Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Empathy as a link between Tourism and Regenerative Development

This intervention was made at Remote Latin America held at Las Catalinas, Guanacaste, Costa Rica, from November 5-9, 2018. 

This is the world we live in today: We are more than 7.5 billion people and growing at a fast pace. Together we are consuming 50% more natural resources than what planet Earth can naturally regenerate. Carbon Dioxide levels have far exceeded what had been the long term average on Earth for approximately 4 million years. Hominids very similar to us started existing some 2 million years ago, so as a species we have never been here before. Exponential degradation also includes tropical forest loss, ocean acidification, marine fish capture, fertilizer consumption, water use and international tourism, including demographic growth and CO2 emissions. 

Every single industrial input necessary for work to be transformed into value of some sort comes from nature. This means that the economy depends on the ecology and not the other way around. So if we want to fix what is wrong with the world and at the same time improve our chances to flourish as a species, as a civilization, as a nation, as a community, as a corporation, as a family, as individuals, we need to figure out a way to regenerate degraded ecosystems, in part by reducing our voracious rate of consumption of natural resources, in part by transitioning from a linear way of production to a circular one, and in part by recovering lost land, habitats, biodiversity, that have been depleted. 

I am here to talk about empathy, which I believe is one of the two key elements that can and will help us move from where we are to where we want to be as the most intelligent form of life. My favorite definition of conflict is a very simple one: an incompatibility of goals. Using this definition I would say that our rate of consumption of natural resources is incompatible with the planet’s ability to sustain human life as we know it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said two weeks ago that if we don’t revert degrading trends in 12 years, catastrophic consequences may be inevitable and unstoppable. 

My favorite definition of peace is also quite simple: the ability to transform conflict empathically and creatively. This would mean that, in order to solve a conflict and achieve peace among the parties we must try to solve the problem for ourselves and also for the other; in other words, to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You probably know the story of the two sisters that were at the kitchen and each one needed an orange to prepare a recipe that included one orange and there was only one orange left. So they started disputing and arguing over the orange to the point of physically struggling for the orange. The mother heard the yelling and came to the kitchen to see what was going on. When the sisters told her that they both needed the orange the mother asked them what they needed it for. One of them was going to make a salad dressing and needed the juice of the orange while the other was going to bake a cake and needed the orange peeling. Immediately, they both realized that they could actually share the orange and prepare both dishes; in other words, no incompatibility. This was only possible thanks to the mother’s facilitation and to the fact that the two conflicting parties were able to see the solution for the other’s problem. That is empathy.

There was once a man that got on the metro on a Sunday evening, not many people on board, with his three children. Almost immediately, the kids started playing around and making a lot noise, visibly disturbing the few passengers that were sitting nearby while the father seemed to not even pay attention to them. The disturbance got to a point that one of the passengers approached the father to ask him if he was going to do something about his children’s mess and the father responded to the man: “my wife just passed away and we are coming back from the hospital. I still don’t know how to explain this situation to them.” Of course, the man and everyone else listening to the conversation immediately developed a sense of compassion, understanding, kindness for the father. That is empathy. 

You may be asking yourselves now what is empathy good for? Regeneration requires, above all, innovation to create something that does not exist. Innovation requires constraints. We cannot simply invent a new solution that is going to make an old problem worse. Constraints are limits within which we must imagine and visualize prosperity. For example, how can we feed 8 billion people without using fertilizers, using 100 times less water, 100 times less land, and reducing our carbon emissions to pre-industrial levels? Empathy can be used as a additional constraint: how can we create a prosperous world where we solve the problems to one billion people worldwide without access to electricity; two billion people without access to drinkable water; three billion people without access to three meals per day; and four billion people without access to the Internet. Are we thinking about them?

