So once again I found myself in the organising committee of the Cambridge Climate & Sustainability Forum 2014 (Theme: The Heat is On! Innovations Now.), a student-run conference on climate and sustainability issues support by Cambridge Hub. I was involved in last year’s forum organising as well (read about my reflections from a more technical side here).
This year’s organisation went a lot smoother than last year’s, mainly because I think we started early (recruited during Easter term 2013) and planned over the summer break, and because we had a larger committee (9 in total, with 2 person in each sub-comm apart from finance, which helped spread the workload) and everyone knew what they were doing (: It went remarkably well, with more than 100 people attending and lots of positive feedback from the participants.
I’m not going to go into the technical, organising-a-forum side of things in this post though, but share more on what I took away from the forum. I was the emcee for part of the event, and so fortunately got to attend all the talks unlike some of the other sub-comm members. I’ve also compiled the live-tweets from the event here.
Over the day, we went from the basics of food and water, friends and communities, to fundamentals of society today such as consumer products, technology and the Internet. It sounds like a lot of different fields, but they’re all united by a common factor – they affect/are affected by climate change, and all have the power of contributing to the ultimate goal of sustainability. I really enjoyed the talk by our closing keynote speaker, Fred Pearce, as he helped weave together a comprehensive framework and reminded me why I chose to go down this path. The following paragraphs are a mix of things Fred Pearce mentioned in his talk and my paraphrasing/opinion.
Climate change is a big word, and sustainability seems to have become such a catchphrase that it may lose its meaning. Starting at the start, food is something we all need. Crop production needs to increase if we want to sustain the global human production. Crops require water for irrigation, and water scarcity is an increasing problem. On top of that, most people agree that we need to move away from large commercial-scale agriculture to keep our natural system in balance, but land ownership is another issue, with many corporations often taking land away from small family farms.
Perhaps underlying all problems is Population Growth. Many people have talked about Malthusian doomsday, that it’s going to be pretty hopeless. But while our global population has been on an exponential increase since the 1800s (like our carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions), the population bomb is being defused. Fertility is falling, especially in developed countries, and we are past Peak Child. In 20th century, medical sciences advanced, and child mortality fell, so most children grew up. As with many things in the natural world, there is this thing called an evolutionary lag, so it took a while for us to figure it out, and meanwhile population quadrupled. With increasing access to education, birth rates are falling. How much and if it will be soon enough to tip us beyond the Point Of No Return (I exaggerate.) is another matter, but humans have always come up with innovations, and we rise up to the challenge when threatened. So I think the fundamental problem here is to get everyone, especially politicians, to acknowledge this threat.
We talked a lot about the efforts of individuals, companies and communities in tackling various issues. During the panel debate (more of a discussion really), speakers talked about the use of gaming in crowd-sourcing ideas and solutions and education, the dangers of slacktivism, and the use of the Internet in information sharing and communication between people and of ideas. And how there is a need to change the way normal people live normal lives. Create a new normal, in other words, one that is positive (and sustainable). The way society’s perception of smoking has changed over the past 50 or so years, is an example. Behaviour change is possible, and we can use technology to augment. The problem is always politics.
But things happen (change for the better) in spite of ineffective governments. It is worrying, but the push is there from the people. We know nature underpins everything, from the local level up to the global level. Without nature, we can’t produce food. We may have to find new ways to work with nature, but we can’t keep thinking about next quarter report or the next opinion poll. We need to start thinking longer term. There needs to be social business paradigm shifts and changes in the expectations of politicians.
An older, aging population may be more boring, but wiser (no wars) and greener. We’ll treat people and the planet better.