There I was in Claremont, California – philosophers to the right of me, scientists to the left – attending Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization. The conference was the brain – and heart – child of John Cobb Jr., an American theologian, environmentalist, and pre-eminent scholar of process philosophy. At age 90, still going strong, teaching the world about ecological interdependence. His goal was to bring together 1,500 smart, creative people to foster the conditions and the networks for moving into new ways of living upon a warming planet. “What is called for,” he said, “is not miserable sacrifice, but joyful, responsible living.”
I was invited, along with a few other artists, to take the latest insights offered by science and philosophy, and to translate them into stories accessible to regular people like myself. My classroom began at home, plowing through the ideas presented in Systems Theory, Emergence, and Process Thought. I came away with these gems. One: everything in the Universe is made up of self-organizing systems, such as ant colonies, your body, the planet; and all these systems are connected.
Two: everything in the Universe is experiencing something, even stones – although their experience is somewhat limited, as far as we know. Three: Emergence is how life creates radical change. For example, water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom; when they do their cosmic dance they transform into something completely distinct from themselves, something greater than themselves, something surprising. Emergence also applies to human activity: when separate, local efforts create networks, and strengthen as communities of practice, a new, more complex – and perhaps surprising – system emerges. Think the Internet.
The symbol for the conference was Pando Populus, an aspen tree in southern Utah that spreads over 100 acres and weighs 13 million pounds. 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. Pando, a fitting symbol of our profound interconnectedness, is now threatened by deer. Overpopulated, because we have exterminated their predators, the deer are eating the young shoots.
The choice of sessions – more than 100 – was a bit overwhelming for a non-scientist, non-philosopher. They called them tracks because tracks are going somewhere. My somewhere, I decided, is to collaborate on a children’s play integrating these concepts – to take the Big Ideas and bring them down to Earth. Bill McKibben, the opening night keynote, a major player in the environmental movement, is responsible for encouraging colleges in the U. S. to divest from fossil fuel companies in their portfolios. Bill is a fighter, willing to be arrested for what he believes in. He emphasized that we’re “not here for an intellectual excursion… We need a World War Two style effort to deal with climate disruption.” I question whether my children’s play will be an adequate effort and travel to the next session.
“Seed is life,” said Vandana Shiva, at her powerful plenary presentation. “There is no separation between the rights of the Earth and the rights of humanity,” Vandana is an environmental crusader against Big Agriculture. She received a standing ovation as she told the audience we must “make peace with the Earth or we will have no future.” Perhaps a play for children will help them make peace with the Earth?
Wes Jackson, of the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, reminded us that “soil is more important than oil … and we are losing 1% of topsoil every year.” Wes has been living with prairie grasses for 50 years, watching carefully how nature grows crops, and transforming our current, inefficient methods of agriculture. Rather than annual monoculture crops of grain, he is developing polyculture, perennial grains that are resistant to pests, require less grunt work, and fewer inputs of fertilizers and water.
Somewhat exhausted from the heady philosophy sessions, I eventually found my way to The Contributions of Indigenous Wisdom track, to see what I could learn about indigenous ways of understanding our relationships to everything in the world. (More on that in my next column.)
Everyone I spoke to at the conference agreed that global warming is not a future possibility. It’s here. The oceans continue to rise and acidify, ice is melting, and droughts threaten our capacity to grow food. Climate change is the most pressing challenge facing humanity. It’s clear we are experiencing a global emergency. Yet the prevalent feeling was predominantly a positive one: Let’s not let a good emergency go without finding the blessing in it.
Pauline Le Bel is an award-winning novelist, Emmy-nominated screenwriter, and the author of Becoming Intimate with the Earth.