Are You Prepared for Transition Time?

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Our industry is in the midst of some wrenching changes, but a much deeper transition is just over the horizon.

You could be forgiven for thinking the economic crash was bad enough. The next big shift will affect the way we grow our food, manage our buildings, and transport ourselves and the products we use every day. We’ve reached the end of cheap oil, and the effects were captured in this short video, aired at Meeting Professional International’s 2009 World Education Conference by panelists Elizabeth Valestuk Henderson and Fiona Pelham.

It’s rare for a two-minute video—a two-minute cartoon, no less—to tell a story that adds up to life, the universe, and everything. To put yourself or your business in the picture, think of the driver at the bottom of the hill and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How did I get to work today? (If you work from home, how did you get to your last client meeting?)
  • How far did my breakfast travel to get to my plate?
  • Where will my next three meetings be held? How are those facilities heated and cooled? Where do they get their power?
  • How many participants will fly to and from those meetings? If they’re traveling regionally, can they find high-speed rail—or any reliable rail at all?

If you can answer those questions, you’re probably already thinking about “peak oil.” If you don’t know the answers, that’s part of the problem, but you’re not to blame. One of our industry’s enduring weaknesses is its reliance on an absolutely essential product that is invisible to the majority of planners and suppliers.

Which is why Henderson and Pelham have done us such a great service by introducing the words “peak oil” to the industry dialogue. They used the video to open a session that applied the work of the Transition Towns movement to the global meetings industry.

“In a real Transition Town, the process takes about a year,” Henderson said of developing community projects to lower energy use. “Fiona and I analyzed the process, adapted it to our industry, and condensed it to 90 minutes.” But the session was still unusual and eye-opening for many participants, giving them a sense of what external factors (such as a peak oil scenario) may influence the success of our industry in the future.

The group came up with some great ideas for reducing the industry’s carbon footprint and its reliance on peak oil:

  • Buying food and beverage locally, relying on community farms, and reducing portion sizes;
  • keeping temperatures moderate at venues, while setting standards for lighting and air conditioning;
  • recycling and reusing exhibition materials, or shifting to electronic handouts; and
  • emphasizing regional and co-located meetings to reduce air travel.

Henderson, an independent consultant in corporate social responsibility who works half-time as MPI’s CSR director, said the session left participants with a sense of hope. “The industry can learn that our members are not afraid to take a look at what the future holds, and can understand and debate implications of big external trends, like peak oil,” she said. “While we still need to understand contracts, Excel, and public speaking, we also need to understand the strategic implications of our work.”

There are still people in our industry who think climate change is a mirage (it’s not), that oil prices are driven by Wall Street speculators (not the whole story), and that drilling for more oil will sustain a habit that is far out of control (it won’t … not nearly). Initiatives like Transition Towns and industry consultants like Henderson and Pelham can help industry make a smoother shift to sustainability.

As our friend in the video found out, to his chagrin, the transition is coming, whether we’re watching or not.

Mitchell Beer, CMM is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.

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