Malcom Gladwell at Water Conference: Solving the Crisis Requires Bravery and Urgent Drive To Make Changes

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With the security of our global water supply threatened in the face of climate change and increasing demand, finding solutions requires the type of risk-taking, urgent action, and networking required to cure diseases and start the digital revolution. This was one of the messages at the opening session of GU-Q’s “Sustaining the Oasis: Envisioning the Future of Water Security” conference. It is the first-of-its-kind collaboration between GU-Q and the Earth Commons Institute at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

In his opening keynote, Malcolm Gladwell, author of six New York Times bestsellers including The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people and Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers, argued that the kind of social risk-taking and the sense of urgency that led to breakthroughs for treating childhood leukemia and the personal computer revolution can be a model for approaching climate change and water security. 

“Scientists working on leukemia in the 1960s thought it was an ordinary problem and that it wasn’t necessary to be in a hurry or turn their backs on what their peers think,” he explained, going on to make the connection with environmental crises today.

Solving Climate Crisis Requires New Mindset

“When you hear [the Amazon] is 20% deforested, you think we have a lot of time and it’s still in the early stages. But when you understand that 40% deforestation is where it collapses, you realize you don’t have a lot of time at all,” he said, adding, “I think a lot of climate denial is people struggling to adjust to this kind of non-intuitive timeline.”

Tipping points are profoundly counterintuitive, he argued. “There’s a tipping point in Amazon deforestation, which we are perilously close to, where the ecosystem in the Amazon will change very quickly from a rainforest to a kind of savannah with devastating consequences for the planet…It’s not a normal problem. It’s something that’s going to change overnight and we can’t approach it with that same mindset if we expect to have any kind of positive outcome.”

The dean of GU-Q, Dr. Safwan Masri, led an engaging conversation with Gladwell following the keynote, where he noted: “Water security can never be taken for granted. The World Health Organization reports that one in three people globally does not have access to safe drinking water,” pointing out the importance of conferences such as this one in calling attention to these issues and sharing positive developments.

Gladwell agreed, adding “The persistence of skepticism about some of these issues suggests there’s something very wrong in the way we are framing them for the public and also our policymakers… We might need to spend more time thinking about the context in which we educate people.”

The “Sustaining the Oasis” two-day conference brings together academics, stakeholders, and expert speakers to discuss water security and sustainability, including water stewardship and its role in regional stability amid climate change while exploring a comprehensive future vision for water security including insight from educators on how to raise greater awareness about challenges and solutions. Among the other planned outcomes, the high-level findings from the conference will be shared with the COP28 Presidency to inform discussions and negotiations around water.

Regionally-Relevant Water Solutions

Regionally-relevant insights are a unique contribution of the conference. In her remarks, Dr. Raha Hakimdavar, conference co-organizer and Senior Advisor to the Dean of GU-Q and the Dean of the Earth Commons Institute, said:

Importance of Education

Dean of Earth Commons, Dr. Peter Marra referred to the transformative power of education, and the need for transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary environmental degrees, experiential learning, and research-informed teaching and learning opportunities.  

“That’s what we’re doing at the Earth Commons through courses, research programs, and degrees, but also informally in venues like this, where we’re bringing people together in a region to talk, to have conversations about issues as important as sustaining the oasis. So we’re not just doing this across schools, across disciplines, we’re doing it across campuses and this is powerful.” 

The conference is open to the public as it continues through November 12. The program on the second day will include high-level panels discussing “COP28 and the Water Agenda,” the “Water-Food Nexus: The Geopolitics of Food Security in the Gulf,” and “The Role of Gulf Countries in Defining a Water Secure World,” as well as round table discussions on key themes. Live Arabic translation is available for the panels.

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