“For me it was creating sacred space – I live in a world where there’s a lot of words and a lot of things to do and a lot of people asking for me to have certainty. And the stillness brings things into soft focus that creates a safe space that maybe helps me see the thing I’m really supposed to see.”
This comment in Morna Simpson’s thoughtful breakout session epitomised the intention of our annual conference – Sustainability: Sharing Values, Creating Communities. While there were, in a sense, a “lot of words”, we provided a unique, interdisciplinary blend of speakers and opportunities to engage throughout the day. It was filled with provocative thought, practical advice and space to sit with the most pressing questions and see things anew.
You can watch videos of the presentations here.
Alastair McIntosh offered a profound reflection on our human calling and the kind of people we are nurturing our students (and ourselves) to be. He called on Audre Lorde’s distinction between the erotic and the pornographic in terms of whether the heart is engaged or not to describe consumerism as a pornographic relationship with material goods and with other people, beyond a sustainable “dignified sufficiency of living”. Thus, the university – and the humanities most crucially – provide a place to develop a relationship with “real people, with real place”, becoming what is translated in the Tao Te Ching by Richard Wilhelm as “people of calling”.
Through snippets of his multimedia projects and wide-ranging research, Robert Beckford energised us with his focus on black death (afro-pessimism) and black life (afro-optimism). In the black death segment, he laid out the connections between colonialism, racism in the environmental movement, and the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis on black and brown lives. In terms of black life, he integrated the historically-infused themes of escape, fugitivity, intersectionality and the creative power of the arts. Bookending his presentation with the WEB Dubois-inspired phrase ‘do your work over’, he called for a revised, holistic understanding of climate justice and a balance of realism with hope.
Our third speaker, Molly Scott Cato, was still wearing her Glastonbury festival wristband, and she centred her exploration of place, community, outdoor living and the simplicity of joy around that experience. She argued that a new ethic of consumption includes essential human needs but that these are not primarily material, and she highlighted the cognitive dissonance of teaching sustainability to students who have often flown half way round the world to be there. She also exemplified our interactional approach to the conference, weaving in contributions and questions from those attending the conference to enrich the input.
Substantial theological input came from Steven van den Heuvel, drawing on his interdisciplinary research project on hope to explore a theological ethics of sustainability. He noted that despair, while counter-productive, has a certain seduction to it, and it is therefore imperative to formulate hope goals grounded in the relational ability of nature, including humans, to adapt and create together. He wove together realism and hope through the work of Moltmann, who contrasts the closed, despairing view of the future of apocalypticism with the open, hopeful view of eschatology.
Our colleagues in the Faculty of Business and Law added a rich, additional thread to the conference: Jérémie Gilbert, Anne Robertson and Neil Williams discussed the value of their interdisciplinary approach to the rights of (non-human) nature, while Stephen Drinkwater and Sunitha Narendran described the approach of the vibrant Faculty. And our key plenary speakers, alongside Martin Poulsom, also participated in conversational panels, engaging with input from our participants to talk about the issues raised.
We heard about projects putting these ideas into practice, including Johnny Sertin and Ollie Cem’s respective community gardening initiatives. In addition, our breakout sessions served to build on the practical outworking of sustainability, looking at activism with Ella Sibley-Ryan; contemplation, both through photography (with Morna Simpson) and the writing of Francis of Assisi (with Jane Morley); and sustainable business with Hiroko Onishi and Janice Moorhouse.
Following a minute of stillness and silence with which we grounded the end of day, we were enlivened by the apparition of Susanna Wesley herself (aka Cathy Walker) who, in her monologue, drew our contemporary threads into a pattern with her own philosophy of grounded, just education and a good life of service that respects creation. The first outworking of this was to plant a real tree in a real place following the conference, guided by Nick Mayhew-Smith and Nicola Morrison.
The conference served as a rare forum for listening to a variety of approaches to sustainability. Our participants and contributors offered each other both realism and ways forward, no small task for a situation that can seem paralysing. It honoured differences of experience, philosophy and priorities, and held these in balance with the common ground of positive intention and shared humanity that serve a sustaining and sustainable hope.
Find out more about our contributors, the plenary and breakout sessions, and the references cited by the plenary speakers.