The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, September 13, 2021

The IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille. Something Went Badly Wrong with the Environmental Movement


Performers from Hawai'i at the 2021 IUCN Congress in Marseille. I am not sure of what sense did it make to come by plane all the way from Hawai'i to Europe to discuss how to reduce carbon emissions. But I am sure these people were well-intentioned and doing their best. The overall result of the Congress, though, was disappointing. (Photo by Ugo Bardi).

In the year 2 CE (Covid Era), I had enough of seeing vitreous-eyed colleagues and students staring at me from stamp-sized images on a screen. So. I decided to make an attempt to reconnect in person with the world of sustainability and environmental science. The IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille looked promising and it was close enough to where I live that I didn't need to take a plane to get there. And I did. The result was, well, the best I can say is that it was disappointing, And that is perhaps an understatement. 

Please understand that I have no intention to disparage the effort of the people who attended the Congress. Most of them clearly did their best and the results were often interesting and sometimes even inspiring. Even the organizers did a good job with the management of such a large congress. My criticism is more general. 

Let me start with an impression. Every morning, the Congress Center in Marseille was ringed by an impressive screen of policemen in riot gear. I counted 12 police vans parked nearby, and there may have been more. Then, there were policemen in ordinary uniforms, at least one platoon of the French army in full battle gear, and an unknown number of mean-looking people in plain clothes. After you crossed the police ring, you still had to show your green pass, then you would be identified and tagged. Then you would go through a magnetic gate while your bags were x-rayed. After passing another control post, just for added safety, finally you could access the holy grail of the main hall of the Congress Center. At least, there was no crocodile-infested moat to defend it.

Was all that security needed to protect the good citizens of Marseille from those dangerous environmentalists? Or was it to protect the environmentalists from the dangerous citizens of Marseille? Of course, you could say that it was to protect the high-ranking politicians who attended the meeting. Maybe, but when President Macron came, the first day of the meeting, he didn't deem as appropriate to show his royal presence to the plebeians in the main hall. Instead, he manifested himself in a virtual form on a screen. He could have done that from Paris and saved some fuel for the presidential jet plane. What did he say? I don't know, I made a point not to listen to his speech. 

Anyhow, once you were inside, you had the distinct impression of being in a zoo -- or maybe swimming in a glass bowl. The environmentalists looked like those colored fishes that live happily in aquariums but would die almost immediately if released into the polluted Mediterranean sea. Whatever you did, you had the impression of being watched by the government, just as if you were a fish in a tank. 

Apart from the heavy sensation of irrelevance, what was being said at the Congress? What was being proposed? What ideas were being developed? Of course, I couldn't possibly have followed all the talks in the many parallel sessions, although I did my best to visit all the stands. But my impression was that we were not only in a glass bowl but that we all had gone through a dimensional gate and transported back to 20 or 30 years ago. More or less everything that was being said or proposed had already been said or proposed at least 10 years ago. Investments in environmental education, exhortations to consume less, buy local, save energy, keep the thermostat low, separate your waste, taxes on carbon, international treaties, all that. 

Just as an example, I talked with a French researcher about his project on reducing the light pollution of the night sky. A very nice idea, and he had some interesting tricks to show. But I had heard about it already 20 years ago, at least. And when I asked him how the project was going, he told me that they were doing their best efforts, and maybe some progress was taking place. But also that most people and most city administrators did not understand the idea and that they are all convinced that the more light there is, the better, and who cares about the night sky? 

So, it seems that we are stuck with doing again and again things that were proposed and tried during the past 20-30 years but didn't change the trajectory of the world's system. Apparently, environmentalists are convinced that something will change if we keep discussing the same things for the next 20-30 years. 

To be sure, the IUCN Congress had started with an ambitious goal: the idea that 30% of the Earth should be turned into protected wilderness areas. It was clearly inspired by Edward Wilson's "Half-Earth" proposal and it had been floating around before the Congress for long enough that many people became worried that something like that could actually be recommended. So, a "counter-conference on conservation" was held in Marseille the day before the IUCN one started. The idea was to denounce the 30% idea as the “world’s biggest land grab,” and to state that indigenous populations are the best protectors of the natural environment.

I think the counter-conference organizers were unduly worried. In the talks I heard at the IUCN Congress, I never heard anything about the need for 30% wilderness areas worldwide. I may have missed the relevant sessions, but for sure the subject was not prominent in the program. The idea appeared just as a minor blip in the "Marseille Manifesto" the final document that summarizes the congress conclusions. Most of it is pure verbiage, but they also say:
The Congress implores governments to set ambitious protected area and other effective area-based conservation measure (OECM) targets by calling for at least 30% of the planet to be protected by 2030

The choice of the verb "implores" says a lot about the actual power of the IUCN at the international level. When you go to the actual commitments to action in the document, you also find plenty of verbiage, but you read that "France" (it is not said which government body) is committed to "achieve 30% of protected areas nationally by 2022." Remarkably, no other government of the many that were present at the meeting took the same commitment. 

