Commons conference opening session – and the ‘cocktail squeeze’

– a socio-ecological conference icebreaker experiment?

The XVII IASC Biennial Global Commons Conference opened at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP) in Lima with a series of presentations, from Efraín Gonzales de Olarte (Rector, PUCP), Patricia Ruiz Bravo (Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, PUCP), the IASC president Marco Janssen, and the conference organisers, Juan Camilo Cárdenas (Universidad de los Andes in Colombia) and Deborah Delgado Pugley (PUCP, Peru); along with music and the Peruvian national anthem.  The hall was packed and noisy as the conference delegates from more than 50 countries greeted friends and renewed old acquaintances.  Professor Juan Camilo Cárdenas set the tone for the conference by highlighting the importance of these global events that bring people together, identifying the need to go beyond disciplinary boundaries in order to solve the commons problems that face us today, and recommending that delegates “mix it up, get uncomfortable in your panel sessions, reach out and hear different voices”.  Good advice for the 500 delegates attending the conference from different cultures, different countries and different academic disciplines, and seeking innovative solutions to seemingly interactable problems.

Conference delegates waiting for the opening ceremony to start

That evening the first Conference Plenary was held at the Lugar De La Memoria, La Tolerancia Y La Inclusión Social (LUM).  The LUM was created by the Peruvian government to provide a space for learning and commemorating the impact of the terrorist violence that occurred during the period 1980-2000 in Peru.  The keynote speaker at the event, Fiorenza Micheli (Stanford University, USA), gave a presentation on ‘Social-ecological vulnerability and adaptation to a changing ocean’, exploring the importance and socio-ecological vulnerability of small-scale fisheries operating under conditions where multiple factors are stressing the system.  An important message was the significance of overarching narratives influencing our attempts to manage large-scale resources such as the world’s oceans.  Professor Micheli noted that the narrative we tell ourselves has shifted from the notion that oceans are ecological systems that are ‘too big to fail’ (i.e. they are so massive we cannot damage them) to the current narrative where the view is that the oceans are ‘too big to fix’ (the problems are so large we do not have the capacity to deal with them), which now needs to be altered to a narrative that says the world’s oceans are ‘too big to neglect’.  In other words – they are so important to life on the planet that we must find a way to solve the problems we have created.  An excellent start to a conference dealing with issues surrounding ‘defence’ of the commons and power inequalities that often seem overwhelming, making many problems appear ‘too big to fix’.

After the keynote lecture the delegates moved into the entrance area for cocktails and snacks.  Due to the winter weather it was dark, cool, and drizzling, meaning that we crowded into a much smaller space than anticipated, under the roofed area, in order to stay dry.  This created an interesting opportunity for exploring socio-ecological interaction under conditions of congestion, and in particular, what happens when you try to fit 500 conference delegates into an area that might comfortably accommodate only one fifth of that number, and then provide a single source of food and drink?  Make sure they are also hungry and thirsty and you start to mimic a micro-ecosystem such as might be found around a water-hole in the dry-lands of Africa; it’s a socio-ecological system (an ‘SES’), in action.

Any large and hungry animal population will quickly identify the main source of sustenance – in this case a counter on one side of the meeting space piled high with drinks, and from behind the counter a kitchen from which food was beginning to emanate.  The conference delegates – as they do everywhere – homed in on it, creating a wall of bodies around the counter and blocking those behind from reaching it.  In theory, all delegates (having paid to attend) had equal rights of access to the resource, but in practice those who got their first were not going to give up their prime positions.  The resulting congestion created a classic case of sub-optimal utilisation of a common pool resource (subtractable, difficult to exclude) where no clear rules are operating to manage access.  We were certainly following Professor Cardenas’ opening advice – ‘to get uncomfortable, mixed-up, and close to each other’.  We were so close we could not help but start conversations, and meet people we would not otherwise have engaged with – it was a great icebreaker event for a conference where a lot of the delegates had not previously met each other, and in a very short time we got to know a lot of people very well.

Food started to come out of the kitchen on trays; tempting morsels of fish, potatoes in sauce, shrimp, and other local delicacies.  The waiters carrying the trays struggled to get through the mass of bodies and at first did not get more than a few feet from the counter before their trays were empty.  Those at the front were getting food and were thus reluctant to vacate their positions, the rest of us at the back were going hungry.  The waiters changed tactics to try and get the food out to the wider mass of delegates spread out across the meeting space, they started carrying the trays on outstretched arms above their heads.  However, the average Peruvian is shorter (average male height 164 cm), than the average conference delegate from some other countries and as they moved through the crowd the taller delegates reached up and picked the morsels of food from the trays, in some cases handing it down to those smaller individuals who were standing next to them.  As the waiters could not move very quickly through the crowd it meant that most of the food had been skimmed off the trays by the time they reached the periphery of the throng.  It was interesting to see the top (tallest in this case) predators sharing food with their shorter co-delegates.  Was this altruism at work we wondered, or the first attempts at building resilient support networks in a new environment (this was the first day of the conference).  Unfortunately, we had no time to test this theory as a waiter suddenly broke through to our quadrant with a tray almost half full of food, and we all had to dive in on it in order to get something to eat.  There was insufficient time to both monitor the processes at work and eat.

The socio-ecological activities at work reminded me of a recent trip to Skomer island off the south coast of Wales.  From a small boat in the sea we had watched Puffins returning from fishing trips, their beaks full of small fish and sand eels.  They made a direct line for their burrows on the slopes above the clifftops, but lying in wait in front of the cliffs were flocks of gulls who would swoop down on the Puffins forcing them to drop their catch into the water and the gulls would then dive down and fight over it.  Some Puffins made it through the blockade, but others were so heavily attacked they either had to disgorge their catch or be killed.  Both Puffins and gulls have evolved strategies for getting food, but whether the ecosystem is in balance is not so easy to ascertain at first glance; it depends on many factors requiring long-term observation, and deep understanding of the processes at work.

Seagulls waiting to attack Puffins returning from fishing trips, Skomer Island, Wales.

The pressure gradually eased as people started to spread out a bit more and we were left asking ourselves, ‘is this one of the Professor’s famous field experiments?’  If it was it worked well, we got mixed up, we got close to each other, we stepped outside of our comfort zones, and in the end we all got some sustenance, intellectual, social, and digestible.  If it was unintended then it was a valuable additional outcome that got us thinking about the operation of large-scale social-ecological systems as commons under pressure.  This initial conference plenary event was held at a fantastic location, perched on the cliffs above the Pacific, the perfect place for a keynote speech on the state of the world’s oceans, and for a social event on a conference focusing on ‘Defense of the Commons: Challenges, Innovation, and Action’.  After a couple of hours the crowd thinned and we headed back towards the buses, which would disperse us around the hotels and restaurants of Miraflores and Barranco, where the competition for food and drink would (hopefully) be less intense.

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