March 30, 2006

State of the Planet 2006

The State of the Planet 2006 conference probably would be better named the "state of the toothless left-center UN bureaucrat and their friends 2006 conference" but hey it's the internet age so economists and scientist don't really need to tell the truth anymore do they? And well, truth be told I actually rather enjoyed the two days. For one knowing how these people think is actually rather useful, and hey as a bonus every couple hours or so one or two of them would actually say something interesting. That's an exaggeration of course, but they did actually pull two people out at the end that well made up for the wait.

Parker Mitchell of Engineers Without Borders took the tried and true engineering route towards relevance, actually doing something in the real world. But unlike all to many engineers he has also realized that when actually doing something means trying to solve hunger in African droughts you actually need to take culture into account. You can't just march in and say "here is a new toy, destroy your customs and it'll save you". Maybe it sounds nasty, but in many ways it takes cultural engineering. You need to win trust and you need to convince people to take a huge risk on trying something new. And when you are talking subsistence farmers, remember that if they try something new and get back less than they need to eat.. well they either beg or die or both. Maybe he had the nastiest message of the conference, if we want to do things we need to go every individual problem and listen. It's way more work than say the number juggling so many presenters powerpointed to the screens, but in the end I found it profoundly uplifting. It's long and slow and absurd amounts of work, but at least someone is doing it.

As much as I may talk about pragmatism and actually doing things though in the end I'm still under the spell of big ideas and Johan Rockström was really the only one to deliver on that front. Like many big ideas it's ridiculously simple once you learn it, this one is so simple it was in my forth grade science textbooks, but apparently in never made it up the land of international aid and planning. Rockström is all about green water. Green water is that stuff you see in a basic diagram of water circulation, the stuff that evaporates back into the air and the stuff that gets sucked up into plant roots and rhizomes. In other words the water that lets our planet breathe. But people concerned with water crises apparently don't care about green water, they care about blue water, essentially the water that turns into streams, lakes and rivers. This is what we drink, irrigate fields with and dump all our shit back into. It's important but it's also only a small part of our waterflows. Rockström's point was exceedingly simple, we can't solve water problems without factoring in green water as well as blue. Simple, to the core and straight out of elementary school, it's sort of sad this is revolutionary, but hey in these times I'll take it where I can get it!

Posted by Abe at March 30, 2006 11:08 PM

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