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  • Writer's pictureKristina Zill

Report on the Omega conference – Where do we go from here?

Where We Go From Here Opportunities and Solutions for an Interdependent World

Last weekend, I was so fortunate as to attend “Where We Go From Here,” a conference at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies near Rhinebeck, NY ( Omega is set in the hills of the Hudson valley and the campus features rolling green lawns, tall trees, and camp-style buildings linked by meandering mulch paths. The conference consisted of keynote speeches and a panel discussion, as well as opportunities to network with attendees. At the close, the audience was asked to consider three questions, which you can see if you scroll down to the very end. They’re good questions, so I hope you will consider them, too.

My overall takeaway from the weekend is hopefulness. Watching world events unfold, one can easily get the impression that nothing positive is going on anywhere. It was humbling to hear the keynote speakers and realize how much has already been done to build a better future. All of the projects were extraordinary. It was inspiring to be among my fellow participants who were all determined to play a role in putting humanity on a wiser path than our current trajectory.

If any of the talks summarized below spark your interest, you can view them for free until Dec. 5th (all except Clinton’s speech). Simply go to the Omega website, click on the Where Do We Go From Here panel, and register (name and email). You will receive a link, and there’s a drop-down menu with the individual speakers listed.


The Main Hall accommodates about 500 people on folding chairs, an intimate setting to hear one of the greatest public speakers of our time, President William Jefferson Clinton.

Friday night, Clinton looked very much the elder statesman with his elegant gray suit and silver hair. He touched on many topics, but his talk centered on forging alliances to solve the world’s problems. He professed that superficially, we seem to be growing together. We’re less racist, less homophobic, we’re more tolerant—but we don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us. The mapping of the human genome showed that the part of us that makes us appear different to one another accounts for one-half of one percent of our DNA. We are 99.5% the same. And yet it’s the differences we focus on. Our consciousness is still not where it needs to be to develop the solutions that work.

Our former president cited research that showed that if there were one person in the hall with an IQ of 200, and we isolated that person in a room to solve a series of problems; and then we posed the same problems to the rest of the room; that the roomful of people would come up with better solutions than the genius.

Clinton said one thing you learn from living is that good times come and go. To measure hopefulness, observe the difference between the trendlines and the headlines. If the trendlines are better than the headlines, be optimistic.

The nature of the modern world is interdependence. All it means is that divorce is not an option. We have to build a world we can share. Right now, there’s rampant inequality. People don’t have the emotional space to think about climate change. The great trick of the modern world is to get the mass of people to imagine what we need to do. Find a way to be inclusive and get people to feel they’re a part of it.

You have to believe that creative cooperation is better than constant conflict. In order to move forward, we’re going to have to understand that our common humanity is more important than our differences.”


Saturday morning began with a welcome from Robert ‘Skip’ Bacchus, Omega’s CEO. Bacchus talked about the concept of flow and how so many of our issues come from being disconnected to nature’s flow. The more we live in complete cycles, the more sustainable we are.

Bacchus is the visionary behind the OCSL – the Omega Center for Sustainable Living – which was the first green building in the US to receive both LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge certification. Sunday afternoon, I took the guided tour of the OCSL, a very impressive on-site wastewater treatment facility that harnesses the natural purifying properties of cattails and tropical plants to cleanse 52,000 gallons of water a day before returning it to the aquifer.


The first keynote speaker was Jeremy Rifkin, who processes the world through the lens of economics. Rifkin is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends ( His 19th book, The Third Industrial Revolution, explores how Internet technology and renewable energy are merging to lead us into the future. Here are some excerpts from Rifkin’s talk:

The first and second Industrial Revolutions have created a civilization that has put us not just into an economic crisis, but a species crisis. If we do nothing, we could see the 6th great extinction of life on Earth, with a 70% elimination of all plant and animal species by the end of the century.

So what do we do? We need a new economic vision of the world. We need to be completely off carbon across this world in 30 years. We are currently in the endgame of the Second Industrial Revolution and the oil era upon which it is based.

