Now for the Great Work
Seizing an Alternative: the largest transdisciplinary conference ever held
Pando Populus: an evolving platform for seizing the alternative
Post-Conference Hopes: A reflection by John B. Cobb, Jr.
What can we hope for?
Replanting ourselves in beauty
Hopes for the Conference
Now that the Conference is Over
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
After three years of planning and anticipation, the Tenth International Whitehead Conference is now a thing of the past. I am glad. Many people assure me that it was a success in that those who came are glad they spent the time and money to do so. Morale was high. Many feel newly committed and have grown more hopeful, at least in the sense of seeing what should be done and could be done. All of that is important to me, and I rejoice in success in these terms. But I also evaluate what happened in relation to my distinctive hopes for the conference.
To explain my hopes, now retroactively, I need to begin with my perception of the current situation. Resisting the directions of policy and action that are leading to worse and worse forms of disaster is an uphill battle. Most people concerned for the fate of humanity agree thus far.
My distinctive emphasis is that policy and practice are, far more than most people realize, shaped by deep-seated assumptions about the nature of reality. When good people do not see this, they are likely to attach themselves to one or two of the many causes all of which are important. We do well to specialize. But the result is that there are hundreds of distinct and more or less separate groups working on all kinds of problems. Some of them make progress here and there, and we should all celebrate these victories. But the general direction of events is little affected. Often, even the victories are in battles that are part of a war that is lost.
I think an increasing number of people are viewing the situation more broadly and deeply. Climate change has galvanized opposition to the dominant way of doing things and drawn in diverse groups. But there is still little recognition of the assumptions that drive governments and industry to continue destructive policies. We respond to the practices that worsen climate change without challenging these assumptions. The consequence is that even if, wonder of wonders, we stopped these activities, other threats to human survival would remain, and our ability to address them would not be improved. For example, agricultural practices, supported by “experts,” would continue to degrade food, poison and erode soil, remove people from the land, kill pollinators, and exhaust aquifers.
I would like for those who are trying to stop exploitation of tar sands and those who are opposing the enslavement of farmers by chemical corporations to understand that the same world view underlies the now dominant practices in both fields. That world view is taught implicitly, sometimes explicitly, in our major universities, and, indeed, it underlies the idea of “value free” education, which is also doing so much harm. Accordingly, one goal of the conference was to bring to full consciousness the way in which the dominant worldview employs the image of the machine as the key to reality. It encourages us to see organisms as complex mechanisms.
If we understand how we are shaped by our education, and see its inadequacies and the harm that it does, we may be ready to adopt a world view of organisms. In fact, there is now plenty of evidence that what appears to be purely mechanical is composed of entities that are better understood as societies of tiny organisms. Many of those who came to this conference already thought in this way, but I think the conference intensified the recognition of the importance of advancing this way of thinking, and some may not previously have thought seriously about the issue at this level. I hope the conference increased openness to questions of fundamental models and basic concepts.
The idea of the world as lifeless leads to actions that reduce the life of the world and blinds people to the loss. To whatever extent people recognize this tendency, the likelihood is increased that they will join with others in challenging the now dominant mechanistic view and in supporting the development of alternative ways of thinking and acting. There is a better chance that people concerned to reduce climate change will support those concerned with organic farming and that both will support the development of new economic systems oriented to ecology, justice, and human flourishing. Political and educational thinking will change. Even the natural sciences will be transformed. If people think in this way, those pursuing the many necessary specialties will understand themselves as allies in a common project of re-imagining the world and replacing the policies that are based on outdated views.
To supplement this abstract way of talking we used images as well. The image popular in the origins of the mechanistic worldview was the Strasbourg clock that mechanically produced lifelike dancers. We must replace this model with an organism. There are many candidates. We chose Pando, an aspen grove in southern Utah. The whole grove, although it appears to be many trees, is one organism with one root system. The lessons it teaches go beyond the irreducibility of life to inanimate things.
I think the conference moved people in the direction of accepting an organic model. That is already success. But whether the success has any historical importance depends on what people do with a deepened understanding. Will it strengthen the networking that is already occurring and widen it? Will a movement emerge that unites people of good will and common sense? Can such a movement influence the actions of government, banks, and industry? That is a lot to hope for? But if we abandon bold hopes, we abandon hope for human civilization. To hope that the conference proves to have been a step in this direction is itself, still, a very bold hope.