Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Walk out, post an angry blog or tell them to their faces?

I recently endured the second worst conference of my life. Now that my frustration and annoyance have subsided, I am more easily able to ask: why was it so bad? And what, if anything, should I do about it?

I’m pretty sure that the answer to the first question is something to do with a mismatch, either between my expectation and the outturn, or between the challenge that the event had set for itself and the actualité.

If the first option, then mea culpa. I went with high expectations, and the event was poor. Perhaps it was not as bad as I thought, it was merely that the gap between the reality and my hopes was particularly pronounced. I should have attended more carefully to the agenda, the speakers, the format and so forth, and realised that it was unlikely to be fantastic. Had I gone with lower expectations, then it is highly likely that I would not have felt so distressed.

If, on the other hand, the problem was more inherent to the event itself, then a rather different challenge presents itself. The event was concerned with the forthcoming Rio +20 conference; indeed it was expressly billed as a mechanism for helping to formulate London’s formal contribution to that conference.

Now maybe I’m being a bit old fashioned here, but I note the following:

• London is one of the world’s foremost cities, in terms of its size, economy, history, status, cultural relevance and diversity. Anything that purports to ‘represent’ London ought, surely, to reflect that. A ‘representation’ from London ought to be ambitious, clever, big picture, broad.

• The Rio+20 conference is concerned with saving the planet. Not ‘building a new shopping centre’; not publishing a modest volume of poetry; not investing a few million pounds in some infrastructure. No. “Saving the planet.” This, I think it’s reasonable to say, is a large-scale challenge, and it warrants – no, it demands, it requires – a suitably large-scale response.

• The world economy is in deep, structural trouble. Not a localised recession. Not a minor fiscal squeeze. Not a spot of ‘readjustment’. More or less all parts of the world economy are in a profound state of flux. The world’s financial system is still in the process of re-inventing and re-engineering and re-positioning itself. Most western governments are massively in debt. Large numbers of western consumers are massively in debt. One of the world’s major currencies, the euro, is limping from one crisis to the next, and the entire project is in jeopardy. Entirely ‘new’ economies – China, India, Brazil – are re-balancing the distribution of economic power across the world.

• Climate change is set to get worse before it gets better. As one of the presenters at the event made clear, over the course of the next couple of decades roughly 3 billion people who are currently ‘poor’ are going to become ‘middle class’, and more or less all of them are going to expect to acquire all the trappings of middle class life – all that ‘stuff’ – that so many of us in the west have become used to.


• Resource prices – food, oil, many minerals and aggregates – are currently more expensive, in real terms, than for more than a century, and prices are expected, by more or less all of those that attend to such matters, to rise further still.

Against such a background, it is entirely healthy and appropriate that the vision-level question presented to the audience for discussion at their tables (you know the form: we’ve all done the workshop thang) was: “What would a green economy for London look like?”

Despite the mediocrity of the presentations, my hopes briefly flickered: here, perhaps, was the opportunity to think big, to consider the future of the planet, to acknowledge the importance of a contribution that London could make, to grapple with some meaty and meaningful challenges.

Instead, the contributions at my table comprised suggestions that, in order to have a green London economy by 2030, we must insulate our homes a bit better, we must have better energy meters, we must improve public transport and we must try to make sure that corner shops stay open longer.

WHAT? HELLO?? This is utterly and miserably unacceptable. Did you not hear the last presentation? Desultory it may have been, but he just reminded us: a 6C rise is on the cards! We’re going to hit an iceberg beyond our wildest imaginings! Re-arrange the deck chairs? You’re suggesting we do no more than dust them.

Or perhaps I’m being cruel and unfair. These delegates had given of their time, were making their contribution, and who the hell am I to criticise that.

I should have set my sights lower. It was silly of me to expect penetrating insight, or big vision, or a sense that this was an opportunity for one of the world’s greatest cities to make a powerful contribution to a vitally important process, intended to address the greatest problem of our age.

Silly me.

Keep calm and carry on. Everything will be all right. Nice people in sharp suits with well-drilled spreadsheets will sort it out. Clever people somewhere, surely, are figuring it out and will make sure it’s ok. Delete this email and get back to Facebook, someone somewhere is talking about something re-assuring and distracting.

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