Friday, April 4, 2008

State of the Planet 08

I recently attended the State of the Planet conference at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. It's a conference put on every other year by Jeff Sachs and the Earth Institute. Videos from this year's presentations are available here.

Two years ago I went to this conference for the fist time. The focus that year was on sustainable development, and I have to say that the overall tone was rather depressing. In terms of achieving anything remotely resembling a sustainable society, the overall conclusion from most presenters was that we weren't even close.

This year's conference was much more optimistic. Here are some of the interesting points that were made:

  • "We're in a process of heading towards a new global society. Yet our institutions and mindset is not ready for this. Much of the rest of the world is further along than we are at coming to grips with this."
  • Greening of the world' infrastructure will become a trillion dollar industry. But timing is important. Business needs to move ahead aggressively on this. There was confidence that the private sector will lead in adaptation in the 21st century, but government has an important role to play as a partner.
  • Kenya moved from civil war to a negotiated settlement in a few short weeks. There should be a real sense of optimism after seeing that such things are possible.
  • Big business has much power to effect the world's problems. We need to ask them what they have done with that influence and power?
  • We also need to ask the churches the same thing. Religions organizations have failed when they took sides based on identity politics. When they talk about "my people", they need to be talking about all of humankind.

Other signs of progress - we are actually succeeding when there is political will to change things for the better.

  • The Millennium Development Goals call for cutting poverty in half between 2000 and 2015. We are actually likely to reach that goal in all areas except sub-Saharan Africa.
  • 20 years ago there were 20 million refugees. Now there are 10 million.
  • In 1989 there were 10 genocides unfolding in the world. Today there are one or two.
  • There used to be 10 to 20 military coups per year in the world. Now there are typically 3 or 4.
  • There is 50% less warfare today than in 1989

One nagging thought that occurred to me during the conference was that they were literally flying in people from around the world to give 20 minute presentations on environmental responsibility. This problem was also noted by Jeff Sachs at the end. He talked about the possibility that this may be the last of these conferences they hold in this form. The next one in two years may be in the form of a globally connected broadband video conference connecting cities all around the world. Such an approach will obviously take some experimentation before they get it right, but I can't think of a better conference to take such a bold step and start developing the techniques to hold such a conference on a global scale while minimizing the number of miles traveled. I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

1 comment:

Graham Douglas said...


Thanks for this encouraging report. Regarding your "Yet our institutions and mindset is not ready for this." the approach on my website may be helpful.