We need to look at what others are doing:

The European Union (EU) has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) greater than the U.S. The EU set targets of 20% of their energy coming from renewables by 2020. They’re transforming every building into its own micro power plant. New buildings create positive power. Millions of jobs will be created to convert the buildings. That’s how economies prosper: infrastructure. Germany is the #1 economic power in the world. They’re already at 25% renewables, and they’ve already converted 1 million buildings to be energy-positive.

“What’s the nature of productivity and growth?” Don’t you think that’s the first question economists would try to answer?

Economists think the answer to that question is: improve machine capital and improve worker performance. Robert Solow won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Economics. He showed that those two factors only accounted for 14% of productivity and growth.

If we try to understand why economic thinking is so off base, we have to understand that when Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, like everyone else in his time, he was enthralled by Newtonian physics. The problem with economic theories is that Newton doesn’t have anything to do with economics.

Everybody studies thermodynamics in college except for economists. First law of thermodynamics: all energy is constant. Second law of thermodynamics: change flows in one direction. Hot to cold. Entropy loss. Thermodynamic efficiency accounts for 86% of productivity.

Economists think that efficiency slows growth. They don’t know what they’re talking about. GDP is a measure of our debt, not our wealth.

“The conventional top-down organization of society that characterized much of the economic, social and political life of the fossil fuel-based industrial revolutions is giving way to distributed and collaborative relationships in the emerging green industrial era. We are in the midst of a profound shift in the very way society is structured, away from hierarchical power and toward lateral power.”

Music companies were blindsided by millions of young people who began sharing music online; Wikipedia replaced the encyclopedia; newspapers didn’t take seriously the distributed power of the blogosphere. The implications of people sharing distributed energy in an open commons are even more far-reaching.

The future: an intelligent distributed electricity network – an Intergrid – that hundreds of millions of people contribute to, generating their own green energy in their homes, offices and factories.

There are five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution:

  1. shifting to renewable energy

  2. transforming the building stock of every continent into micro-power plants to collect renewable energies on site;

  3. deploying hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure to store intermittent energies;

  4. using Internet technology to transform the power grid of every continent into an energy-sharing Intergrid that acts just like the Internet (when millions of buildings are generating a small amount of energy locally, on site, they can sell surplus back to the grid and share electricity with their continental neighbors);

  5. transitioning the transport fleet to electric plug-in and fuel cell vehicles that can buy and sell electricity on a smart, continental, interactive power grid.

There’s a great shift occurring from ownership to access. In the past, the car signified property and autonomy. Today, the younger generation wants to access the car, but not to own it.

We can go from an economy of scarcity to an economy of abundance, but to do so, we’ve got to change human consciousness in less than one generation.

Human consciousness is constantly evolving. The forager / hunters had a mythological consciousness. In the 20th century, our grandparents could not talk about how their inner world affected the outer world. They could think ideologically, theologically, mythologically, but not psychologically. As we evolve, we don’t lose those previous states of consciousness. They are within us, like nested Russian dolls. We’re moving into an empathic civilization. We’re more empathic in our reach now.

The drivers of climate change are:

  1. Buildings

  2. Beef consumption / animal husbandry

  3. Transport

Everything we do has an impact and affects every other creature. Green technologies started off expensive, but they are going to get cheaper. We need to get off the delusion that shale gas is going to save us.

40 years from now, we could be off carbon, reduce climate change, and create a more prosperous quality of life.

The primary goal is not individual power. It’s to share with each other the meaning of life. Deep play, social capital. Explore what our sojourn on this Earth is all about.


Rifkin alluded to a problem besetting Omega – it seems that the local power company wants to take some of their property by eminent domain in order to install a new power plant. He suggested that the 400 activists in the room do what they could to stop it.


The next keynote speaker was Majora Carter, who has worked tirelessly on behalf of inner city African American communities. Among other projects, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx in 2001.

Carter’s “Secret Sauce” for transforming the world:

  • Identify a market or policy need

  • Design an attractive solution

  • Obtain “angel” investment

  • Launch Beta version

  • Learn from projects and refine them

  • Reiterate and expand

Carter’s efforts help some of the poorest neighborhoods, where two-thirds of the residents have cell phones, but only one-third have bank accounts. Success in these neighborhoods has been measured by how far away from their communities people could go. Carter’s goal has been to create tools that allow people to move up in economic level so that they don’t have to leave the community to succeed. She wants them to participate in creating technology, rather than just consuming it.


