A grand opening

The grand opening of the World Parks Congress, Sydney Olympic Stadium November 2014.

The audiences is shushed and warned off flash photography. The hosts urge quiet respect, announcing that ‘this will be a sacred part of the ceremony’.

The scene opens on a bed, where a small girl sits, her inner thoughts narrated by an Wizard of Oz-like voice, disembodied through the surround sound speakers. She then visits, somewhat inexplicably, a rainforest and an ocean, where sparkly circus creatures perform acts of synchronised contortion, contributing to the other-worldly feel. I am reminded, again, of the simple faith of the converted: “The heavens do not exist above, they know. They are there below, just beyond our coastlines (and in our jungles), a world of wonder and exquisite loveliness.” 

How could we fail to be moved?

The scene changes: the girl grows up, gets a job, gets a salary, gets real. In the streets, surrounded by pulsating lights and zooming vehicles, she is confused, disconnected, alone. The city is not natural; our species not wild. We can imagine the empathy of an urbanised audience: who has not felt the alienation of asphalt and open plan offices?

'These are animals in cages, We look at them and laugh. How can the creatures Stand the bars?
‘These are animals in cages,
We look at them and laugh.
How can the creatures
Stand the bars?’
(Image by Spaffi)

Only one solution is available to our salaried city slicker. Time out to reconnect. Quit it all. Pack a bag Take off.

Never mind that the fantasy of packing up and taking off to exotic other-worlds is one laughably out of reach for the “99%”.

My uncharitable thoughts turn to the delegates. Lucky us. We’ve managed to persuade someone, somewhere (even if oneself), to foot the bill for our own time-out of the repetitive and mundane. In donning backpacks, clutching passports and boarding tickets, we have made it into the circle of the privileged few.

How many of us are thinking of the ones left behind, for whom the inside of an aeroplane is as much of a mystery as the surface of the moon?

I think, immediately of the scathing words of Jamaica Kincaid:

“An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you…

That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere… But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to excel the reality of their lives and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

(A Small Place)

Back to the opening ceremony for the World Parks Congress. In an integrated acrobatics and dance spectacular, we have followed the small child out of her bed and into the jungle and into the ocean. As she grows to a young adult, we have followed her flight from the city’s ‘unnatural’ landscape, back to the wilderness, camera in her hand.

She flits though a backdrop of landscapes: flamingos, a penguin, an elephant, ethnic dancers, empty night sky.

Spot the difference.
Spot the difference.
Spot the difference
Spot the difference

I freeze, feeling a little nauseated. As Rudyard Kipling did, as the anthropologists and the legions of administrators and the museum curators and the writers of natural history did, we have put the dancers in a line-up of animals.

The casual colonialism is breathtaking.

But in a scenario where we’ve been encouraged to sit respectfully and listen to the Environment Minister boast about how Australia is hitting its protected area targets, even though his government has battled to delist World Heritage Areas, dismantle our Marine Parks network and dredge on the border of the world’s largest coral reef, why not?

And in a spectacle where we’ve been encouraged to believe in the integrated inclusion of our Indigenous peoples, albeit perhaps just in the ceremonial; even as our Prime Minister rehearses his speech for the G20, a speech in which he will deny the existence of the same Indigenous peoples before the arrival of the whites on boats to the ‘pristine bush’*, why not?

As I tweeted in response to the official stream reporting on the Congress: “Hellooooooo 1984”.

*the irony of our current reception of boats being entirely lost on someone so incapable of critical thought

This is part one of two reflections on the World Parks Congress. The second part: A paperless conference

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