Conference Calls: Reports from the Floor

E Magazine does not as a rule cover conferences—our space is too precious to offer blow-by-blow accounts of speeches. But this newsletter allows us to bend the rules, and the Internet gives us breathing space to keep you informed at rather greater length than is possible on the printed page. So here are detailed reports from two important gatherings, one in the U.S. and the other from Rome, the eternal city:

Greenaccord Third International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, Monte Porzio Catone (Rome), October 12-15, 2005

By Dick Russell

I’ve considered myself relatively well informed about what’s happening around our planet, when it comes to the environment. I was mistaken. I learned just how much more is going on—and who is trying to get the word out about it—in coming together recently with some 60 environmental journalists from around the world.

The conference brought in delegates from around the world.

When an e-mail arrived last summer inviting my participation, I’d never heard of Greenaccord. The Rome-based nonprofit “cultural association” turns out to have been inspired by Pope John Paul II, who warned that “Christianity cannot be indifferent before an ecological catastrophe in the making,” with the intent of creating a network of friendship and solidarity among journalists. Every autumn’s gathering has a different theme, this year’s being “Protection of Nature, Way of Peace.”

Met at the airport in Rome, we were all bused some 20 miles to a villa in the Alban Hills. The first evening was an opportunity to get acquainted over a four-course meal and some fine wine. I sat next to Darryl D’Monte from Mumbai (Bombay), former editor of the Bombay Times who resigned along with several others when the newspaper’s owners decided to “dumb down.” He’s organizing a conference in New Delhi of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists. Was Hurricane Katrina changing the consciousness of people in the United States? he wondered. He spoke of how shocked people in India were at the televised images—shocked, too, that 60 percent of New Orleans’ black population had no cars to leave the city in—and the hopelessness in the body language of those stuck in the Superdome.

The forum began the next morning, up a long hill through a towering olive grove to the sprawling Villa Mondragone with its balcony view of all Rome. Erected in the 16th century, this was the very spot where Pope Gregory VIII promulgated the Gregorian calendar by which we still mark our days (for the record, on October 5, 1562, people went to sleep and woke up on October 12). Later, from the villa’s terrace, Marconi made his first broadcast to Vatican City.

The first speaker was Loic Fauchon, president of the World Water Council. If you’re like me, and have only vaguely heard of this organization, it was created from a UNESCO initiative in 1993. Headquartered in France, it has 250 international members in 80 countries. “Too many people do not know this is a problem for the future,” Fauchon said, relating the astounding figure that in 2004, the poor quality or absence of water killed 10 times more people than all armed conflicts in the world combined. Water-related diseases, according to the World Health Organization, kill 25,000 people a day!

Here’s the thing: fresh water constitutes only 2.5 percent of the world’s water, and only one percent is available and useable. And the half-billion inhabitants already suffering from water stress are constantly increasing. Complex climatic changes are accentuating the extremes, not only in terms of droughts but catastrophic flooding. At the same time, a billion more people are being added to the planet every decade. And, in Beijing for example, the water table is already dropping by 5.2 feet a year. Here are a few examples of what Fauchon described as “hydraulic inconsistency.” Asia, with 36 percent of the resources, has 60 percent of the population. North Americans consume 92 gallons of water a day; Europe, 52; Africa, eight.

We must consider the likelihood of more water-related conflicts. Two-thirds of major rivers cross borders. The right to water, Fauchon concluded, needs to be made part of international treaties and the constitutions of each nation. “In the upcoming decades, we must manage better and consume less, and consider water as a limited resource,” he said. “We need drinking water before cell phones, latrines before Internet, taps before guns.”

Dr. Hartwig De Haen, an executive with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), followed with an equally eye-opening talk about hunger, conflict and environmental stress. 820 million people are chronically undernourished, and six million children die yearly of diseases they would readily survive if they weren’t undernourished. “This is scandalous,” said De Haen, “because it is totally preventable.”