Michael Reynolds is an architect and founder of Earthship Biotecture. He has a mop of white hair and an irreverent style. His keynote speech would definitely be worth a look, because even an exact transcript wouldn’t convey his charisma. His biotecture practice builds “radically sustainable buildings” made from reclaimed materials, such as bottles, cans and tires. Reynolds’ practice is based in Taos, NM, and many of the homes he has designed and built are available for nightly rentals. One feature of these houses is contained sewage treatment, which includes indoor jungles of tropical plants that filter water (much like Omega’s OCSL center). Here’s what Reynolds had to say:

The 6 things we’re trying to address (with our sustainable buildings) are:

  • Water

  • Sewage

  • Food production

  • Recyclable materials

  • Thermal solar heating and cooling

  • Solar and wind electricity

The situation we have today can be compared to an 18-wheeler barreling down a highway, and right in the middle of the highway, there’s a baby carriage. There are people on both sides of the highway, and they’re discussing permits and regulations. When does dogma start to look like dog crap? I’m going to step out on the highway and move that baby carriage to safety, and you can arrest me when I’m done.

What we need is a planet full of strong, empowered people. We need tomato security.

I have clients who wanted underground chambers, and when I asked them what they were for, they said, for weapons and ammo. The thing is, even if you have the stomach to kill people who are coming after your tomatoes, you’re not going to be able to kill ‘em all. Instead, make sure everybody within 500 miles of you has tomatoes better than yours. Tomato security.

Whenever I need a new angle on things, when I need to disengage and problem-solve, I pretend that I’m an alien from another planet. As an alien, I notice that there are two entities: Government and Corporations. They run, rule and lord over everything. Those two entities were flirting, but now they’ve mated and their offspring are all of these little disasters running around.

The buildings we’re designing are addressing these issues. I’m called an idiot on a regular basis. I just pretend that idiot means architect.

I’m like Chief Joseph. I fight no more forever. I don’t fight, I transcend. “I will transcend you.”

Our direction is heading toward disaster. We don’t have to go down that path. Where do we go from here? Anywhere but here. Here is not working.

In Jamaica, we’ve built buildings from garbage. Bottles and cans are indigenous materials – they’re now indigenous to the entire planet. We take tires and beat dirt into them to create bricks. We go to the dump and cut the discarded appliances up, and turn stove and refrigerator panels into roofing. We use vertical axis windmills that spin for 22 years with no maintenance.

They say that, “Harnessing fire was the most important point in human history…” but they need to finish the sentence, “…and then they began burning everything on the planet.” The next important point is learning not to need fire.


Lunch break. A stroll under trellised roses into the garden, where there are cultivated rows of cantaloupes, nasturtiums and vegetables. There are signs asking to refrain from using cell phones, but the issue is somewhat moot, since cell reception is spotty. It seemed to work best at the guest cabins situated at the top of a hill, where a woman stood on the front porch chatting on her smart phone. At Omega, overnight guests pay a premium to stay in simple cabins, especially if they opt for a private bathroom. There is a campground for those who would rather pitch a tent, a labyrinth for meditative walking, tennis courts, a sauna, a sanctuary for quiet reflection, a spa, a bookstore and a lake.

The cafeteria is the hub for connecting with fellow conference attendees. The large round tables seat about 8 people each. The crowd at Omega seemed homogeneous on the surface (white, 30 to 50ish), but here you could draw out individual stories and reasons for attending the conference while dining on delicious vegetarian meals. My lunch consisted of couscous topped with spicy squash and a side salad. Cranberry juice. Coffee. (If you crave an off-hour meal, dessert, or a hamburger, there is an on-campus cafe.)

The first two women I met were Kim and Sharon from Transition Newton (NJ). Kim told me about their Time Bank. The way it works is that there are 50 members who donate time in the form of projects. For instance, if you mow another member’s lawn and it takes an hour, then you have an hour in the time bank that you can redeem when you need something done. Newton is part of the Mid-Atlantic Transition hub, which links close to a dozen Transition initiatives with a weekly telephone call so that they can share ideas and compare notes.


After lunch on Saturday, the first speaker was Janine Benyus, a biologist and author of Biomimicry. She is the co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes the study and imitation of nature’s remarkably efficient designs.

