While so much of the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress news coverage focused on the broad engaging rhetoric of the high level discussions or on the policies voted on by IUCN members, most of us there had a completely different experience of the event.

With hundreds of daily sessions, thousands of attendees and millions of engaging interactions occurring during the 10-day congress, the event can’t be easily defined.

Imagine an oil painting splashed across a football field. Scientists are scattered throughout every corner, hard at work with fine detail brushes.

But, since the biosphere is collapsing, most of them can’t avoid the fact that their results are dark, deep and depressing.

IUCN NOAA display Relative vorticity hawaii map. 5 sept 2016

This NOAA display on relative vorticity looks like a splash of color on a huge canvas. But it’s actually about the turn of the earth and weather systems.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Then there are economists, conservationists, and policy makers, trying to paint those dark furrows into small bright spots. Sometimes the bright colors bleed into their surroundings, setting off a small ripple effect— but most of the time they’re just minute dashes of color that are the result of decades of diligent work.

And then there are the politicians who take all of this nuance and complexity and, in the language of luster required by their profession, brush over it with a high glossy sheen.

And then there’s the media. People like me who peer down on the fervor from way up in the nosebleed section of the bleachers and we try to create a cohesive narrative out of the variegated painting below. But, while we may understand that the beauty of the event is in the complexity, the detail and the nuance — we understand even better that that’s not news.

Because complexity doesn’t share well. News isn’t nuance. So, we scan the canvas looking for the shimmering areas glossed over by the politicians, the darkest swathes of the scientists, or the clash of colors that represents a conflict.

With his big brush and high-gloss paint, Gov. David Ige covers up an entire corner of complex agro-science, tax policy and land use law and claims that we’re going to double food production by 2020. That’s news.

Oh wait, one week later and his glossy brush has pushed it back to 2030? Don’t worry, that’s news, too.

In what looks like a black oil spill spreading across the canvas, the IUCN Red List declares that 87 percent of Hawaii’s native plants are on the brink of extinction. That, of course, is news.

Two dozen protestors, a booth manned by the longline fishing industry, President Obama’s fleeting presence and did someone mention Trump? — these are all big stories.

And then these stories work their way through the algorithms of social media, and every so often one of them makes it into our own catered newsfeed. Before opening the link, we put on our reading glasses tinted with the filters of our preconceived notions, and we begin the sifting process.

When we find one that aligns with our belief — we hit that magic share button. With the power vested in me as a user of social media, I declare this “news.”

But, to understand the IUCN Congress we can’t just peer down on it from above. We have to put on our shoes, pick up a brush and get right into the picture. We may lose perspective, but we’ll gain insight instead.

The congress that I saw was economist Jeffrey Sachs talking about limits to growth, UN sustainable development goals and the need to combine economic prosperity with environmental sustainability.

It was Keli’i Kotubetey on removing mangrove at the Heeia fishpond to revitalize an important form of Hawaiian subsistence.

It was Chip Fletcher talking about sea level rise in Hawaii and the fact that “If we were to stop all carbon emissions, we are already committed to 1.5 meters of sea level rise.”

It was the lunchtime conversation with a young woman from Czechoslovakia who explained to me that growing up in a communist country taught her the one lesson that we in the West will never understand — that resources are limited.

It was on efforts in northern Singapore to save a unique species of Horseshoe Crab.

It was on tax policy in South Africa and land use policy in Pennsylvania.

It was EO Wilson talking about an ant.

It was a four-hour session on responsible science communication in the media. And another one on how to communicate complex topics through fictional characters. On engaging diverse stakeholders in conservation. On increasing agricultural productivity of marginal farm lands. On bottom up change in local government. On saving Hawaii’s birds with transgenic mosquitos. And hundreds of other topics.

But most importantly, it was the endless inspiration of being surrounded by 10,000 individuals who are making sure that humanity learns to live within the confines of our only planet.

But there is no coherent story here. No convenient byline or smug conclusion. Just a lot of people. Each of them with one little brush, doing the best job that they can do.

That’s the IUCN Congress that I saw.

How much do you value our journalism?

Civil Beat focuses exclusively on the kind of journalism most at risk of disappearing – in-depth, investigative and enterprise coverage of important local issues. While producing this type of journalism isn’t cheap, you won’t find our content hidden behind a paywall. We also never worry about upsetting advertisers – because we don’t allow any. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on donations from readers like you to help keep our stories free and accessible to everyone. If you value our journalism, show us with your support.


About the Author