ChangeNOW Summit heralds as the "the largest positive impact gathering in the world", and taking place in the Grand Palais on the Champs-Élysées, it was certainly the right stage for such an ambitious vision.
Originally built for the 1900 Paris Exhibition to showcase the technological advancements of the era, the Industrial Revolution held such promise and hope. Now in 2020 the urgency is how do we unhook from many of those very ideals and foundations?
Could ChangeNOW Summit provide the answers?
There was certainly plenty of people to hear from and projects to learn about; with 5 simultaneous tracks of talks, workshops and a start up fair in the middle with more than 100 stalls. The buzz of new connections being sparked, jobs being offered and ideas being shared reached the Palais's grand roof.
You wouldn't be amiss thinking that all the solutions to the world's problems might be found in this one space, the optimism was palpable.
On closer inspection (and in my personal opinion) some of the content, some of the projects didn't sit quite right. A now well-cited report from UN scientists published in October 2018 concluded we need ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ if we are to limit global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius.
A substantial chunk of what was being discussed at ChangeNOW was incremental.
There's nothing inherently wrong with these ideas. But it's like using a bucket to tackle an overflowing bath and not turning the tap off.
What about the need to reduce our consumption of technology and tackle in built obsolesce, that has us replacing our smartphones as much as every year? What about the concession pushed by manufacturers in recent EU legislation that "restricts the rights of consumers to repair products themselves"?
What about bold ideas to rapidly transform our society from a single-use one (which has only been around 1-2 generations) to a multi-use, multi-purpose one? What about challenging the notion that convenience for us as humans, is often not convenient for the environment, wildlife and often other people in other parts of the world where these raw materials are made, be it plastic, clothing or palm oil?
There was a big emphasis and trust that technology will get us out of the climate crisis.
My understanding is that to achieve ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ we'll need a lot more than technology.
Apply Greenwash Filter
It was difficult to navigate. And I've been trying to absorb as much of this as I can in the last few years. I empathised with the information overwhelm that people often feel that leaves them paralysed and taking no action. (Little plug here for EcoMentor)
And to make the waters more murky, corporates have cottoned on to social justice and climate change as a marketing strategy.
Remember the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner?
Tapping into the rise of Extinction Rebellion, you might have seen these?
(That's neither vegan because it contains mayonnaise, nor technically vegetarian because it's cooked on the same grills as the beef burgers. I'm still curious though as I'm pursuing a reducetarian planet-friendly diet)
It begs the wider question, not only for technology but also what role big businesses play in the 'rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’?
It's hard to say, on the one hand "green growth" is a oxymoron but on the other hand it is companies like Shell that have the huge infrastructure we'll need to scale up alternative global energy solutions. And there are expected to be nearly 10 billion of us by 2050.
And back in Paris, the ChangeNOW had some huge corporate sponsors - but then the ticket price was much more accessible than many I have seen.
Back to the conference: finding the transformative ideas among the noise
There were some really transformative projects, startups and campaigns featured at ChangeNOW Summit.
I share 5 of them on the Finding StartUps blog, who kindly sponsored me to attend.
From lab-grown diamonds to games that help explain climate change, from removing plastic from rivers before it hits the oceans to a project from the Ivory Coast tackling light for school students. Find out more about them here.
There was a panel on women and impact. I learned about the Homeward Bound Project, a leadership programme for 1000+ women with a scientific background, aimed at empowering women in this field and making them more visible.
I learnt about Lahti in Finland, that has been laying the foundations to be carbon neutral by 2025. The city's Mayor, Pekka Timonen, said; "we must show people how they will enjoy life in a carbon neutral world," stressing the need to address wellbeing as well as the economy and environment. With citizen participation at its core, including children as local heroes; 10% of the city's population is now employed in the circular economy. They even have their own local carbon trading app for its citizens: you can calculate your carbon emissions and convert it to bus tickets, cinema tickets and one day Pekka hopes for beer too!
"We're part of systems but we barely know how they work."
Addressing, in her words, "the desperate need to see what the world might look like" I heard from early stage projects pitching for more investment. These ideas were fascinating, from a PokemonGo equivalent for carbon, to matching keen urban gardeners with rooftops ripe for actual green growth and one that challenged our notion about travelling, encouraging us to celebrate what was close by instead.
Other panels I was drawn to explored the role of fiction in creating change, challenging lazy Hollywood dystopias, another debated the role of media and fact checking in a Cambridge Analytica world.
I was really glad to see pockets of the programme that invited us to reflect on the inner change needed to address the complexity and scale of the climate, social and ecological crises that we face. The well-respected Satish Kumar summarised our current situation we're in that no amount of technology or business will solve:
Behind the climate crisis is a spiritual crisis.
I couldn't agree more with the premise of the summit, we do need to change now. But before we race ahead (or perhaps simultaneously given the time constraints!) with how exactly we will change, are we also trying to fully understand why? On the surface level it's quite simple, we need to reduce carbon emissions now.
But underneath that we also need to grapple with the ideas that fuelled the sky rocketing carbon emissions and the resulting global temperature increase.
To critique our history that laid the foundations that made it acceptable to extract from certain people and the planet whatever we wanted.
To listen to cultures that have managed to survive the onslaught of so-called modernity, and glean that there are other ways of living, existing and thriving that are different to ours.
To be humble, and see this wide-scale transformation as an opportunity to undo so many of the wrongs that have been made in the past and the repercussions that are still being felt today, be it renumeration around slavery to communities left abandoned when we (in the UK for example) shut our coal mines.
Are we, as those who have benefitted the longest from all the positive aspects of oil and coal extraction, colonies and access to resource that made us so rich and powerful, are we prepared to be fair in our transition to a society that lives within planetary boundaries? Are we prepared to cut our emissions faster, so that other countries can continue to emit so they can meet their needs?
That is the kind of change now we need.
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