Thursday, 14 April 2011

Running on Empty

Came across this article awhile ago thanks to a tweet from @barbaraconvene:

The headline jarred me. I thought: isn't that a little ludicrous? Now I don't want to go off the deep end here, especially because I know recent siting decisions for the FIFA World Cup have been rather controversial. And let's face it, the Qatar event is over 10 years away. A lot can change in 10 years.

The situation in Qatar reminds me of an important distinction for event sustainability though:

There is a subtle difference between doing good and doing less harm.

Think of your event impacts as three glasses of water, half full. (Why? Because Mum always said it's better to be a glass half full kind of person and thinking about the desert has me thirsty)

The first glass is economic.
In the lead up to this (and most any) event we're going to see a lot of emptying of this glass on many things, especially built infrastructure and venues. But the theory is the glass will be filled up in the long term, replenished during and after the event through the economic spin offs from travel and sponsor investment. The hope for all our events is that this glass has at least as much water as we started with when we finish. If we can wind up with a surplus even better!

The second glass is social. 
From a sustainability perspective we ask can we improve or nourish the community through the event? Does it contribute to a better quality or standard of living? Does it better the human condition, reduce it, or act indifferent? Are the people in the destinations where we hold events feeling parched or quenched having hosted the event? Then there is the experience the event itself provides. Have we exceeded our participant's expectations? Do they feel 'full'? 

The final glass is the environment. 
What is this glass filed with? Well, water of course, but other resources too: energy, raw materials, the air we breathe. Whereas we can 'do good' by filling the other two glasses through improvements in working conditions, additional investment and community legacy, the environmental glass is one that we continue to empty. Event sustainability here is about how effective we are in emptying the glass less quickly. Doing less harm. Allowing it enough time to naturally replenish. We're getting better at reducing what we use from this glass, and recycling materials within it, but right now we are still experiencing a net leakage. And we will continue to do so until we can create solutions to generate our own environmental resources and close-loop the materials we use.

Now doing less harm is not necessarily a bad thing. It's certainly better than causing the same harm. But it requires accepting we are not being sustainable where we do not sufficiently allow for refilling of the glass. This realization can shift our thinking away from the artificial sense of security bought by 'carbon neutral' claims. And this change in perspective can help us be more effective in addressing the environmental aspects of our events in meaningful, relevant and practical ways. Accepting that our environmental goal is to do less harm first might cause us to reduce the materials we use. To site our events with more attentiveness to resource use. To consider virtual ways to engage that have a smaller footprint. To use caution in communicating our efforts so we don't overstate them in a way that creates the false impression of filling the glass ('carbon positive', anyone?). Most importantly it could focus our attention on the imperative to measure environmental impacts from events so at the most fundamental level we can know the impact we're causing, positively and negatively.

Looking at our events as three glasses also reminds us we trade-off between each. And we can't keep filling the one glass at the expense of the others. There is, after all, a point when the well runs dry and scarcity of environmental or social resources starts to empty the economic glass more quickly.

So where does this leave our clouds in Qatar? Although the opportunity to site in a destination with a naturally suitable climate is gone, there is still time to carefully consider how each decision from here on out will empty the environmental glass less quickly. Here is hoping heads come out of the clouds to focus less on the "amazingness" of what could become a potentially wasteful spectacle and more on what can be done to truly move closer to sustainability.

For more reading about FIFA and sustainable aspects of the World Cup event and bidding process visit:

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