Train of thought

The story of three days at the Planetworkshops’ Global Conference in Evian

Editorial | By Martin Renard


Photo: ©karindalziel

Train stations are symbolic.

Millions of people pass through them each day for millions of different reasons. They represent both the starting point and the culmination a journey. But a week ago Monday, hundreds of people lined up single file on Platform 8 at Gare de Lyon in Paris for a common purpose. The Planetworkshops’ special train they were boarding was reserved for government officials, non-profit employees, businesspeople, journalists and others. While the question at hand was clear (“What revolutions do we need to govern a vulnerable world?”), the answer felt keenly uncertain.

“We like to talk, but not solve problems”

Once aboard, it was clear that this train was special. Shoes were shiny and smiles bright for the occasion, while eyes shifted from face to face, badge to badge followed by typical introductory exchanges. The usual concerns also pervaded: “Can you take care of my luggage?”, ”We won’t get a chance to eat”, ”Where’s the bar?”.

Six hours later in Evian, the themes of peaceful co-existence, governance and environmental urgency were on everyone’s tongue. Two of the event’s most highly-anticipated guests opened the conference, sparing the crowd no critical or passionate words:

“The Egyptian revolution was not a Facebook revolution,” asserted Gigi Ibrahim, dubbed one of the faces of this year’s “Arab Spring”. The citizen journalist relied on the build-up of protests against Mubarak’s regime, with the revolution representing a natural step towards democracy. “We have the power, the hope. We just need to organize,” said Ibrahim. 

Captain Paul Watson later harpooned the audience with a scathing criticism of “meetings”: “We like to talk, but not solve problems.” The Captain - known worldwide for his commitment to the protection of the world’s oceans - also highlighted the human drivers of change: passion, imagination and courage. If the assembly rose to applaud the activists, the full effect of their words would be somewhat short-lived. 

“A constitution for the future”

The question humans face today is complex. Dealing with social upheavals spreading like oil through the Gulf of Mexico, or a financial crisis in the States, whose debt ratio is as serious as the fallout around Fukushima, we seek a new model for development. As summarized by Bettina Laville, we must draft a constitution for the future, focusing on the following parameters: 

• Create an immediate model that integrates the long term. 
• Respond to global issues at the local level. 
• Place people at the heart of the action. 

“To make decisions, we need a reliable process by which to make them”. The words of Karl Falkenberg lay it on the line: In shaping a sustainable development model we will need to use out heads. “But we will also need to feel it in our guts,” adds 
Nick Robins. ”Our collective sense of morality has evolved.” “We all have the tools to create forums” and “learn from one another.” So everyone agrees on the state of thingsBut how do we turn this into a solution? 

 “From the infinitely broad to the infinitely finite

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone: after a long train connection from Berlin to Paris to Evian, I turned in by 10:00 p.m. on Day One of the conference, meaning I would miss the discussion on “Spirituality and Sustainability.” The next day at the lunch table, between a piece of foie gras and a beautiful Burgundy, I caught some excerpts: “A circular view of human relationships should prevail over a pyramidal one. The moral of the story? We must understand how humans work in order to create a fully sustainable system.

 Revolutions co-ordinated over Facebook and the decline of the journalism industry show that social networks are now major hubs of public expression. According to Eric Giuily and Herve Digne, they foster connections between people with a holistic approach: everything is one. Institutions are struggling to jump on this bandwagon, as evidenced by Pascal Husting of Greenpeace, who points out that we need to find ways to connect with our allies on the ground - those out on the streets calling for a better world.

 But when the question “Would each of you disclose your monthly salary?” came, the room fell silent.

Is it necessary to demonize economic and financial influence? No: it will be part of the engine for change. If we seek form for our model, it must encompass both the infinitely large and infinitely small. We have all the tools and knowledge we need: it is simply time to mobilize. 

 ©Semmy Demmou and Abdou Diouri

 “We are animals. We are human animals.”

Humans, like all animals, are subject to the law of evolution. Collective consciousness is changing, and some of the conference’s delegates described how:

Céline Alleaume explained how a well-known bank in England has seen a flux of customers move to mutual banks - not out of fear, but for the sake of investing in the spirit of sharing. Civil society simultaneously denounces and stimulates change.

African youth coming home after years of diaspora are breathing new life into the continent. “Africa is not the problem, rather the solution,” says Isidore MvoubaIn all respects, Africa is moving forward and urges international organizations to do the same. Much work remains to be done, but the process has been initiated. 

 In Rio in 1992, a child was the hope of a sustainable future for the UN. The tone of Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s speech in 2011 is different, but its message is timeless: “We are human animals (…) interlinked by a shared destiny.“ Rather than get lost in the complex equation of a sustainable model, would it not be more efficient to return to the basic variable, the nature of man? 


©Semmy Demmou and Abdou Diouri

 “We have fragmented a united system”

To sum up, I would say that the error of man is to complicate what is simple, to divide what is one. “We have fragmented a united system,” as summarized by Pierre Rabhi, the farmer whom the establishment prefers to call a philosopher. The vision of man becomes lost in the spectrum of categories and subcategories that it creates. Do society, economy, environment and all of their ramifications not refer to the same reality? 

 It’s a question of vocabulary. So group the terms. Look to the future. The generation that is taking a stand today grew up with ecology as a fundamental concern, and vulnerable governments must understand that they are now waiting for permission to act. Aren’t we already suffering from a logical disconnect between mankind and its actions?

 Revolutions are taking place in the street, in public squares, at the station where the Evian conference grinds to a halt. To say that these three days have transformed our leaders into revolutionaries would not be entirely accurate. Despite a general consensus that something needs to be done, we may never have the answer. This is more likely to come from the streets.

Either way, we must hurry, the clock is ticking. As noted by Prince Albert of Monaco: “One must move swiftly.”

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