On the positive side, food production is two-and-a-half times greater than 40 years ago. The number of undernourished has dropped during this period, and the price of food has declined. Yet 60 percent of ecosystem services are being degraded or used unsustainably; as a result, the poor suffer more. More land has been converted to crops since 1945 than in the entire 18th and 19th centuries. Over the last decades, 25 percent of coral reefs have been destroyed and 35 percent of mangrove areas lost. Declines in soil fertility coincide with those of fish stocks. “Breaking the vicious cycles are possible, but this requires targeted policies and public investment,” De Haen concluded. Next speaker was Michael Renner, of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, on the topic of “natural disasters, environment and peace-keeping.” While we tend to regard disasters as extraordinary events, the unpleasant truth is they are becoming more frequent and severe—more than 1,900 occurring just between 2000 and 2004. The silver lining is, sometimes these present fresh opportunities to bring long-running conflicts to an end.

After the tsunami, hope was expressed that civil wars in Aceh and Sri Lanka could be resolved. In Aceh, with a population of 4.2 million, a civil war killed 15,000 and the tsunami’s toll was 168,000 dead or missing. Talks between the rebels and the Indonesian government had collapsed in 2003 but, a month after the tsunami struck, peace negotiations began and an agreement was signed in mid-August. In Sri Lanka, however, following a groundswell of solidarity after the tsunami swept away some 38,900 people, basic rifts re-emerged before long in a civil war that has raged for more than 20 years.

“Humanitarian action can be a powerful catalyst,” said Renner, “but a rush of post-disaster goodwill alone is unlikely to carry through. Large-scale events are more likely to catalyze change, as opposed to a slow onset like drought, but reconstruction must be equitable. Enormous challenges are often experienced as shared vulnerabilities. For example, in Colombia, adversarial communities worked together to mitigate the impact of floods.”

On hurricane Katrina, Renner commented, “It’s clear that disaster exposed the underbelly of American society: enormous economic and social inequities. How that translates into the future remains to be seen.”

There was much to learn in private sessions, at coffee breaks and over meals. Sharing an espresso with Nalaka Gunawardene from Sri Lanka, I was appalled to learn that only 20 percent of the relief moneys sent to his country after the tsunami has been spent. These had fallen victim to “indifference, incompetence and corruption.” Many people are still living in temporary shelters 10 months later, becoming increasingly frustrated and angry.

At dinner I found myself next to Huma Beg, managing director of Serendip Productions in Islamabad, Pakistan. We were talking of traveling. Years ago, you could hitch-hike anywhere but not anymore, I said. She said it was the same in Pakistan; she wouldn’t even allow her children on the streets anymore as it got dark. What changed? I asked. She spoke of how, in the 1980s after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. had sent vast amounts of weapons to Pakistan and trained her people to join the fight. Suddenly, the kids in her school were walking around with assault rifles. It had changed the society. “You cannot inject a poison, and not expect it to remain,” she added sadly.

The next morning’s forum began with a long discussion about immigration. According to a recent UN report, there are 200 million migrant workers spread across the world today and the number is growing by the millions yearly. An African woman noted that today her continent is the main provider of nurses to European hospitals, where there is a shortage, “although we do not have enough ourselves.” A Bolivian journalist spoke of “ecological exile,” questioning why so many Latin Americans and Africans are abandoning their own countries looking for work. The pull of the U.S. is strong, especially for the young, the glamorization of other lifestyles that is seen on TV.

One of the most impassioned speakers was Sindiwe Magona, a 62-year-old writer from South Africa whose latest of five books is a novel called Mother to Mother. “South Africa is supposed to be a success story,” she said, “but in 1994 nobody waved a magic wand and suddenly we were all equal. The present government is still fighting inequality. A lot of blacks continue to live in what are now called ‘informal settlements,’ but these are still shacks.”

Magona went on that, in many ways, South Africa remains “very significantly a Third World country. Several years ago, people were dying from hunger because the crops failed and the delivery system was not what it should be. It pains me to hear some people say, ‘My sister, if my country could be what it was 30 years ago, it would be a blessing.’ To pray for stagnation is very wrong.”

Did she see any greater hope, a young man from Zambia asked, with the advent of the African Union? “That is a very challenging question,” Magona said. “I worked at the United Nations for 20-some years. There was no absence of talk about African problems. I would love to say that the African Union is different from the Organization for African Unity [OAU], because I don’t see that much was done by the OAU. I love Africa. I wish it could achieve something positive for the majority and not the elite. How long must we watch some sad, terrible images of children dying from being hungry?”