Janine Beynus:

We live on a competent planet. Biomimicry is all about minding our mentors.

There are four stages of community: At the top is Mutualism, below that is Commensalism, below that is Coexistence, and at the bottom is Predation/Parasitism – competition.

Back in the early 1900s, there were two biologists with competing views about how the natural world works. Clements, who promoted the idea that nature was composed of communities, and Gleason, who promoted the idea that all of nature was in competition. Until about 15 years ago, Gleason’s view prevailed. In school, it was a slur to be called a Clementsonian – like being called a Communist.

After 100 years of debate, we know more about who eats whom and who helps whom.

  • The Hermit Crab tickles a sea anemone, and when the anemone lets go of its rock, the Hermit Crab scoots underneath and wears it like a coat. The crab is protected by the anemone, and the anemone benefits by being mobile and having access to more food.

  • Epiphytes are orchids that were thought to be loiterers, but now we understand that they build up soil on branches, which allows trees to send out roots.

  • Whales were once thought to be in competition with fishermen, but we now understand that the Gulf of Maine has fish because of the nutrients in whale poop.

  • Dwarf mistletoe, once thought to be a parasite, forces the tree to create branchy growth, which attracts squirrels and birds.

Our whole economy has been based on competition science.

We kill willy-nilly, not realizing who we’re killing. The answer is not for us to pour pesticides over everything; it’s to help the helpers.

A tree makes sugar that winds up in another shrub that’s not getting enough sun. Plants exchange water, and when one is being eaten by a caterpillar, it sends out an alarm through the network so that the other plants can beef up their defenses.

When you map trees, they’re the hubs of the city. It’s the same architecture as our cell metabolism networks.

We put our crops in isolation. We interrupt the conversation. We first should understand what the conversation is.

I was in Yellowstone Park, and there was a buffalo that had locked horns with another buffalo, suffered a concussion and died. A pack of wolves came along and fed on the carcass, until a large grizzly bear came along and chased the wolves away. The bear would eat for awhile, nap, and then eat some more. Finally when he was done, other creatures moved in to feed.

We’ve been told that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. But dogs don’t eat dogs. They eat buffaloes. We’ve been told, “As times get tough, it’s every man for himself.” We have built our economy around a metaphor that had more to do with the Cold War than with life.


During her speech, Benyus referred to ice-minus bacteria and how Jeremy Rifkin’s foundation stopped the GMO’s release into the environment. Read the Wikipedia page. I wonder if Rifkin may have saved the world.


In the Q&A afterwards, Benyus related her institute’s current mission: to create a solar cell for everyone. To take common raw materials, take life’s principles, and apply it to a project. “It’s possible, there have been case studies.”

She spoke about 3D printers. She said in the future, your shoe store is going to have 15 printers instead of 5,000 boxes of shoes. (If you want to understand what all this means, Benyus has a video on her site called “The 3D printing revolution explained in 20 minutes.”)

Benyus suggested an exercise in Deep Observation: Go outside, try to get away by yourself. Sit down. Be very quiet. After a while, organisms relax and begin to do their thing. For 20 minutes, just be there and watch. Look for mutualisms. Quiet your human cleverness. Listen without hunting for the next sound.

Question from the Audience: How can we help policy makers learn mutualism?

Benyus: Understand the genius of your place. What makes this place tick? What is its Achilles Heel? What is a keystone variable? How are the organisms caching water, building soil? What are the services that a healthy ecosystem would deliver? How much pollution would it filter? We call these Ecological Performance Standards.

For instance, New York City should produce the same ecosystem services that used to be there. Set policy goals. To meet the same level of pollination, it might mean having a hive on every roof. The buildings might act as lungs meeting air filtration metrics. Water storage – you might have permeable pavement. It drives design toward function.

It’s time for humans to stop being the toddler, always taking, taking, taking.


[ It may seem like the idea of incorporating biomimicry into existing power structures is just a pipe dream. However, at dinner I chatted with a woman from NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority), Miriam Pye, who is the Senior Project Manager in charge of developing biomimicry projects. Wow! ]


Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, author and entrepreneur who founded some of the first natural food companies in America to rely solely on sustainable agriculture. In his opening speech, President Clinton singled out Paul Hawken as “someone who has proven that you can save the world and make money at the same time.”

