By Ruth Broyde Sharone
REPORT: "SEIZING AN ALTERNATIVE"
We come to the realization that the most important factor that every human being needs to live and flourish is a breath of air, a drink of water, food and the energy from photosynthesis. Without those elements, we die . . . So our healthy future depends on protecting those fundamental needs, which amazingly enough, are cleansed, replenished, and created by the web of life itself. So long as we continue to let the economy and political priorities shape the discussion, we will fail in our efforts to find a sustainable future.
– David Suzuki, scientist, climate activist
The image of an aspen grove in Southern Utah called “Pando” became both a symbol and wake-up call for some 1,500 participants – including 130 from China – who attended an extraordinary ecological conference held at Pomona College in Claremont, California, June 4-7.
Considered the largest and oldest organism on earth, and thought to be between 12,000 and 80,000 years old, dating back at least to the end of the last ice age, Pando’s existence today is in imminent danger because of climate change and threats caused by human activities.
Entitled “Seizing an Alternative,” the conference was the brainchild of Prof. John B. Cobb, Jr., a 90-year-old, indefatigable eco-theologian and philosopher and a preeminent scholar in the field of process studies, inspired by the late philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. Sounding not unlike the biblical prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah, for nearly 50 years Prof. Cobb has exhorted the people of the Earth to urgently change their ways, to abandon greed and self-indulgence, and to come together in holy collaboration so that our planet might survive.
Environmental luminaries invited to offer conference keynotes included: Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, whose 1989 book, End of Nature, has been translated into 24 languages; Dr.Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist and a leading figure in the ecological world, who has called for a drastic revamping of government policies and agricultural practices worldwide, including legal action against the spread of GMO and industrial agriculture; Herman E. Daly, an American economist whose work centers on the relationship between the economy and the environment, and the relationship of the economy to ethics; Wes Jackson, a leading figure in the international sustainable agriculture movement who has pioneered research in Natural Systems Agriculture; David Ray Griffin, emeritus professor of Philosophy and Religion at Claremont, co-director of the Center for Process Studies, named by the New Statesman in 2009 as “One of the 50 People Who Matter Today”; and Sheri Liao, considered the most important environmental activist in China. She has, since the great Szechuan earthquake of 2008, devoted herself to creating ecological villages in the devastated areas. Liao is dedicated to preventing depopulation of the countryside and hopes to leap over the ecological destruction that could result from China’s increasing industrialization and an ecological disaster of biblical proportions.
The main nitty-gritty work of the conference, however, took place in small, individual sessions called ‘tracks.’ Numerous tracks were organized into a dozen ‘sections,’ including…
- The Threatening Catastrophe: Responding Now
- Reimagining and Reinventing Culture,
- Re-envisioning Nature: Re-envisioning Science,
- Ecological Civilization, and
- An Alternative Vision: Whitehead’s Philosophy
Each participant could choose a section, then attend its tracks over a three-day period.
Wisdom, Religion, and Earth’s Future
Two sections specifically related to interfaith engagement and religious commitment to ecological education. Reimagining and Reinventing the Wisdom Traditions, A & B, included 18 individual tracks which highlighted and explored contributions to ecological principles and values from the wisdom traditions of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Confucianism, African wisdom, and Indigenous wisdom.
The interfaith section called Reimagining and Mobilizing Religious Traditions in Response to the Eco-Crisis was co-chaired by Rev. William E. Lesher, former president of the Board of Trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions; Chris Ives, a professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College and an interfaith activist who in May joined the historic first-time Buddhist delegation to the White House; and Joseph Prabhu, professor of Religion and Philosophy at Cal State, co-chair of the Southern California Parliament of the World’s Religions (www.sccpwr.org), and trustee emeritus of the global Parliament.
Over a course of eight 90-minute meetings, 12 participants in the interfaith track – representing multiple religious and national origins – were invited to address four main questions:
- How engaged and effective has the Interreligious Movement (IRM) been in response to the eco-crisis?
- At present, how critical is the role of the IRM in addressing the eco-crisis, and what unique and possibly indispensable resources can it bring to the issue?
- What would a fully mobilized interreligious response to the eco-crisis look like?
- What is needed to stimulate a more urgent and robust response by the interreligious community to the eco-crisis?
Underscoring the long-term destruction of both land and culture wrought by the conquistadores and missionaries in the New World, Chris Peters, an Indigenous participant, described a process his tribe uses to establish connectivity with the earth. “We hold a ten-day ceremony to heal the earth which includes fasting, isolation, focus, and prayer. We believe we cease to be human for that period of time as we stand on the threshold and, in the process, we bring forth new life.”
In the final session, the participants drafted a multi-pronged document outlining what they envisioned as specific actions the IRM could adopt going forward to meet the pressing ecological challenges we all face.
Co-chair Bill Lesher no doubt was echoing the thoughts of the majority of the participants when he emphasized, “The conference left no doubt that the climate line has been crossed and humanity is in for an altered future. It also demonstrated dramatically, creatively, and enthusiastically that alternative ways of life, production, and social organization abound around us. Will we seize them? The conference gave little cause to be optimistic, but generated great energy to be hopeful.”
Perhaps it is not too late to save the human Pando if we can recognize that, like the Aspen trees, we are one interconnected organism, linked together by a single, vast system of roots, the roots of our own humanity and our connection to the Earth.