And here we stand. We have been doing our best for years, but nothing changes. All the ecosystem parameters are getting worse by the year, and we are running out of years. We may be doing the thing right, but we are not doing the right thing. But what is the right thing? Does such a thing even exist? Any suggestions?



  1. We are doomed ;-)

    Here in New Zealand the potential for a sustainable socio-economic future is higher than many OECD countries. Geothermal/Hydro/pine trees maturing in 25 years/low population density/mild winters/etc....

    That being said the government only seems to be interested in pandering to obscure financial and political forces in an endless talkfest and money showers to favourites.

    The future can not be static, we can only progress or regress. For the most of us we can only do as we see fit and adapt to what is happening. Any mass movement of ideology has to viewed with suspicion, even if honest and spontaneous to start with, as there will always be those aiming to utilise it. (Think Greta leading 'The Children's Crusade' of 1212)
    If an energy/resource efficient techno-utopia does eventuate in the next few decades then we have to presume a techno-tyranny will rule for a while and then collapse leading to the re-emergence of subsistence farming style of culture.

    I think the biggest problem is that the high level bureaucrats and politicians are scientifically and industrially illiterate and mostly utterly devoid of family and real life experience.

    1. Hello fellow Kiwi. Last paragraph, describes Wellington well.

  2. World complexity has outpaced the capability of politicians (scientists, citizens, etc) to tell the forest from the tree.
    There is nothing that can stop the ensuing sequence of events which will eventually lead to a great simplification of the system and capability of the greater public to comprehend and act upon a new system, a new era of human society and development.

    1. Insightful comment. The complexity is too complex. Arguably many systems people respect this fact but the people who would need to listen to them have (and it cannot be otherwise) blinkers on.

  3. We are just not collectively smart enough to solve these problems.

    Behave in the right way because it is right, not because it will make a difference.

  4. There are 2 interlocking constraints on our ability to do very much about the situation.

    First, our system of money governs how we live, in ways that are almost impossible to contradict. It will collapse if we take serious action to prevent pollution and limit extraction. That might not matter, because we could devise a replacement system, but elites who would suffer 'losses' will fight strongly against such change.

    Second, few of us are willing to become poorer voluntarily. It's started happening naturally, but most have not yet become fully aware. Limiting extraction, biosphere appropriation, changing agriculture, phasing out fossil fuels, etc, will lead to steep and sustained reductions in affluence. Until populations are reconciled to the need for such a 'sacrifice', we will continue to make token changes at the margin in the hope that gestures will prove sufficient. Many young people protest about lack of government action, yet remain touchingly ignorant of how real action would affect everything they take for granted.

    Ugo, you ask what can be done. Apart from a lot of piecemeal regulation, the single greatest action would be a fossil fuel tax escalator, agreed internationally. Applied at source, such a tax would ripple through the whole world economy and force change through existing price mechanisms. We can shrug and say this could never happen, because of the constraints above, but it remains possibly the single action that could turn our trajectory away from destruction and anarchy.

    Otherwise personal resilience is all we can do individually, which is unlikely to be effective but at least is a somewhat constructive way to stay busy and hopeful.

    1. Excellent comments, all.Energy use is the economy.Energy use is the source of emissions. Reducing energy use by an escalating carbon tax as you propose is the only way to reduce emissions. Forget everything else as non-scalable, non-feasable, too little too late, too costly...etc.. Power is energy use per time. Reducing energy use means reducing power and not just electrical power.It means reducing the power of all of us, people, corporations, governments. It means reducing the power to travel, consume, extract resources to grow the economy. It means reduced social, political, economic power. It means reduced "lifestyle" power. Who will voluntarily submit to less? No one IMO other than a few of us. End of discussion. It is delusional, a forlorn hope that anything will change. Even if a carbon tax is proposed or even enacted, revolts will ensue as they always have. A real carbon tax is dead. A global collapse will alter the trajectory. Nothing else will.

    2. Whenever "Carbon Tax" or "We need to this and that Internationally..." are mentioned - I see the B-52s lift off and coming to bombard Baghdad...

      There is no Energy resources left to sustain a Nany-Civilisation - globally.

      The "We, globally..." - is likely coming to an end - quickly.

      The US Open last week was entirely mask-less. In contrast, one cannot leave home without a mask in many other lockdown cities - "We - globally" has failed.

      When this is the case, "A global Collapse..." remains only a fossil fuels-era style of thinking and plan...

      When Iraq was bombarded during the 1980s, 1990s and after 2000 to ruins - street pavements in many cities in Europe have started to become a 5-star hotel floor-class.

      Many watched the bombardments and slaughter - drinking beer in pubs around the world.

      "We - globally" has failed then, it is failing now, and it will fail in the future...

