A paperless conference

A paperless conference sounded like a great idea. Just think of the trees.

And this was a conference FOR the trees. And the fish. And the birds. The World Parks Congress, held every 10 years to remind us that we should save just a little space on our overcrowded planet for species other than ourselves.

Of course, for the hot, cross bunnies turning up jet-lagged from international flights with recalcitrant (foreign!) devices, attempting to work out the what/where/when of talks and workshops, and hoping for the usual dead-tree tomes depicting times and parallel streams, it was not quite as welcome.

Many an ageing delegate, navigating app downloads, passwords and redemption codes within the context of an overheated wifi system at the volunteer staffed ‘My Schedule’ help desk, let the heat and the moment get the better of them. Defeated by the technology, in a world that must seem increasingly inaccessible behind the benign stares of screens, they lash out.

The confusion is, perhaps, inevitable. Faced with the gargantuan task of handling almost 900 events and 6000 delegates, many things are lost in coordination. Even the vocabulary of presentations becomes bamboozling: E-posters are speed talks are TouchScreens 1 through 9, and people are lost in a blur of inconsistent language inside a physical space the size of a small town.

Back at the help desk, more often than not, it was those who should have felt every right to be angry (remote dwellers for whom the existence of reliable internet connection is mere rumour; French and Spanish speakers who downloaded their version of the app, only to discover all content was in English) were unfailingly polite and grateful for help.

It was invariably English-speaking urbanites dressed in suits who apparently felt at liberty to forget the cultural imperative of P and Qs. Felt at liberty to ignore the unpaid labour that had been harnessed for their convenience, as evidenced by the hot pink vests and orange lanyards labelled VOLUNTEER.

It immediately struck me, as I fended off irritated inquiries about when the app would be ‘fixed’ and what I was going to do about the programme’s apparent flaws, that the whole event was a great metaphor for conservation, parks, the whole messy issue of co-existence on one indifferent world.

Most of us muddle along with good intentions, coping with suboptimal conditions through reaching out and reaching in for guidance and fortitude. Others expect that obstacles will (should?) be removed from their path and the world configured to their pleasure.

I am being deliberately condescending. Inside, I feel a scathing rejection of some of the delegates’ inability to cope with what was retrospectively inevitable failure of infrastructure ill-quipped to cope with the scale of the conference. I wondered how these people coped with the intractable conflicts, under-funding and chronic shortage of expertise that characterises the environmental work they presumably do the world over.

It was a timely reminder, however, of the importance of courtesy and forbearance. I have bulldozer tendencies, and my parents are fond of reminding me that I ‘do not suffer fools gladly’.

And there are so many fools standing in the path of doing things better.

I am most probably one of them.

More reflections on the World Parks Congress: A grand opening 



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