Sindiwe Magona, a writer from South Africa, spoke on the social inequality and other serious challenges facing her continent.

The next speaker was Hector Tizon, a writer from Argentina who spent a long period in jail and exile when a fascist government reigned. “Nowadays we need great courage to be optimists,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves whether humanity has some control over its own destiny. We cannot limit ourselves to words.” Tizon called for a new form of international tribunal, to punish those found guilty of ecological crimes against humanity.

Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt movement and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, addressed the forum from the U.N. office in Nairobi via a video-conference. She has been planting trees for the past 30 years, “starting with seven on the first day, not knowing it would eventually be millions.” She suggested adding a fourth word, repair, to the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle).

To a question of whether she is an optimist or a pessimist, Maathai replied: “I am always an optimist. Those of us who understand what is happening, we must continue to raise our voices against those who would destroy the planet. Ignorance is one of the biggest problems. With climate change, for example, because it is not something visible and it is very scientific with complicated data, it is hard to convince our political leaders. We know the ice is melting on Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro. Maybe they will learn when the rivers start to flow from the mountains and the coastal towns are flooded.”

Given the growing problems of deforestation in Africa, asked a journalist from Cameroon, how did Maathai use her stature to influence African leaders? Eleven heads of state from around the Congo forest have asked her to be a goodwill ambassador, “because they do not have the resources to protect it from illegal logging. This is very important to the world, especially with respect to climate change. The Congo is the second largest forest—along with the Amazon these are the lungs of the Earth. Most of the logging is by companies from outside, which do not carry moral responsibility.”

Maathai told a parable about a hummingbird. In a huge forest, a fire breaks out. All the animals run to the edge of the forest, overwhelmed, believing they can do nothing. Only the hummingbird decides to put out the fire. “Don’t bother,” the hummingbird is told, “the fire is too big and you are too small.” Still, it starts bringing drops of water from a stream, one at a time. The little bird remains patient and refuses to be overwhelmed. It knows it won’t be able to put out the fire overnight. “All of us are called to be like the hummingbird,” Maathai said. “And to say to the other animals, ‘I am doing the best I can.’”

The future, for those of us who came together as a small family of journalists these four days in October, will at least include one another. Environmental problems that were abstract before became personal through learning about them face-to-face. The challenges ahead are tremendous. But I realized, through the Greenaccord experience, that there are many journalists who are prepared—like the hummingbird—to do the best they can.

Dick Russell is a freelance journalist and the author, most recently, of Striper Wars: An American Fish Story (Island/Shearwater).

Bioneers Offer Eco-Education to Thousands

By Shepherd Bliss

The Bioneers transformed a sprawling suburban civic center north of San Francisco into an educational eco-village for a sold-out gathering of more than 3,000 people October 14-16. Bioneers are “biological pioneers,” according to conference producers Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons. Another 8,000 or so participated in 16 sites around the U.S and one in Canada, where the morning plenaries were beamed in by satellite with local afternoon sessions added.

Bioneers speaker Janine Benyus, a scientist from Montana, spoke on the need to have “deep conversations with nature.”© Bioneers

“Visionary and practical solutions for restoring the Earth and people” were offered at this 16th Annual Bioneers Conference. Among more than 100 presenters were scientists, performers, indi

genous people, teachers, young people, activists, artists and spiritual teachers. They generated insight, connections, laughter, anger and some tears as they described the problematic state of the world and what to do about it. This diverse group of speakers managed, as described by Gregory Dicum in the San Francisco Chronicle, “to relate electoral politics to enlightenment, choreography to solar panels, Zapatistas to constitutional law, the South Bronx to recycled paper and global warming to beauty.”

The spirit of Bioneers was captured by its first plenary speaker, Janine Benyus, a vigorous scientist from the Rocky Mountains of Montana. She declared, “We need to have deep conversations with nature.” Deep listening became one of the major themes of the weekend.

Bill McKibben—author of the groundbreaking book The End of Nature among many other titles—said that “people are finally paying attention to global warming. It is no longer a prospective problem; it is crashing down upon us now.” He observed that “the SUV age came to an end when people saw on TV hundreds of SUVs run out of gas leaving Houston and become stranded in flight from the hurricanes.” Ausubel added, “The Earth is telling us that it is sick. When we fight the Earth, we will lose. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are coming attractions of what we can expect in the future.”

