental Governance Forum.  Developed by Yale University and the College of William & Mary, the Global Environmental Governance Project “seeks to link thought and action in an effort to improve environmental governance at multiple levels. Through grounded historical research, contemporary policy analysis, and track two diplomacy, it aims to lay the foundation for an effective analytical and political process for reinvigorating global environmental governance.”

This event is a unique look back at the development of the global environmental movement and institutions – particularly the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).  I have been fortunate enough to be selected as part of a group of “emerging leaders” that were selected from 10 countries.  The intent of this event is to hear reflections from the architects of the current system, look at current challenges with key players now in the system and then bring together the “emerging” generation to look at ways of improving the system.  This event marks the first time in history that the five Executive Directors of UNEP have been together at the same time.  To witness the discussions is a real honour.  As I told many of my colleagues in the Emerging Leaders group, I’m going to be in sponge mode as much as possible over the next few days.

Here is a news report on the event produced by one of my emerging leader colleagues, Joe Ageyo:


There are approximately 80 people gathered here in Glion and the credentials of the people are astonishing.  Just to give you a sense, here are some of the participants:

During this retrospective view, one primary thing stood out for me:

The issues haven’t changed.  The timeframe is just more urgent.

The issues that resulted in the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the eventual development of the United Nations Environment Program are still with us.  Tensions around development between developed and developing nations; degradation of natural resources; lack of coordination and cooperation amongst nations.  These issues are as relevant and pressing – if not more so – that they were almost 40 years ago when these visionaries tried to forge a new way forward.

So if the issues haven’t changed, then the “what” is the same.  It’s time to look at ways to build a new “how.”  That’s always the toughest question.


June 30, 2009

We had a full day of listening to many of the current players in the global environmental governance system – most of whom work in the United Nations.  Just like actors in many other systems, once they are imbedded, it’s difficult – if not impossible – for them to get perspective on what they do or how they fit into the bigger picture.

Rather than discussing how the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) fits into a larger system, they were talking as if UNEP was the system.  I just kept thinking back to my entry from March 18th about the worm and the sauerkraut. A colleague of mine from the emerging leaders group – Jason Morris-Jung, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley – shared a similar saying from Vietnam that I think applies just as well with the folks in the UN system, based on my perspective of the last couple of days:

“To a frog in a well, the sky is very small.”

Gaining this perspective is vital, especially for an issues as complex as the global environment.  There are so many actors, perspectives and solutions that one single organization – no matter how capable – can’t possible solve the issues alone.  Gaining a perspective of how UNEP fits into a larger system would go a long way to determining how to build on its strengths within that context in order to create the most effective change possible.    

When Bill talks, just listen.

June 30, 2009

The discussions during day 2 of the Global Environmental Governance Forum in Glion, Switzerland, often bordered on the hopeless.  The severity of the problems and the difficulty of making real progress can be completely overwhelming at times.  On this front, some gems of wisdom came from Bill Ruckelshaus, the first Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, who also returned to become its fifth Administrator.  Oh yes, he also was the Director of the FBI for a while and the Assistant Attorney General during Watergate.  I’m not kidding.  One of those posts would be the pinnacle of a career for most mortals.  Unbelievable. 

While much of the discussion focused on the United Nations and national governments, Bill reminded us that the only way things really move dramatically is if citizens want it.  He encouraged us to find ways to rally the citizens rather than the officials towards solving climate change.

Reflecting on his experience at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Bill said, “I worked for two Presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  Neither of them were exactly charter members of the Sierra Club, but they made strong choices on the environment because the people were demanding it.”

Bill also made some terrific points about focusing on hope rather than despair.  Using Barak Obama’s campaign as a recent example, he emphasized that people will act and respond when there is light at the end of the tunnel.

