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An "unconference" for a global CO2-free welfare

A conference where speed presentations and fishbowl dialogues replace tedious monologues? Where an artist gets as much time to talk as a researcher? Where the public have a platform to have their say? Yes, to change society we must also change academia, say the organizers.

We no longer smoke on the plane or at the restaurant. In five or ten years, we believe it is equally obvious that we will no longer use fossil fuels such as oil and gas to get from A to B.

Such changes - or transformation - is the theme of the conference Transformation in a changing climate .

People from around the world will meet from 19 to 21 June in Oslo to discuss how our oil-based society can be "transformed" into a socially and ecologically sustainable global society.

No ordinary conference

The conference is not organized as a regular conference where participants listen passively to powerpoint presentations for three days.

- The conference itself will be a transformational experience, says Karen O'Brien, who along with Linda Sygna sits on the organizing committee.

Karen O'Brien: Change always starts with individuals who see opportunities and  are passionate about something bigger than themselves

Therefore, they are use many techniques is known collectively as " unconference" that are becoming more and more popular worldwide. The meaning of such "non-conference" is to make conferences more a place where the exchange of ideas takes place and "new" conversations become the "new" participants, and not just an opportunity to present scientific papers.

- Many participants have written articles that they want to present, but we know that the most interesting discussions at conferences take place during coffee breaks and during the afternoons. We will have most of these discussions on the podium, stresses O'Brien.

A special "unconference facilitator" will ensures that the event is as untraditional as possible.

- Instead of long speeches, we have speed presentations that will only take five minutes, and then there will be time for discussion. Additionally, we have fishbowl dialogues where the audience sits in a circle around a panel of people who start the dialogue. A chair is always available so that anyone from the public can take a seat and become involved in the discussion, she explains. The audience will thus become dialogue participants.

Promoting creativity

Music and art are also in the programme. Not as entertainment during the breaks, but as an integral part of the programme:

- To promote creativity, it is important to combine both hemispheres of the brain. Artists and musicians will have as much time on stage as researchers. We have engaged an ecological curator, Eva Bakkeslett , who should take care of this. She will also participate in a panel on the role innovation plays in transformations.

The team also includes is a "graphic recorder", who shall draw the talks at the conference – something  like the popular videos to RSA Animate .

- This is an innovative way to capture what comes out of the conference, says O'Brien.

Drawing conversations: an innovative way to capture what comes out of the conference (Drawing by Karina Mullen)

Not an environmental problem

The conference’s starting point is the belief that climate change is not an environmental problem but a social problem . It is a symptom that something is wrong in the way we organize society in relation to the environment.

- Environmental problems are not a specific phenomena, but are integral in our economic and political system, and directly related to poverty, women's rights, the way we treat our children and other people, and much more. Since climate change is due to our habits and traditions we can also do something about it, says the researcher.

The conference is about changing the way we think about climate change. We want to get away from the fear-based dissemination and disaster dominating the media and also partly in academia. Instead of scaring people with statements like "Climate change is the greatest problem" the organizers want to make the opportunities to create a better world the top priority.

From disaster to transformation

- We want to change the conversation and say that it is transformation that is the main challenge now, that is the transformation from an oil-based society to a socially and ecologically sustainable global welfare, explains O'Brien.

This sounds like a big project. However, the researcher reminds that transformations are happening all the time - both small and large.

- When I was young, no one could imagine that we could be on a plane for eight hours without having a cigarette. Now no one can imagine smoking on a plane. Likewise, there will come a time when it is unthinkable to use fossil fuels such as oil and gas to get from A to B.

- The same applies to slavery or apartheid. No one believed that it was possible to create change on those issues. But suddenly it happened.

- But we must make sure that the transformations happen in a democratic and just manner and not end up being something that Naomi Klein called shock doctrine . So what do we need to do? Here we have a lot of knowledge in human geography, sociology, political science, psychology, anthropology, and economics - knowledge that is scattered and that we want to gather together at this conference. One of the most important things about the conference is that people from different disciplines and backgrounds participate, she says.

To change a system

- To bring about change, one must learn from past transformations?

- Yes. And what we learn from past transformations, from the abolition of slavery for example, is that each one of us plays a role and that small groups can make a difference. Change always starts with individuals who see opportunities and are passionate about something bigger than themselves.

- I let my students read Donella Meadows’ 12 points ("leverage points") to change the system . One of the most effective methods is to change the system's goals. Sustainability or thrivability instead of economic growth, for example. The most effective method, however, is a complete paradigm shift.

Paul Hawken - one of the first environmental activists is one of the  highlights of the conference

- Meadows found that the use of taxation comes pretty far down the list of what is effective action in the face of complex environmental challenges. It is therefore paradoxical that there is so much focus on precisely this way to bring about change.

- What about the power of positive examples? There are so many positive things happening around the world that one hears little about?

- Exactly. The power of individuals and small groups comes into play here. Now with the Internet and social media ideas spread much faster. You accidentally discover on Facebook that there is a slow food movement in Italy and you begin to wonder whether we could have something similar here in Oslo. All these movements have so much knowledge about how to transform society.

- This is something that Paul Hawken has written about in his book Blessed Unrest. How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World .

- Hawken is one of the conference highlights. He was one of the first environmentalists and has written extensively on trade and ecology . At the conference, he will try to get us to think again about natural resources and important elements such as carbon.

- How do you plan to follow up conference?

- We see the conference as a start to building a community that shares knowledge and experience and that develops new research. Therefore, we have engaged a web developer to create a site where we can continue communication after the conference.

- The Transformation conference will be taken to other countries. Several countries have already expressed an interest, and we look forward to following this issue in the coming years especially in terms of Future Earth, which is a major international research initiative that has begun.

By Lorenz Khazaleh
Published Jun 14, 2013 11:02 AM - Last modified Jan 31, 2014 01:28 PM