The weekend built to a rousing crescendo provided by African American scholar, composer and singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who for 30 years led the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The civil rights activist said that “the bones at the bottom of the ocean” provide the basis for her music, taking us down and back to the ships bringing slaves to America.

“When I die, you can cast me to the ocean wide,” Reagon sang. She invited the audience to join her and we became her chorus in a stirring song with the line “Come and go with me to that land where I am bound.” Reagon effectively captured the conference’s mixture of sorrow at the sorry state of the world and joyous determination to do something about it.

The “unreasonable woman,” fishing activist Diane Wilson, addressed the Bioneers.© Jennifer Esperanza/Bioneers

One of some 500 youth at the gathering, Sarah Sullivan of New York, commented, “I love the newness of innovative ideas at Bioneers. But what I will most remember is singing with hundreds of Bioneers, the presence of youth with their dance, drum and spoken work, the circles of bodies connecting in the grass during the breaks, the food I shared with friends, the pictures I saw on the screen in the theater, and the tea and literature offered in the exhibition center. Bioneers is getting more heart-centered and diverse each year; I look forward to watching it mature and deepen with time.”

This year’s Bioneers offered more than a dozen films, often presented by their directors. Plenary speaker and shrimp fisherwoman Diane Wilson, author of An Unreasonable Woman and subject of a new film, was un hand. She has stood up to chemical corporations polluting her south Texas bay and elsewhere for a decade and a half. Wilson has been arrested numerous times for her anti-corporate actions and explained that she is “currently on the lam. So if you see one of those guys with a big hat, let me know. It may be a Texas Ranger.” The films included Trudell, about the poet, musician, actor and American Indian activist, who spoke about his work. Numerous indigenous people addressed the gathering.

John Trudell: “I’m just a human being trying to make it in a world that is very rapidly losing its understanding of being human.”

Among the many speakers on food and agriculture was the dynamic 25-year-old African American Will Bullock of Boston’s Food Project, who also broke out into song. Urban farmer Michael Ableman read from and showed photographs from his new book Fields of Plenty. A panel discussed “Food Security.” Bioneers co-producer Simons noted that “almost one fourth of U.S. shoppers now buy organic. The organic industry is growing by 20 percent a year. More than 700 school districts now have farm to cafeteria programs.”

Many presentations were on communication and the media. “We all need stories,” said radio host Thom Hartmann, who is also author of The Last Days of Ancient Sunlight. “When stories change, the world changes.” He added, “changing even one word can make a difference. Corporations try to convince us that our real identity is as consumers. Before that we understood ourselves as citizens, part of a community, needing to defend the commons.” Hartmann suggested an identity and word change back to understanding ourselves as citizens, rather than consumers.

At the session “Deep Water: Saving the Oceans,” Michael Stocker of Seaflow noted that “We are all dependent upon the sea. Yet the oceans are in rough shape. We use the ocean as a cesspool to dump things and over-harvest it.” Ocean scientist Wallace “J.” Nichols added, “Most people live within 50 miles of the ocean. The water we drink, the air in our lungs, and the food we eat come from the ocean. Our survival depends on the ocean.”

In an e-mail sent after the weekend, Randy Crutcher, who does forestry work in California’s Calaveras County, wrote, “I was moved by the stunning examples of eco-design underway, which include the complete re-visioning of Los Angeles facilitated by Andy Lipkis and The Tree People.”

Not everyone returns to Bioneers, however. Zeno Swijtink, an environmentalist who teaches philosophy at Sonoma State University, said: “I participated last year in Bioneers but, frankly, I was bored. When you follow the literature the ideas presented are familiar. There is little discussion and constructive engagement between the participants; many people seem to be in awe of the ‘gurus’ that make their appearance every year. Maybe people feel that they need to circle the wagons and appear to be in complete harmony. There are real disagreements we need to confront.”

Bioneers is more than a yearly conference. It sponsors a book series and a syndicated radio program and provides audio and visual tapes of various presentations. It has also become a vibrant and growing multi-cultural and multi-generational community that is developing into a movement with an increasing number of participants.

Dr. Shepherd Bliss divides his time between teaching college in Hawai’i and his Kokopelli Farm in Sonoma County, Northern California.