Swag, Spectacle, & Shame at COP21

From the moment you enter, it’s hard to overlook the material excess of COP21. A series of immense, COP21-dedicated hangars — the interiors of each decorated in a style that can only be described as “IKEA does Epcot” — loom over a main thoroughfare. Inside, the countries’ pavilions occasionally border on the absurd; it is difficult, for instance, to make a case for the Indian pavilion’s massive, word-illustrating fountain, no matter how many pro-climate messages it spouts.

The immoderation on display becomes even harder to ignore when you pass the dozens — hundreds? — of more-or-less interchangeable NGO stations, each adorned with a small mountain range of documents and publications for passersby to take. Someone told me that COP21 was paper-free. That person was a liar, and “paper-free” is an inaccuracy so staggering it would make climate change deniers blush.

As an attendee, you become complicit in the materialism almost immediately: every badge-holder is greeted with an official COP21 gift bag. To their credit, this contains mostly useful objects — writing utensils, a water bottle, and so forth. But then the venue’s “reuseable” coffee cups — offered in a host of sleek, COP21-themed designs — begin to disappear. Some simply end up in recycling bins.

Most find their way into attendees’ newly-issued bags.

This is how it begins.

Despite my ostensible environmentalism, I find my eyes wandering in that most illicit of ways. One more poster couldn’t hurt, I tell myself. And I could always use another pen. After all, I’ve been working so very hard to save the planet. After a few days, my colleagues begin to put in orders with me: want a COP21 cup with a specific design? You got it. Need some stickers? A button? I’m your guy. Slowly but surely, my official COP21 bag begins to strain under the weight of environmental swag. “I used to be a sweater!” the text on the front of my bag happily proclaims. “Only God can forgive me now,” I tell the bag. As I lie down for my four hours of sleep, I ponder what I have become.

Any mail sent on-site is adorned with an exclusive COP21 stamp and postmark (a must-have for the true COP21 swag completionist). I soon realize that a single, tiny shop stationed in the middle of the thoroughfare holds a complete monopoly on postcard sales within the venue. Each day, I witness the Shop’s owner reclined in his chair, smugly surveying his kingdom. Everyone — party members, NGOs, and academics alike — makes their pilgrimage to the Shop. (By the end of the COP, only the dregs of the Parisian postcard design scene remain.) As I procure my own postcards, I realize that I am a mere pawn to this titan of COP21’s materialist underworld. My empire is but dust.

Eventually, the COP comes to a close. The Shop is dismantled, I board my plane with a shamefully overstuffed suitcase, and — most importantly, of course — the world emerges with an ambitious and far-reaching climate deal delivered by champions of restraint and sustainability. Still, musing on the culture of the thing, I find myself thinking back to one moment in particular — a high-level official, power-walking down the hall in intense conversation, turns quickly to me and gasps.

“Oh my god!” she says. “Where did you get that calendar?

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