Dress to Impress, Live by Example

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Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute

UN summits are funny things. One of the more unusual things I noticed is the way people are dressed. Rio de Janiero at this time of the year is often in the mid-twenties and quite humid - just last tuesday it was 32 degrees. Yet, the dress code for the conference is overwhelmingly suit-and-tie. The organizers of the summit weren't ignorant of this and ensured that the shuttle buses that transport participants to and from the conference center, as well as the conference center itself, are fully air conditioned.

First, I find it strange that participants at this conference still feel compelled to dress so formally in order to be taken seriously. With these old-world strict heirarchical thought patterns in place, it's a small miracle that diplomats at these conferences don't still wear top hats. I was also not immune to this, although while I did wear a suit and tie to RioCentro to moderate a side event, I tried to be a little more colourful in my choice of tie. But I'm not a world 'leader', and until they dress differently, I am bound by social convention to follow their lead.

Secondly, am I really the only person who finds it deeply ironic that at a sustainability conference, where our ability to adapt to climate change is much discussed, we don't adapt to the climate of the host city, but instead go to a lot of trouble to change the climate of the conference center? It was strange enough that there was only one vegetarian caterer at the food court (and I wasn't the only person to notice this strangeness), but the concept of going to all the trouble of air conditioning a very large conference center rather than simply emailing everyone to tell them to wear short-sleeved shirts just seems absurd.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, the practical matter of air conditioning such a large space as the conference center takes up a lot of energy. Indeed, in the grassy area surrounding the RioCentro complex, there are rows of air conditioning units the size of shipping containers. Next to these are special power supply units which I imagine are some kind of transformer, as well as backup generators to kick-in in the event of a brownout (which I hear happens from time to time). As if it wasn't bad enough that all the conference participants blew their carbon budget for the year by flying to Brazil, they also get to feel guilty about working in a heavily air conditioned space (of course, wearing a suit makes it almost impossible to actually work in 30-degree humid heat without air conditioning).

Perhaps this is all symptomatic of a wider problem. That we seem to be so unwilling to change ourselves and our own habits, but insist on carrying on with 'business as usual' with little or no regard for the consequences. When talking of the entire human population, they can almost be excused since there are 7 billion of them and one imagines that there would be some time-lag in getting the info out there, and that there would be some momentum in getting them to change their behaviour. However, the conference participants, ostensibly the world's foremost authorities on sustainability, really should know better.

Bill Clinton once said 'people the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example, than the example of our power'. The conference participants would do well to live by this, and to lead by example, as there is little chance that the world will take us seriously if we don't live by the values we espouse, regardless of whether or not we are dressed in a suit and tie.

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