I propose that we all aspire to become billionaires. A billionaire is someone that can solve problems for a billion people. For example, we are reaching a billion tourist arrivals a year in the world. What do tourists want? You know this better than me. But from my past 16 years living in five different countries in four different continents, I would say that tourists want unique experiences, ethical fulfillment, exposure to exotic settings, and perhaps a confirmation of something deeply engrained in our humanity that we are constantly seeking and trying to figure out: that similarities unite and differences enrich. Before I was a government official I was an international volunteer for ten years and our mantra working across cultures was precisely this one: similarities unite; differences enrich. When this becomes a part of your set of available attitudes to choose from, then every interaction you have with another person or with a situation you quickly and easily can tell the commonality with your human nature and your culture and your interests, and also tell the differences, because real value comes from diversity. The regeneration the planet needs requires that artists and scientists and bankers and doctors and business people and teachers and children have more interaction among themselves exchanging points of view, ideas, and most importantly, develop empathy. 

If we want to mitigate the ecological footprint we are having on the planet we will have to think creatively and empathically about other forms of life. Yes, we know we must plant trees because they absorb CO2 from the air, produce oxygen, create shade preventing sun rays to hit the soil, preserve water and release water vapor, and are the habitat for hundreds of other species of plants, animals and fungi. But the ultimate frontier of regeneration is agriculture, the way we produce the food we consume. Regeneration implies to transition CO2 from the atmosphere and move into the soil, making it more fertile. The key to this regeneration does not lie as much on transitioning to solar electricity or electric vehicles as on transitioning to current agricultural practices to agroecology, which is the study of the relation between agricultural practices and the environment according to the OECD. This could push us very quickly towards regeneration of ecosystems, reducing the negative impact on our ecosystems and working towards provoking positive impacts in nature. For example, does any of you have any idea what happens to the residue of our shampoo or out toothpaste after we use it? To put it simply: does anyone know which species in nature feeds on used shampoo or toothpaste? Or to turn the question around putting ourselves in the shoes of other species in our ecosystem: could we invent cosmetics and health products that actually have a nurturing impact in nature?

How can we regenerate tourism? Can we visit a place without physically going to it? One option is virtual tourism. I already took a virtual tour at a museum in Sardinia, Italy. You may think it is not cool or boring, but I actually visited for 5-10 minutes how the ancient tribes of that island used to live 1500 years ago and I can tell you it was amazing. I want to see dinosaurs walking along the Grand Canyon and millions of turtles occupying beaches along the Eastern Australian coast. Did you know that it has been recently measured that neural activity of football fans celebrating a goal of their team is exactly the same as of the players actually celebrating the goal on the pitch? Talk about empathy! Can we take experiences to the people without them having to come to us? Can we take exotic destinations to them? What impact do we want to have in the world? Could we create a community of enthusiasts and amateur enthusiasts that will allow others to enjoy what they enjoyed at our hotels and destinations? A hashtag creates a community, unites us, and develops empathy. 

Since I am speaking about technology, I wish to raise awareness about a particular issue that is already affecting the world and will accelerate its impact on everything we do. I refer to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is conceived as the industrial evolution towards the sphere of artificial intelligence where data is the new raw material. We are all generating enormous amounts of data even if we do not intend to. The Internet of Things implies that nearly 30 billion devices today are connected and sending signals through the Internet. In ten years from now this figure will likely quadruple. This means we are leaving a digital trace that many companies are using to learn more about you as a consumer and better target digital solutions for you. Could you think of ways in which you could target better solutions for your customers? This is the mindset required today in your industry to position yourselves on the crest of the wave that is forming through technology. 

I would like to finish this intervention on a personal note. My grandmother, whose name is Esperanza, and for those non-Spanish speakers it means “hope”, is 103 years old. My younger daughter Inga is 18 months old. If Inga has my grandmother’s genes, she will be 103 in the year 2120. Empathy helps me understand that I am the link between the early XX Century when my grandmother was born, and the early XXII Century where my daughter will live her last years of life, and most likely my own grandchildren will grow and thrive. So it is up to me, right here and now, to do all I can to ensure that they will have the best quality of life that their natural surroundings will have to offer, just like we must do the best we can with what my grandmother and her generation have inherited upon us from their time on this Earth. Because, if not us, then who? And if not now, then when?

Thank you.