Conference notes: 26th March

I trust that overseas visitors to Planet Under Pressure 2012 will seek to broaden their understanding of English culture by the study of our tabloid press. Here’s the headline about the conference in today’s online edition of The Sun:

Epochalypse now

There’s an image of a nuclear explosion but no sign of Marlon Brando.


Those of us in the development sector are bound to filter this type of event for its signals on global food security, the pivotal issue. Today was positive on balance.

“I am going to be arguing for the shift to sustainable agriculture to be one of the main areas to progress at Rio+20,” promised Caroline Spelman, making the token government minister appearance.

Her government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, mentioned in a panel discussion his view that the yields achieved by small farmers in Africa could be increased by a factor of 3-4 with relatively modest intervention. We’ll hear more from Sir John in the media launch of the report of the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change on Wednesday.

Predictions for South Asia sound less positive. The main afternoon session on food was led by Marianne Banziger, one of the many representatives of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). She said:

Farmers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains now grow wheat for 700 million people. But the encroachment of heat on these plains is expected to reduce yields 20–30% by 2050


Such tweeting as there was from the assembled delegates suggests that the speech by Professor Anthony Giddens was the day’s highlight. They appeared not to be put out that the LSE Emeritus Professor was largely replaying a three year-old tape of a summary of his well-known book, The Politics of Climate Change.

This work has remained popular because it knocks the UN regime for climate negotiations and, to a lesser extent, the green movement.

Whilst acknowledging the Professor’s authority on international politics, many of us from the NGO sector suspect he may be a little shaky on climate change and global poverty.

Our prejudices were duly strengthened by today’s performance which included this extraordinary passage:

Climate change so far as we know is irrevocable. It’s therefore similar to some processes of sustainability but very different to some other major world problems. For example you take global poverty – it’s a very bad thing and we know it will intersect with climate change and so forth but, if global poverty is the same in 2050 as it is now, it will still be a very bad thing. In the case of climate change, the greenhouse gas emissions are going into atmosphere the whole time. We have no way, pending some major new invention, of getting these gases out the atmosphere.

I’ll leave it to students of development studies to unravel this nonsense.

Both Lord Giddens and Sir John Beddington scratched their heads in disbelief that governments could be so disdainful of the evidence on environmental breakdown. They should go along to a session on Wednesday: “essential psychological and social concept for collective response,” convened by Kari Marie Norgaard of the University of Oregon.

Ms Norgaard released a teaser for her ideas today.

This kind of cultural resistance to very significant social threat is something that we would expect…..(it) is comparable to what happened with challenges to racism or slavery in the US South.


Another invocation of history came from Rowan Douglas, the financial sector’s representative on this morning’s panel. My first impression was of a highly polished corporate conference schmoozer but, having set prejudice aside, the smooth words turned out to be quite interesting.

Douglas suggested that contemporary environmentalism is an urban reincarnation of the 18th century romantic movement.

(this) was a response to the industrial revolution about man being at one with nature and it was a concern that somehow we were becoming disconnected from nature

He then spoiled the analogy by attributing it to modern financial trends. How much easier it would have been to quote a few lines, especially given the fine spring weather and the nouveau-Docklands setting:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK