In 2010, I accompanied about 15 of my Manila-based labmates to a large regional conference addressing the proximate and serious issues facing the most diverse coral reef systems in the world. For once, the rooms were not overloaded with white, male scientists, based in the richest universities of Europe and North America and far from the ecosystems under the (metaphorical and literal) microscope. Most attendees, like us, were juniors: post-graduate students and research assistants, from the unevenly equipped and staffed laboratories from small, poor-ish countries bordering these rich submarine ecosystems throughout the Pacific.
For this reason, the student activities were a lot more elaborate than usual, and on the second last night of the conference we had a karaoke and games night, together with a talent quest to find Mr and Miss Coral. I collaborated with a bewitchingly handsome geneticist: I do the splits and he flexes his chocolate brown biceps, and the crowns/bottles of local liquor prizes are ours. This achievement leaves a far greater trace in the minds of my colleagues than my fifteen-minute presentation outlining the outcomes of our multi-sector stakeholder workshops demonstrating interactive tools for teaching and learning about tropical marine ecosystems.
I’m reminded of this, several years later, at a no-expense spared regional development bank meeting. We (those labmates and I) have laboured for several days preparing research briefs with country representatives, which detail their research priorities for the next five years. They print out colourful one-page summaries, now neatly stacked on trestle tables in a cavernous conference hall. We have a cocktail mixer and exhibition to present the ideas to the funders attending the meeting. The idea is that funders will be able to discuss project ideas with the country representatives: this way each country’s own priorities will be the focus, rather than the far more usual dollar-down approach of national and multilateral aid agencies.
For reasons known only to the organisers, the finalists for the host country’s ‘Miss Earth’ were also in attendance. Sporting ball gowns with modest neckline and immaculate make-up, they dazzle and bewitch. Countless selfies are taken.
At the end of the night the untouched one-page summaries are regathered and stored for the next event.
I keep wondering about performance, spectacle, memory and impact, and wonder how boring, ugly messages like ‘your shopping is killing our planet’ can ever be heard.