Last month I attended the Summit, an multi-day event something like a mix of TED and Burning Man for entrepreneurial types. Nearly everyone I spoke to there about the environment described themselves as caring about the environment.
Quoting the Summit’s site, “The Summit community has a strong history of commitment to conserving our land and ocean natural resources and spaces.” On one of its initiatives: “Summit Institute’s mission is to apply creative solutions to real-world challenges related to the environment, education, the arts, health and social innovation.”
One of Summit’s pillars is impact. Let’s see its long-term impact. First, for context, here is a water fountain I found. Many attendees had passed it, but it was bone dry.
Meanwhile, they gave out unlimited water in unnecessary containers.
The containers claimed to use less material than bottles, but as no containers were needed at all, the meaningful comparison is to zero packaging.
Nearly all the food sponsors gave out landfill garbage surrounding their food:
They distributed single-use packaging everywhere:
I’m not complaining. I’m offering to help.
These pictures show a negligible fraction of the unnecessary garbage I saw. The first few days, the thoughtless waste brought me down. Attendees feigned helplessness to resist polluting, speciously asking, “The conference gives us this trash, what else can we do?” The staff acted equally powerless, saying “The sponsors provide it and the people want it.”
Partway through I decided not to accept helplessness myself. I met the organizers and suggested that
- while they probably pollute less than most conferences, they have a long way to go
- people will appreciate being asked to bring reusable containers and utensils
- they could get a lot of media attention by living more consistently with the values they claim
- they could take a leadership role among their peers and help lead other conferences to reduce waste
- they could live by their values more, which will improve their lives
I then asked a lot of attendees, “If next year the conference said you had to bring your own reusable bottles and cutlery, would you be more likely, less likely, or neutral to come?”
None said “less likely.” A few said “neutral.” The great majority said “more likely.” When they got talking about action, they continued to say how they didn’t like all the garbage the conference put in their hands and would have preferred less packaged stuff.
Waste leads to more waste
The buffet style meals led to a lot of people taking food they didn’t eat, leaving trash out. For example,
Less waste leads to less waste
Once the leadership creates a wasteful environment, it’s easy for attendees to follow their lead and pollute while believing themselves better than others for the vacuous claimed green mission statements and comparisons to yet more wasteful practices.
People resist change and act like it’s hard until they start and find the reward of acting on your values, even when it conflicts with comfort and convenience. When the leadership sets a tone of actively reducing waste, not just wasting less than thousands of utterly unnecessary plastic bottles, people enjoy and value acting on their environmental values. Meaning and purpose replace futility and helplessness.
I offered to help work with sponsors, attendees, planners, and everyone else to create practices attendees would value and remember. To help the conference reach its environmental leadership potential. I want to make it easy for them. I’m happy to work hard and use all my skills to benefit everyone. I’m confident that sponsors and attendees will value the event more for having to act on their values, not for being mollycoddled and patronized.
We’ll see if they take me up on the offer.
EDIT, January 2019: Here’s a screen shot from a recent Summit email. What could be more sustainable than the largest heliskiing operation in the world?
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