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Re-Imagining Civilization as Ecological: Report on the “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization” Conference

The conference was highly anticipated. The invitation read:

Some 1,000 presenters from more than 30 countries and 80 fields of specialty and are coming together for the most ambitious trans-disciplinary event ever held on behalf of the planet: “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization.” June 4-7, 2015, Claremont, CA. The conference is for everyone who cares about the big ideas that matter for a thriving biosphere.

The conference organizers being highly optimistic hoped for 1,500 attendees, there were over 2,000. They anticipated 800 presenters in 80 different Tracks, there were over 900 in 85 Tracks. People came from all over the world, including more than 200 from the Peoples Republic of China.

This conference was of high importance for ecozoans. Thomas Berry gave us the Great Work of moving from the terminal Cenozoic era, to an emerging Ecozoic era—an age of mutually enhancing relations among humans and the larger community of life. He gave us guideposts, but no roadmap. I liken this to Martin Luther King, Jr., who said he had “been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land,” but the task of moving into that Promised Land was left to those who followed him. With respect to the single issue of racism, we are now seeing how difficult that really is. Big changes take a long time and progress for the moment gives way to setbacks and then re-engaging in new ways.

Berry said moving into the Ecozoic era was the most difficult and complex task ever offered to humankind. It was different from all other historic transitions because this time what was involved was not “merely” a disturbance in human affairs, but a disturbance in the functioning of the planet. For the first time in human history, humans were dealing with a change in geo-biological eras in the history of the planet Earth.

The only reference point we have for change of this magnitude is the great changes in civilization that occurred 10,000 years ago with the birth of Neolithic villages and agriculture, the birth of the classical civilizations which began some 3,000 years ago, the inception of the modern period some 500 years ago, and what is happening now, which pull in two ways, one to the technozoic and the other to the ecozoic.

There are various movements tending toward the ecozoic, movements to sustainable development, to environmentalism, to eco-communalism, and to the new sustainability paradigm. The new sustainability paradigm foresees that society remains complex with significant globalized elements, but is transformed by ecological awareness and sensitivity. For a discussion of this paradigm, see Paul Raskin et al., Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Boston, MA: Stockholm Environment Institute – Boston, 2002), available here. The Seizing an Alternative Conference in general would fall into the new sustainability paradigm—the distinctiveness of the conference being that it stressed the humanistic, or cultural, side of the Great Transition, and the work of the conference was re-thinking civilization.

I’ll cover the keynote speakers at the conference below. They were significant, but it cannot be emphasized enough that the Tracks were the heart of this conference. In a conference of four days—really three because the first day was only a single plenary—12 hours were given to the Track sessions (eight 90-minute sessions). The clear instruction to Track participants was to begin something, not end something at the conference.

As an example of how a Track was structured, the sessions of the Law Track were:

  1. Flight from Normative Concern and Its Consequences for the Study and Practice of Law
  2. Process Thought and Legal Theory
  3. The Rights of Nature
  4. How Protection of the Environment Requires Rethinking the Idea of Property
  5. Legal Pluralism in a Globalized World: Re-imagining Dispute Systems as Relational Worldmaking Practices
  6. Franklin I. Gamwell’s Process Political Theory and Constitutional Law
  7. Earth Jurisprudence
  8. “Seizing an Alternative” in Legal Theory and Legal Practice: Next steps?

There were 12 presenters in this Track and around 25 total participants including the presenters. AND THIS WAS JUST ONE OF 85 TRACKS! For a complete list of the Tracks click here.

Within the Berry community the conference had special significance. For the first time “Berry people,” Teilhardians, and Whiteheadians, came together in significant numbers to work on common projects. Their interests are aligned on a move to ecological civilization. Will ecological civilization continue to provide a common framework for the diverse groups of people who assembled in Claremont? The intent of the conference organizers was that work in the Tracks would continue after the conference and much would come out of the tracks in terms of publications and teaching.

Two organizations came into being with the purpose of taking the work of the conference forward. Pando Populus was brought into being as a co-sponsor of the conference and as an instrument for dissemination and continuation of the work of the conference. Its name came from the largest and oldest organism on the planet, “Pando.” Pando is an aspen tree in southern Utah that spreads over 100 acres and weighs some 13 million pounds. “Populus” is the genus for aspen. Above ground, Pando appears to be a vast grove of individual trees. Underground they are all interconnected through a single root system. Each part is affected by and nourishes the other. It has survived this way for as long as 80,000 years. The name signifies profound interconnectedness. It is a reminder of our remarkable ability to endure. And it embodies hope that we might rethink civilization in explicitly ecological, Pando-like terms.

Process Century Press was also brought into being in preparation for the conference. It is an academic press dedicated to transdisciplinary applications of process thought. The press will publish books emerging from the multiple Sections and Tracks of the conference, as well as other books that view scholarly issues and world concerns from a process perspective. A book that will soon be published by this press focuses on the Pope Frances’s recent encyclical, “Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home.”

The keynoters were noteworthy each contributing to the conference—Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, Sheri Lao, John Cobb, Herman Daly, Wes Jackson, and David Ray Griffin. Many were responsive to the urgent messages of McKibben and Shiva. People were fascinated by the work of Wes Jackson on perennial wheat and how one could contribute to changing the very nature of agriculture if one devoted one’s life to it. Sheri Lao who works with dozens of eco-villages in rural China was a living demonstration of hope. John Cobb and Herman Daly, who co-authored For the Common Good in 1989 (perhaps, along with Thomas Berry’s Dream of the Earth, published in 1988, the seminal works behind this conference) spoke gravely about our present situation and the work ahead.

John Cobb the originator and architect of the conference deserves special mention.

Some of the other notables presenting in the Tracks of  the conference were Rosemary Radford Reuther—What is Civilization and What Are its Consequences for Human Relations to the Rest of the Natural World?; Mark Analeski, Joshua Farley, David Korten—Ecological Economics; Stuart Kauffman–Systems Theory, Complexity Theory, and Radical Emergence; Brian Swimme, Becca Tarnas, Richard Tarnas—Late Modernity and Its Re-Imaging; Larry Rasmussen—Eco-Feminism; Ellen Brown—Political Collapse; Fubin Yang—Birth Pangs of Ecological civilization; Sally Bingham, Fletcher Harper-Reimagining and Mobilizing Religious Traditions in Response to the Eco-Crisis; Michael Lerner—The Jewish Contribution to Ecological Civilization; Stanislov Grof, John Grimm, Robert McDermott—Extraordinary Challenges to the Modern Paradigm; Mary Evelyn Tucker, Richard Norgaard, Carl Anthony, Paloma Pavel—Journey of the Universe and inclusive History as a Context of Meaning; Tripp Fuller, Brian McLaren—A New Way for a New Day; Spyridon Koutroufinis, Terrence Deacon—Unprecedented Evolution: Human Continuities and Discontinuities with Animal Life; Laura Underkuffler, Mary Christina Wood—Law, Legal Theory and Law Practice . . . and these are just a few taken from the 64-page conference program.

In addition, a large number of people from the Whiteheadian community around the world, young and old, well-known and not so well known, published and unpublished, students, professors, various other professions and endeavors were also present.

I feel that the conference was so significant that it should be known as “THE GREAT CONFERENCE AT CLAREMONT” or simply “The Great Conference.”

Never before has such an assemblage been held. As a single event it was highly successful. What the ultimate meaning of the conference will be will depend on whether efforts continue from the conference. There are many people who are carrying forward the work of the conference and CES is highly involved.