The present dialogue on marine conservation is failing our oceans. It isn’t just a science/public communication fail – missteps are happening in a variety of ways. But right now I’m particularly talking about you, The Economist, and your imminent World Oceans Summit, attended by the glitterati of industry and the global economy.
Timing is Everything
If you were going to schedule a forum aimed at spurring progressive change in ocean conservation, when would be the absolute worst time to commence said event? This week, perhaps, during the world’s BIGGEST ocean sciences meeting – the 2012 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Salt Lake City? Cue our first #epicFAIL courtesy of the Economist World Oceans Summit, happening next week in Singapore.
The Economist summit has pumped itself up as follows:
The world’s oceans are the setting for increasing economic activity and will continue to be so for years to come. Only in recent years have scientists begun to understand the significant impact of this growing industrialisation on the ecosystems of the seas and, by extension, on the broader biosphere we all inhabit. Now is the time to engage the global business community and change the nature of the debate.
The Economist’s World Oceans Summit will examine how the increasing activity in and around the oceans can be managed sustainably and what this means for business and other key stakeholders. Chaired by John Micklethwait, Editor-in-chief of The Economist, the summit will bring together more than 200 global leaders from various sectors and disciplines, including government, business, international organisations, NGOs, think-tanks and academia to participate in a unique, outcome-driven dialogue.
At DSN we’re all shaking our heads in disbelief–the bad timing of the Economist summit is simply inexcusable. Many marine scientists couldn’t attend even if they wanted to, and the scheduling conflict means that media attention on ocean issues will be diverted away from any cutting edge science being presented in Utah. Aren’t marine scientists some of the most obvious people you’d want to leverage for promoting change? Shouldn’t any plan for long-term economic sustainability be fundamentally and deeply rooted in scientific data?
“Broader Ocean Dialogue” = a lot of hot air
Transformative initiatives are commonly borne from unconventional collaborations. Fresh ideas often shake the boat. Innovation is an exciting and inspiring thing. But when I look at the scheduled speakers for the Economist summit, I’m not very excited; there are a lot of titles that include the phrase “executive director”.
Even though they’re trying to highlight participation from academia, there don’t seem to be nearly enough scientists attending the Economist summit. The ones that were invited represent a typical lineup of established heavyweights, all of whom have my immense respect and admiration. Yet, this program gives the distinct impression that the Ecnonomist organizers were more worried about prestige and fanfare than inviting up-and-coming scientists and conservationists whose opinions aren’t already widely known. Given that National Geographic is the co-host of this summit, I half suspect that the conversation will be watered down in order to avoid upsetting Rupert Murdoch or anyone at News Corporation (You didn’t know that the National Geographic channel is owned by the same company as Fox News? Or that they will soon be leveraging endangered species for ratings?)
A broader ocean dialogue implies a diverse audience – but who exactly IS the audience for this summit? Who is attending this event apart from the invited participants? On whose ears will their message fall? Amongst the invited scientists, where is the diversity in gender, race, or career stage? For the latter, we would expect the younger generation to have the best answers. This could have been an unprecedented networking and training opportunity for early-career scientists. Researchers like myself are passionate, driven, and willing to do the legwork; but how can we know what needs to be done if we’re not privy to such high-level discussions?
Besides that, there are some significant gaps in the list of attendees. Where are the representatives from developing nations (apart from the President of Kiribati, the token representative it seems)? Where are the small-scale fishers most impacted by catch systems? There’s not even an indigenous representative on the Arctic panel, when the Arctic tribes are the ones most adversely impacted. There’s no Asian representative on the aquaculture panel when Asia (e.g., China, Vietnam) is the biggest consumer and producer of aquaculture products – and the conference is in Singapore! It’s not exactly far to travel!
Major oversight in topics
There were also a lot of topics that were conveniently left out of the program. Shelf and deepwater resource extraction, anyone? Namely, oil drilling and deep sea mining. So far as I can tell this issue is not being discussed at all during the World Oceans Summit. This is quite ironic considering resource extraction is being extensively scrutinized at the Ocean Sciences Meeting, with a long list of sessions and scientific presentations. And have we already forgotten what resulted from the deepwater resource extraction in the Gulf of Mexico? Since these problems relate directly to the activities of international corporations (not “tragedy of the commons”), we at DSN can’t help but suspect this is a deliberate oversight so the corporate partners don’t feel threatened.
Where are the defined outcomes?
Yes Economist, what do you hope to accomplish out of your ocean summit? The scientists you have invited – however important their message – aren’t the ones out in the trenches. Executive directors don’t tend to go sampling or sequence DNA. And where is the cutting edge science? We are in the midst of a post-Genomics era that could revolutionize our capacity to monitor the oceans. How are you going to spur innovation if you aren’t bringing in any fresh ideas or promoting new technology? I know that Jane Lubchenco thinks that social media has an important role to play in conservation – but she doesn’t have a clear vision of the way forward. At DSN we’re trudging ahead in uncharted territory and promoting online tools as a new paradigm for ocean conservation. Shouldn’t scientists like us be a part of the Economist’s conversation? We have the expertise and are willing to work our assess off to make a difference.
Dear Economist, will your summit produce ANYTHING new that you can’t get from, say, the Pew Ocean report?
Even more frustrating, there are working group sessions on the last day, with no solid items slated to come out of them:
The final afternoon of the World Oceans Summit is in many ways the most important and exciting. If we are to tackle the myriad causes of our troubled oceans-the market failures, the irrational economic behaviour, poor governance and so on—we must do so with new and innovative solutions built around enlightened self-interest, and by a multiplicity of stakeholders. The oceans conversation must expand now from the confines of academia, NGOs, governments and international bodies—where much important progress has been made—to businesspeople and boardrooms, where small steps have been taken but bigger steps around innovation and sustainability, and responsible use of the oceans, will bring new rewards and opportunities.
Each of the working groups below will aim to tackle an area where a real difference might be made, and generate ideas for solutions. These are highly interactive sessions, each bringing together the widest group of oceans stakeholders. Thought-provoking case studies of initiatives and innovation, in and out of the oceans, will act as catalysts for discussion, while discussion leaders—experts in their field—will help shape and form the proceedings. The outcomes of each working group will then be relayed at the final plenum.
The focus group conversions will merely be presented to all attendees in yet *another* discussion session. In my experience, the most successful workshops establish solid action points before the end of the event and subsequently follow up on their progress. The present summit might be fine for smaller scale events, but seems grossly inappropriate for such a large supposedly ‘transformative’ event. Everyone might leave the Ocean Summit excited, but then reality will soon take over as the glow fades away–especially for high-level directors whose workload is already bulging at the seams.
Maybe I’m wrong–I sure hope I am. Maybe this summit will indeed be a transformative event. I remain forever optimistic, but perpetually skeptical.