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Can less be more and small be beautiful?

By Najib Saab, issue 145, April 2010.

In 1866 Daniel Bliss founded an independent college for higher education, at a small house in Ras Beirut, which accommodated 16 students. This was the first building block of the American University in Beirut (AUB) which became the leading educational institution in the Arab world. AUB is still flourishing after a century and a half, during which time thousands of leaders in all fields passed through its doors.

In 1905 Beirut's Ottoman ruler Khalil Pasha established a vocational school located in what is currently known as the Sanayeh area, only hundreds of meters away from the Bliss college. The school was opened in a glamorous ceremony attended by the elite figures of Beirut; 100 years later what remains is the dilapidated historical building.

Daniel Bliss is said to have been told at the time that Khalil Pasha was inaugurating a new school, in a compound bigger than what Bliss had slowly erected block by block over 40 years. Bliss commented that in the Near East ideas start big before they get smaller and fade away, while his principle was to start small and modest, then grow and sustain. In the same context, professor of Arabic literature at AUB, the late poet Khalil Hawi, raised in an interview that I conducted with him in 1974 for the university magazine a question that I used as a title for the article: "Is Arab civilization composed of outbursts followed by subsidence?"

Those reflections flashed back when last week I received an invitation to attend an environmental event which was described by the organizers as "the first conference" about the theme. During the same week, I happened to attend the launching ceremony of an environmental report that was also called "the first," while it actually did not add anything to a report about the same subject published two years earlier. Other manifestation of the show-off mentality is describing some conferences held in the Arab region as "international" just because of the presence of few obscure persons carrying foreign names, with no real credentials. We can also recall many initiatives and programs that were launched with "international" label, to be soon reduced to "regional" and "national," ending up as "local" before they completely vanish. Wasn't it more sensible to follow the Bliss example, by being modest and start with successful local and national programs that would expand to become international?

The fact is that the first conference often happens to be the last, due to the lack of clear vision, which goes beyond the opening ceremony and the public relations campaign. It would have been better to have the tenth rather than the first conference, in which the substantive results of the previous conferences would be announced and clear plans for the upcoming ones developed. It would also be good if we can invite to the conferences labeled "international" some of the most innovative leaders in their own areas from any part of the world, side by side with the most notable and successful figures in our countries. This would create a platform for the best minds to exchange ideas and build plans that open up the frontiers of the future, and not be limited to the fancy opening ceremonies and promotional press releases, quoting hollow statements by some "Lord Zinki" and "Sheikh Shamdas."

We can claim real accomplishment when we manage our resources wisely to achieve sustainable development, and build universities that can be proud with the contribution of their researchers, rather than with their fancy massive buildings. We should aspire to launch the best and most useful report instead of the "first report," and to build the most attractive and environmentally friendly building that contributes to a better quality of life, which is not necessarily the biggest.

Mies van der Rohe, the leading 20th century architect credited with creating superb structures employing simple design and construction tools, was known for his famous motto "less is more." Fritz Schumacher, the economist and father of the modern appropriate technology movement, created the axiom "small is beautiful." While we do not have to blindly adopt those ideals, we should realize that less might be more useful when resources are used in the right manner, and small might be more beautiful when it meets the purpose for which it has been created and enhances the quality of life.

The "first conference," the "first report" and the "biggest building," down to the "biggest tabbouleh and hummos" dishes, might secure a place in the Guinness Book of Records. However, those who consider such achievements as their sole contribution to the human race, might soon secure top locations in the book of records under the category of ignorance.

Arab Environment in 10 Years
ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
Environmental Agenda
Environment in Arab Media
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