These are really, really important points.  At every international session I go to I’m reminded of the differences in power that citizens have in various countries across the world.  Regardless, it’s essential that the average citizen rallies behind the environmental issues we face if they are going to be solved – whether in Canada, Brazil or Ethiopia.  The challenge – as is discussed often in this blog – is how to effectively communicate in a way that helps people understand the issue and inspires them to act. 

When someone with the knowledge and experience of Bill Ruckelshaus talks about hope, collaboration and engagement as the way forward, I’m even more convinced that these are the necessary ingredients to meet the issues of our time. He also pointed out that if we could create some sort of super-position that merged his roles as the Administrator of the EPA and the Director of the FBI, that would help too.

A wake-up call

July 1, 2009

Day 3 of the Global Environmental Governance Forum and it was time for the Emerging Leaders to become the focus and try to develop some ideas and actions for improving the system.  As it turns out, revising nearly 40 years of international effort in 8 hours isn’t all that easy. 

There was a lot of great discussion and lots of great ideas that came out of our discussions, but an interesting thing happened along the way.  Ambassador Di-Aping of Sudan stood up and told us in no uncertain terms that what we were proposing was the same-old, same-old.  And you know what?  In many respects, he was right.  We were unnecessarily limiting our discussion and ideas.  Despite not being imbedded in the system ourselves, we were thinking that way.  In talking with my colleague Kristen Hite, this may be understandable because we didn’t take the time to clearly articulate what our vision was.  Without this, it was fascinating how we turned into frogs in a well (see the June 30 entry). 

The time constraints were extremely tight and the discussions were very exciting, but without a collective direction within our group, we were unable to move our discussion beyond conventional thinking.  It took a wake-up call from someone outside our group to bring us to that reality.

Lessons learned/re-affirmed?  Vision is vital and so is diversity of perspective.

Finding the right music

July 2, 2009

At the Global Environmental Governance Forum, a stream of discussion was around whether this broad issue was like a symphony – where there are multiple players, but they need to work together to make great music; or was it like jazz – where you have a basic structure that is improvised around (see my entry from June 18th.  Great minds think alike.)

While I think both analogies are helpful, another one came from Mark Gold, one of my colleagues at the conference and the Executive Director of Heal the Bay in Los Angeles.  The institutions of global environmental governance don’t seem to be having a substantial impact on the key issues of our time. Our structures, decision-making and processes aren’t doing the job.

Mark suggested that in the light of what we learned over the past few days, we might need a different kind of music that is anti-establishment and will radically shift things in order to make new progress.  Symphony or jazz might not be the right tune.  In short, Mark recommended:

“Don’t forget punk.”

Climate change through the lens of art (or art through the lens of climate change).

London, July 3, 2009

I was able to attend a fascinating event at the Tate Britain gallery in London the other night.  It was entitled “What can Turner and Rothko tell us anything new about climate change?” and was run by some friends from the LEAD network – Sarah Hendel-Blackford, Steve Colling and Rachel Madan.  The intention of this project is to explore how works of art can express issues of climate change.

Steve, Sarah and Rachel discuss the issues with the audience.

Focusing on an exhibition of works by Turner and Rothko the discussion looked at how interpretations of art can articulate issues of climate change.  The interactive discussions got into specific elements like sea level rise, but really focused on the emotional side of facing a problem as daunting as climate change.  

I was intrigued by the idea of using new types of media to discuss climate change.  So far, the majority of non-Al Gore spokespeople on climate change have been scientists.  As a generalization, no one would accuse scientists of being the most inspiring communicators.  By using art to express the issues and emotions that climate change exposes, Sarah, Steve and Rachel have opened the door for new kinds of discussions to happen.  For an issue that is so complex, overwhelming and sometimes confusing, we need a lot of ways to get the message across.  My brain is full of ideas of how develop similar initiatives to expand the conversation. 

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home
Intelligent Futures is a firm that is committed to creating lasting sustainability solutions that have strategic value within our client’s culture. I.F. Insights is meant to spark thoughts and new perspectives on sustainability. For more information on us, go to


Powered by Blogger

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]