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Turning Ideas Into Action at the Slow Life Symposium

Slow Life Symposium participants
The Slow Life Symposium participants gathered in Koh Kood, Thailand to discuss actionable ways to save the planet. Photograph by Cat Vinton.

What better setting to contemplate slowing life down and creating a more sustainable co-existence between man and the planet than a remote island where five-foot-long monitor lizards lazily cross dirt roads and armies of cicadas function as nature’s wake-up call?

The Slow Life Foundation held its fourth Slow Life Symposium in just such a paradise, on Koh Kood island in the Gulf of Thailand. Hosted by Soneva luxury resort owners Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, this was my second time participating in the event which brings together 30 or so eco-thinkers and -doers from around the globe for three days of intense brain-storming.

The foundation supports a variety of projects that have a positive environmental, social or economic impact, which covers everything from supporting water charities to introducing more efficient cook stoves across rural Myanmar. This year’s symposium focused on “collaboration and innovation,” a challenge this disparate group of “visionary mavericks” (Sonu’s words!) warmed to.

“This is a fantastically privileged opportunity for all of us,” Sonu said.

Over the course of a seasonably hot weekend, economists worked with climate change scientists, activists, engaged philanthropists, and conservation leaders to lay out hopes for a sustainable future while investors worked to figure out how they can help pay for it, all in 15-minute bursts. In a twist away from TED, the intent of this confab is for all participants to take home a very specific “to do list.” What the world does not need more of is blah-blah-blah; what it does need more of is action.

A drumbeat beneath the symposium and a 24-hour downpour was more than a hint of concern; super typhoon Haiyan was bearing down and then demolishing the Philippines two countries to the east.

A Passionate Group

Jonathon Porrit, co-founder of the U.K.-based sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, was the event chair at this year’s symposium. His new book, The World We Made, is a quasi-fictional look back at the planet from a 2050 perspective, a reflection he somehow manages to give a positive spin despite detailing horrors-to-come including cyber terrorist attacks, more devastating hurricanes, water wars, and more.

In his opening remarks, under the soft-whir of ceiling fans, he focused on the necessity for those who study the state of the earth to choose hope over despair. “Making hope live for people, that’s what this group of people does best,” he said.

“But hope is very different from optimism. We find ourselves in a difficult and challenging place. To many people in the world, the planet still looks pretty good. But for those of us who have been working on environmental issues for the past three decades and more, much of the world is already living lives of not-so-quiet despair.”

Nodding among the crowd were a wide range of characters who help shape the way people view and treat the planet.

Swedish climate scientist Johan Rockstrom, who is credited with leading an international team of scientists that developed the groundbreaking “Planetary Boundaries,” concept rubbed shoulders with Bombay-based economist Pavan Sukhdev, who oversaw the influential U.N. report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. German Jacob Von Uexkull, chairman of the World Future Council, a non-profit working to safeguard the environmental rights of future generations, compared notes with Jochen Zeitz, the former chair of Puma and currently a sustainability adviser for numerous corporations around the world. Adventurer and new-media savant David de Rothschild sat across the table from actress and activist Daryl Hannah.

Scattered through the open-air room were a handful of philanthropists including Jessica and Adam Swieden, the U.K.-based co-founders of Synchronicity Earth, and Atlanta’s Laura Turner Seydel, who is on the board for several of her family’s foundations.

History of Success

The best example of how the Slow Life approach turned three days of brainstorming into action is its 2011 symposium in the Maldives, where attendees included then-President of the Maldives Mohammed Nasheed, Richard Branson, and actor Edward Norton. The event led to the creation of a project dubbed Whole World Water, which is funded by the Slow Life Foundation (contributions come from Soneva resort guests). WWW’s mission is to imitate one of Soneva’s pet projects: Bottling its own water on-site in recycled glass bottles, rather than getting tens of thousands of wasteful plastic bottles of water shipped every year. WWW’s challenge is convincing hoteliers around the world to act with similar responsibility.

With Porritt’s watchwords in mind, individual speakers and groups attempted to focus on hope over despair.

Hannah, who has put herself on the line in support of her beliefs more than anyone in the room, said “obviously we need a major paradigm shift so that we don’t get beaten down by the gloom and doom” that increasingly accompanies conversations about the state of the world’s environment.

“We are paralyzed by research, drowning in reports,” opined de Rothschild, whose sailing boat The Plastiki, which is made from more than 12,000 plastic bottles, obviously encourages action over talk. Zeitz, who was the CEO of Puma at the tender age of 29, is now retired from business and peddles the message of sustainability to corporate boardrooms. “We need to embed sustainability into everything a corporation does,” he said. “It should simply be how you do business.”

Jennifer Willig administers the Whole World Water effort and previously ran the RED campaign that focused on drawing attention to AIDS in Africa. She also expressed a belief that the private sector has the power to change the world. “We have a youth movement now that embraces brands before governments or social policy,” she said. “I truly believe there is a new way to do business on Earth.”

Crucial Conversations

The most compelling conversation I tuned into at the symposium was between scientist Johan Rockstrom and economist Pavan Sukhdev. The lifes-work of both is focused on how the planet will survive past mid-century with a human population of nine billion. They both believe changing our ways is possible, but they also believe it will be very, very challenging.

“The time for change is now,” says Sukhdev, “because we are at a critical point in our collective destinies. We know that the power of corporations is huge, controlling three-quarters of the economy and jobs.

“What we need to figure out is a way to make today’s corporations create tomorrow’s economy. And tomorrow’s economy is a green economy. At the moment not enough are actually working on ‘How do we get there.’ The way to get there is to change the agents of the economy, which are, of course, corporations.” Not surprisingly, his latest book is titled Corporation 2020: Transforming Business for Tomorrow’s World.

In a more clipped, scientific approach, Rockstrom outlined two transformations that are urgently needed if the planet is to survive as we know it. Supporting the theme of the weekend, he chose hope over despair.

“One is a transition into a fossil-fuel free world by mid-century—basically a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy,” he said. “We can do it and we can also sustain well-being while doing it. The second is a transition to a sustainable agricultural future where we are able to provide food for nine billion people without undermining the world’s rain forests and eco systems, without sacrificing our marine systems and without over-consuming fresh water.” The Human Quest is his new book with photographer Matthias Klum, and it addresses how we can learn to live within our planet’s boundaries.

“These two transitions are possible. But they will require tremendous innovation, tremendous engagement by business, and also political leadership,” added Rockstrom. “My diagnosis is unfortunately that we are in a very, very precarious situation and we’re moving in the wrong direction. But we have this window—a window that is still open, but closing fast—and we need to rapidly grab the opportunity to veer in a new direction.”