Did the Antarctic Forum get it right?
A month has passed since the Antarctic Forum completed its voyage to the Southern hemisphere; sufficient time to allow for honest reflection away from the “halo effect” of the voyage. Does blending an interdisciplinary group of respected business professionals, academics, spiritual leaders, media, policy specialists and artists in a custom eco-tourism experience provide a pathway to developing a passionate and committed group of individuals? The answer to this remains yes — a month has not dulled the impact of the trip — as is evident in the trip images I have peppered throughout this writing. However, the real question is whether these same individuals can effect change, moving towards an “eco-civilization.” This is a much more complex question, and the answer is less self-evident.
Over the last two decades many have written on the challenges in reaching the hearts and behaviors of a humanity that has experienced development at very different rates, with different resources, economies and governments. Still others have penned of the need to reach outside our immediate circle of like-minded individuals, citing the limited benefit in environmentalists spending 95 percent of their time speaking to other environmentalists.
Yet we seem to have trouble employing a new strategy. Jonathon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, noted with discouragement, “We’ve gotten stuck because we expect old solutions are going to solve our new problems. We try the same things, again and again, and they just don’t seem to work. So we try them again, hoping that this time they will.”
American journalist Bill McKibben suggests engaging more broadly in our outreach to bring in representatives from a range of groups. He notes each group brings something very different to the conversation: Academics bring credibility; spiritual leaders bring a base of ethics; business persons bring organization and a sense of the necessary fiscal balance; artists bring the ability to reach the creative side of our being; and of course media brings an outlet.
The Antarctic Forum seems to share with McKibben the philosophy of an interdisciplinary mix. Bringing together a wide range of experts for 10 days in a remote region with limited connection to the outside world is in itself a challenge, but once the group is placed together, what then? Different models for communicating and decision-making are needed. Describing their trip as a “banquet of thought,” what recipe did the forum use to blend ingredients to the needed results?
Basic Forum recipe:
- Use only natural ingredients (Introduce environmental practices for interacting with nature as established by The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) policies for Antarctic travel to reinforce the uniqueness of the wildlife and the responsibility we each share in protecting it.)
- Mix together in a bowl (Place the group on a ship to enhance proximity.)
- Put to the side for ingredients to gel (Remove the participants from their normal surroundings so they can build a community on the ship.)
- Spice to taste (Offer a wide range of talks and presentations so that intellectual discussions with cross disciplinary opportunities are provided.)
- Add natural seasonings liberally (Include time to experience the Antarctic and its wildlife.)
- Mix well being sure seasonings are well blended (Include significant time for conversations by the people who make decisions on a daily basis about their businesses and their personal lives.)
- Bake until “done.”
But what is “done”?
How do we know when the work is complete? The forum participants had presentations and discussions that considered this question. Should we focus inward on improving the spiritual and achieving peace within ourselves, simplifying and appreciating nature and the world in its more pristine form? Should we focus on reaching the hearts of others by bringing them to Antarctica to be moved by its grandeur and remoteness, so that more will love this area and be moved to promote change? Should we focus on a strong policy isolating Antarctica by setting it aside, left without human contact from tourism and travel? But would any of these be enough? The challenge is large. Even if we were to restrict travel to Antarctica, this is not the only change needed. Our connection to Antarctica is more than just ecotourism; with her tight links to all our global systems, we don’t need to visit to cause an impact.
In summary: Whatever changes we make must be wide-sweeping. Operations must be altered at many levels. There is no single fix.
And consider the vehicle for change. Do we start small with peer pressure? Do we move to the local level, focusing on local activism? Do we work through business at the economic level? Do we use policy, attempting legislation at a national level? Or do we attempt to gain a more sweeping policy at the international level? And who is the enforcer? All difficult questions.
A few years ago a colleague and I organized a small academic variant of the forum structure – a microcosm of the approach that the Antarctic Forum embraced. The River Summer Program, run through the Environmental Consortium of Colleges and Universities, placed several small groups of interdisciplinary faculty onto an 80-foot, repurposed scalloper for a week at a time to contemplate “Navigating Sustainability.” Through shared readings, prepared talks, science sampling, group discussions and trips out to the environmental treasures of the watershed, a community was built; shared experiences and collaborative learning allowed for candid discussion and debate. The culmination of the time together was a personal commitment to effect change – a written commitment to take action on three self-determined challenges. It was amazing to see the long-lasting effects of that time on the river – the community that was built from shared experience, and the changes that individuals made: Sailboats were bought, classes reworked to teach around the river, commutes were altered to include mass transit, community outreach events were developed…
Is there a connection to the Antarctic Forum from River Summer? Yes, but the stakes are much higher. Each of us is personally changed from our experience — on our last night in Buenos Aires, participants commented that it was the experience of a lifetime, life-changing with many new friendships established. However, creating an eco-civilization will require more. The Forum Secretariat is in place to move this challenge forward. They will need to fuel the energy that was generated, building from it to create a vision and the commitment needed to develop a community of change. It is an impressive goal.