“My eyes got as big as saucers and I said: that’s it!” Dr Martí Boada, eminent naturalist who has been a pioneer in environmental research and awareness for more than 40 years, told me how his point of view on the relationship between industry and the environment changed in 1996. He was in Montreal, Canada, for the World Conservation Congress held every 4 years by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, bringing together 4,000 experts in managing natural resources (and was held in Barcelona in 2008). “I was surprised,” Boada recognised, “that the keynote speaker was an industrialist from Silicon Valley, not a scientist. I was impressed. He gave an incredible speech explaining that an industrialist that pollutes is not only lacking in solidarity but also a bad industrialist, because they are wasting resources.” “An industrialist who pollutes moves away from competitive production, which is clean production.”
Huge windows filter light the colour of firewater on a cold, rainy morning in February. Dr Boada puts on a jacket as he leaves his office: “I’ve worked everywhere from Antarctica to the desert in Chihuahua but now I’m cold… with age, the body changes.” “There is a Catalan industrialist I admire and have known for years: Miquel Torres, a world-renowned winemaker, whose vineyards in California and Chile I’ve visited. Recently, chatting after a meal together, he told me, ‘I’ve converted to serious environmentalism and sustainability, not because of any complex economic formula or intellectual attitude shift, but simply thinking of my grandchildren.’“. Dr Boada tells this story parsimoniously, somewhat hunched over, perhaps because of the morning’s bitter cold. “I mean, for a competitive industrialist to explain his conversion based not on immediacy but on his grandchildren’s future, I find it to be amazingly beautiful.”
“I think the Catalan industrial sector, like my own area of science, can apply Bacon’s principle to its growth: meaning growth through a critical view and a self-critical view. An industrialist who is stuck in a nostalgic past or non-responsible ways of interacting with their surroundings isn’t going anywhere. Competitive companies are part of the discourse for sustainability because they’ve understood it and, even, from a market standpoint, make it credible.” “We’re experiencing an unprecedented environmental crisis. There’s a background noise, an unease that concerns all of humanity.”
THE UNEASE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
We met with Dr Boada at the headquarters of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, on the UAB campus. It is an emblematic building, certified as the most sustainable building for academic use on the planet. It runs on geothermal power and applies the principals of air circulation. Martí Boada returned to Catalonia just a few weeks ago, after acting as an advisor to the latest Unesco Assembly held in November and December 2017: “Representatives from more than 140 countries at the Assembly all agreed that the only serious solution to the great environmental problems we are facing is the three P’s model: public-private partnership. Beyond the scope of public policy, the future lies in important alliances for Corporate Social Responsibility and, above all, finding formulas to get private capital involved in public funding. This is clear, there was total consensus.”
At school, we can talk about Medieval poets and atomic theory, but not businesspeople! This is something that, frankly, surprises me, because it’s highly anomalous. Someone isn’t explaining it right.
And with this feeling, I ask him whether this view of public-private partnership is as clear in the many sectors of Catalan society. The answer surprises me and doesn’t: “When we talk about the business world, I can see it. There’s a large part of the academic world and part of civil society that is very reticent. There is hostility towards the term businessperson that I, as someone not at all suspect of having any sort of personal interest, find disproportionate. I remember three or four years ago, the Catalan Minister of Education, Irene Rigau, tried to put the concept of entrepreneurs on the curriculum and the faculty wouldn’t have it! We can talk about Medieval poets and atomic theory, but not businesspeople! This is something that, frankly, surprises me, because it’s highly anomalous. Someone isn’t explaining it right“.
ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES AND THE ERROR OF FATALISTIC COMMUNICATION
In the early 1960s, the dye industry dumping waste in Tordera led Boada to a personal commitment to the environment of his childhood and, by extension, to the environment everywhere for his future. He was a pioneer who, more than half a century later, still carries that first ember deep inside that sparked his vocation. “In the beginning, like good little kids, we were excited when the river ran red one day and dark another from the dye industry dumping, but then we saw the plants dying in our parents’ gardens and the fields and the fish floating belly up, and the last otter… I said to myself that I would fight to change things, with a sense of ethics and commitment to a world that we didn’t know the direction of and which didn’t yet contain well-structured discourses or analyses“.
Dr Boada has been a key figure in environmental research and, also with deep conviction, raising awareness, not only in our country. I, as one of the thousands of schoolchildren who at some point heard Dr Boada speak, can highlight his desire to raise awareness and I sense a regret I know he has: the fatalistic way the media and certain sectors of society speak about large-scale environmental issues. He jumps in: “Therein lies the principle of Paul Ehrlich, one of the most significant scientists on the planet, who spoke of “the rebound effect”: When someone from the scientific arena, in conveying information, frightens the public, which activates a defence mechanism that is to turn away from the issue. Meaning, alarmist communication has no effect. The only good way to affect the public is through knowledge, never alarm. We speak to children and adults about the destruction of the planet and that, in terms of communication, is an atrocity. The antidote is to move beyond stereotypes and put knowledge in their place. Science has to move out of elitism, papers and learn how to make the knowledge accessible to everyone“. And Dr Boada has shared a lot of knowledge.
Dr Boada was born in Sant Celoni and has lived there much of his life. Now he’s moved up the Montseny mountain a bit and lives in Campins. He has a PhD in Environmental Science, graduate and undergraduate degrees in Geography from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). He also has an undergraduate degree in Catalan Studies from the University of Perpignan. He studied Sociology at the Catholic Institute of Social Studies in Barcelona (ICESB) and Chemistry at the Industrial School of Barcelona. He is currently a full professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, where he teaches and does research at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) and the Department of Geography at the same university. He is head of the ICTA research group Conservation, Biodiversity and Global Change (Nycticorax). Boada won the UN Global 500 award in 1995, a sort of Nobel Prize for environmental sciences.
THE MONSENY AS A SENTINEL
Boada’s personal and scientific life has been grafted with a plant-like naturalness onto the Montseny Natural Park, this Biosphere Reserve on our front doorstep. Or surrounding home, in his case. “Montseny is what has been called a sort of sentinel, like the dogs Welsh miners had, or the Canaries, for going down in the mine. Montseny doesn’t only give us local information, it can be extrapolated. To get an idea, it has 1,600 superior plant species while there are only 1,200 in all of England. It has elements you would find in Scandinavia, Eurosiberian elements you’d find in Czechia or Poland and Mediterranean elements. These elements are highly sensitive to any sort of temperature change. For example, the beechwood forests undergo significant water stress and as the average temperature rises, the beech trees have moved further up… It’s like a barometer”.
And what does this barometer say today? “That the Mediterranean forests are further up, oak groves are moving higher and displacing the beechwood, which is the Eurosiberian landscape. At the same time, the beechwood forest is displacing more subalpine landscapes. There has been a significant change in the landscape, but I’m not so concerned about whether or not the beechwood is disappearing. I’m concerned because it indicates a change we know is happening (they’re moving to higher altitudes) but don’t know when will stop. This is the most important problem currently facing humanity: climate change”. And we’re seeing it happen in Montseny, this great global indicator.