  5. Ultimately, it comes back to population. Why can't we stop growing? Ivan Illich thought,

    "People must learn why and how to practice contraception ... Technology has transformed the characteristics of this niche. The ecosphere now accommodates a larger number of people, each less vitally adapted to the environment -- each on the average having less space, less freedom to survive with simple means, fewer roots in tradition. The attempts to make a better environment has turned out to be as presumptuous as the attempt to create better health, education, or communication. As a result there are now more people, most of them less at home in the world. This large population can survive because of new tools. In turn, it spurs the search for even more powerful tools, and thereby demands more radical monopoly; this monopoly, in its turn, calls for more and more education. But, paradoxically, what people most need to learn, they cannot be taught or educated to do. If they are voluntarily to keep their numbers and consumption within bounds, they must learn to do so by living active and responsible lives, or they will perish -- passive though well informed, frustrated yet resigned. Voluntary and therefore effective population control is impossible under conditions of radical monopoly and overprogramming. An efficient, specialized birth control program must fail in the same way that schools and hospitals fail. It can start with a futile attempt at effective seduction. It will logically escalate to enforced sterilization and abortion. Finally, it will provide a rationale for mega-deaths."

    I interpret this to mean, we have no limits because we have been conditioned to listen to Authority to tell us how to navigate the course of our lives. Therefore, the average person doesn't take responsibility for big picture of their life. And because the powers that be like to have big populations, to fuel empire, we have the problems we face. Until people think freely and take responsibility and escape the paternalism of Uncle Sam or Our Father In Heaven, I think we will never see people accept self-imposed limits.

    1. Good post. Actually I like most things about your posts, except your handle. I Keep thinking it's another Blogger Bug.
      But when I consider the great inventions, effective birth control is at the top of the list.

    2. What is that you don't like about the blog handle? I can change that

    3. NOT your blog handle, that's fine. I was referring to 'Anonymous' comment on yout post . Sorry for the confusion.

  6. I can't believe you even went to the event. The almost fifty years of doing nothing since "Limits to Growth" should have been enough to confirm that nothing of consequence will ever be done. Perhaps you feel that you must add a little more documentation to the ongoing litany of human folly?

    1. Meetings are a vital tool for scientists. It is a way to connect, to exchange ideas, to meet new people and share experiences. This one, well, it wasn't a success. But even failures are learning experiences.

      About adding more documentation, yes, I am planning to go back to the subject in future posts. As much as I can.

  7. Good post. Tragic. Handwaving.
    It relates well to the observations of David Graeber on "bullshit jobs", where people do meaningless things, as long as they are well paid. There are plenty of white collar workers doing meaningless things. I have worked in several multinational companies, where there were quite a lot of "box-tickers", e.g. "quality managers" or "environmental compliance officers" who had no power, but were there to show that the company had "good intentions".
    I think that many excellent researchers in ecology (IMHO the most important science) are treated like box-tickers. Not to be taken seriously, but to show that "our University/country has good intentions".

    Ecology is to economy what astronomy is to astrology. One is a science, the other an observational tradition.
    When we as a culture look at it the other way around, we are doomed.

    However, after the crash, Nature will rebound in unpredictable ways. The advantage of extinction is that it leaves room for more variety and surprising evolution. It is just stupid that we destroy so much for ourselves.

    I think William Rees (Footprint) and William Catton (Overshoot) showed convincingly that we crossed the threshold in the 1970s, and since then we are making the world poorer on a global ecological scale.

    It is tragic that the IUCN ecologists only get the "astrologer-role" to monitor and document the decline and disapperance of species.

    I am inspired by the new spiritual leaders, like Jacob Lund Fisker, Steven Vromman, Annie Raser-Rowland and David Holmgren, who show that it is possible to live beautiful, meaningful and ascetic/low-impact lives.
    Like the early monastic traditions were based on low-impact households, we can all be inspired by these people who lead by example.
    Not to convince "the rest", but to inspire a few, and plant seeds of a different morality. Like Benedictus of Nursia, who wrote his "rules" in the ruins of the Roman empire.

    Have a good day,

  8. I didn't follow TOD back in the day, but perhaps a similar fate awaits the Climate blogs. After a while it just seems that people are going to believe what they want to believe. I haven't much hope for the upcoming event (COP21) in Scotland either.

    Without the USA, China and either Canada or Australia on board, the rest can't really do much and it only takes one powerfull closed mind to derail most conversations. And China just told John Kerry (US climate czar?) that they really don't care. Again.

  9. Every time when I come to States I realize that there will be no climate action. Not with these giant cars and the cheap energy. People just don't care. And so they will pay a giant price in years to come.....

  10. The solution Ugo? Very obviously centrally political solutions are the problem so lets not go there. The answer is do what is right locally and individually. Might not work but why waste energy on the alternatives, the outcome has at least got your own inputs, not someone's diktats.

  11. Why should you try so hard to find answers among a crowd that requires permission from above to do anything?

  12. "What is the right thing"? What if it was doing nothing? Let the system collapse by itself. It's happening right now. There are underlying reasons we can know, we can guess, and others we will never understand but the fact is the collapse is happening.
    There is a bigger picture and not you or me can do anything about it. We are in a complex system and any action has unpredictable consequences. Why do you still care? What we could have done was a long long time ago. Time has run out so the best you can do is enjoying the show.

  13. We can always hope that the Covid jabs will sterilize those who have received them. It’s going to take something on that scale to make any real difference…