Who's Gonna Stand Up?

Who’s Gonna Stand Up?

The closing ceremony of the 2014 World Parks Congress capped a long week of discourse on the future of protected nature. It was a week of didactics, discussion, and occasional debate, impassioned at times but often fragmentary and frustrated. In the opening ceremony we’d been hit with over-the-top theatrics involving fog machines, cirque de solei acrobats, choreographed dancers, and one very distressed owl. The closing ceremony was notable less for its spectacle and more for its stifled political undertones, glimpses of an unspoken contentiousness underlying both the congress and conservation and sustainable development at large.

After warming up the audience with droning didgeridoos and chanting, the ceremony went promptly into high-ranking bureaucrats making wonderfully neutral speeches. Each began by acknowledging the “traditional owners of this land and elders past and present.” Manicured Australian ministers lauded the audience on its great accomplishments and spoke hopefully, sometimes glibly, of the challenges ahead. Their words were carefully chosen. They did not mention the recent Australian mining boom, nor the fact that Aboriginal communities disproportionately feel its costs and so rarely its benefits. Their speeches were met with the requisite level of applause, but far less than a later speaker’s not so subtle criticism of the Australian government’s mining policies.

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Afterward, a short, dark-browed Aboriginal man walked to the stage and addressed the crowd. He described in a halting and nervous manner how he had traveled all the way from the Australian outback to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and miraculously managed to get his people’s traditional homeland designated a world heritage site. It was a rare success story, and everyone rose to their feet and clapped heartily when it was over. But it put a rosy façade over a longer story of suffering and injustice in the name of progress, an ongoing struggle over Aboriginal land and culture. Glossing over that reality with a poster story does little to change it.

But then came the highlight. A girl wearing the traditional garb of a Canadian First Nations tribe took to the stage accompanied by a woman playing guitar. For the next few minutes she sang beautifully about taking action and making a change in the world. It sounds cheesy, but it was genuine. The audience seemed moved. Later I learned the performance was not part of the original program and that the conference organizers had vehemently opposed it, apparently because the 14 year-old singer was an environmental activist and First Nations member that spoke out against the Canadian parks service. The performance made it into the program at the very last minute thanks to the unrelenting urging of IUCN youth leaders and Aboriginal elders.

That act, which felt real and raw, was promptly followed by the next, a Broadway-esque performance of Neil Young’s new song “Who’s Gonna Stand Up.” With dramatic shots of mountains, forests and oceans panning on screen behind them, the new performers earnestly sang lyrics like “damn the dams, save the rivers, starve the takers and feed the givers” and “who’s gonna take on the big machine, who’s gonna stand up and save the earth.” Big machine? I hate to say it, but the conference at times felt like it was the machine, or at least not against it. After so much of the usual rhetoric on sustainable development, working with corporations rather than against them, and making conservation scalable and sexy, the performance seemed like someone’s idea of a bad joke. Many in the audience laughed, but in some ways it was more sad than funny. On that last strange note, the final ceremony and the congress officially came to a close.

Afterward the delegates shuffled out of the cavernous, hangar-like room in the direction of free food and drink. Many of them had a shell-shocked look, not necessarily displeased, just perplexed. The feeling was reasonable. Much had been said that week, but the conversations had proceeded along separate tracks. When the tracks reached their common destination in the Promise of Sydney, the result was a catch-all of disparate, uninspired goals to solve just about every problem under the sun. The promise felt empty.

So what can we take away from the 2014 World Parks Congress? The final ceremony highlighted the fact that events like the WPC are complex, political processes reduced for general consumption. They are intricate composites of diverse agendas loosely bound beneath common banners bearing simplified messages. The more ambiguous those messages the better—try to define them too precisely and you risk it all falling apart. Split between twelve siloed streams, the congress maintained its self-preserving ambiguity but precluded the kind of cross-cutting dialogue it hoped for and claimed. Inherently interconnected challenges were approached separately, as if they could be isolated, and so delegates were divided by default. At the end of the day, the traditionally marginalized voices of the indigenous and the youth remained mostly that—restrained, reduced, and largely token with a few notable exceptions. On the main stages were the usual old white men restating the obvious, telling stories we’ve heard before. The critical dialogue so sorely needed was relegated to side events when it should have been front and center, and the most important questions remained unanswered, left to be decided piecemeal by people who don’t have protected areas and conservation among their top priorities.

I know, I sound like a jaded contrarian. The conference did have its redeeming moments, brief torrents of reaffirmation and celebratory comraderie that were no doubt valuable. The island nations especially brought a vibrant positivity that buoyed the whole show. But a great deal of what was said and done felt carefully contrived, endlessly promotional, reaching for inclusivity and inspiration. Partly that’s just how these events go, but I think the pattern also reflects conservation’s precarious balancing act as it accommodates competing agendas and contradictory goals, trying to nudge the aggregate forward without straining its fragile bonds. The balancing act is cast as the only way to advance, and that might be true, but it leaves little room for constructive dissent. The process has become so politically bound that a fourteen-year old girl speaking her mind is considered a threat to the general order, and that’s not right. Going forward requires compromise, but let’s not compromise too much or we risk going backwards.

The last performance of the closing ceremony said it all. Who’s gonna stand up and take on the big machine? The question stands.