Hawken started by asking how big we thought humanity’s mass might be. He showed us a Google Earth map that started in outer space, but soon zeroed down to where there was a relatively small green sphere hovering above Rhinebeck. Turns out, we’re not even a kilometer across. The carbon we emit each year is a much bigger sphere.

Hawken: The study of Climate Change is the largest study in human history. There are a billion and a half data points. I visited Greenland. Climate scientists live in tents, freezing their butts off, risking their lives. One of the chief scientists got lost in a snowstorm and had to have a leg amputated. Drilling two miles down to the core to examine the last interglacial period before this one.

The data is real, but the way it’s presented makes us feel helpless.

We’ve demonized carbon. We have to fall in love with it. Carbon is the element that holds hands and collaborates. Carbon is the answer to our nightmare. Fall in love with this extraordinary thing called life.

A Princeton study addressed how to mitigate 200 tons of carbon, but almost all of the stabilization wedges were something only big utilities can do. It’s such a disenfranchising list. Agency is missing, a problem-solving mindset is missing. It says that we need big entities to solve our problem.

Progress isn’t fixing the problems caused by fixing past problems. Agency is what we can do personally. There’s no global agency, but we have a whole list of things we can do. Real transformation comes from small things. Activists get pushed back – that is the work of transformation.

We’re used to weasel words and conditional ethics. Hype is a narcotic that covers up our fear. Near-death experiences are a bit over-rated. Success is riddled with failure and so is nature. We need the freedom to fail.


Hawken treated us to a recording of Puccini’s famous aria from La Rondine, played on a Stradivarius with wood that was sourced from Sweden, where the trees had dense grain due to the mini ice age. The resonance can be traced back to that sequestration of carbon.

Hawken said, “We need to let go of others, their stories, how they did wrong.”


Benyus returned to the stage for an informal chat with Hawkens, and they talked about MOOCs (massive open online courses) and how they are changing the way we learn.

Hawken: Species are listening to each other. Biophony is the sounds made in nature. Anthrophony is the mechanical noise we introduce, and which disrupts the species filling that auditory niche. Lincoln Meadow was going to be logged so sensitively, but [naturalist Bernie Krause] recorded the sounds in the forest before and after. 9 years after the logging, the biophony had not returned to normal. (NY Times article “Sound of a Damaged Habitat.”)


The last speaker of the day was Rob Hopkins, who is the cofounder of the International Transition Network, a charitable environmental organization. He is the author of The Transition Handbook and The Power of Just Doing Stuff. Transition is a worldwide movement that began in the UK as a response to the dual challenges of Climate Change and Peak Oil. Transition Towns seek to become resilient communities by relocalizing their activities.

Hopkins began by showing us an image of what seemed to be a well-stocked delicatessen.

Hopkins: This photo was taken in Belken, Northern Ireland, near where the G8 conference was held. Rather than allow the G8 delegates to see the empty establishments that were arguably the result of their policies, stickers were placed on the windows to give the illusion of a thriving village.

In the UK, 97% of the groceries are sold through supermarkets. The government seeks ways to expand the 97%, not the 3%. It’s the Myth of Endless Expansion. And yet 50% of the growth benefits 10% of the people, and 20% benefits the top 1%. This is not sustainable.

Regarding Climate Change: We can only burn 1/5th of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground [if we’re not going to burn the planet]. And yet we’re hugely dependent on fossil fuels. So what do we do?

Transition is a key piece of the puzzle. Transition Towns can become one of the stabilization wedges. Wedge #1: Cultivate a learning network. How do we connect cities together? Wedge #2: Support and resource core groups. Wedge #3: Invest in Transition enterprises

[ Hopkins listed examples of Transition projects around the world – everything from a tool library in Seattle, a local food garden in Sao Paolo, and a project that distributes produce to poor people in Sarasota. Around England: in Transition Brixton, a member installs solar panels on low-income homes. In Transition Bristol, residents can pay their taxes with the Bristol pound. In Bath, pensions can be moved to the community-owned energy company.]

In Totnes, we made a Local Economic Blueprint. We realized that 93% of the local revenue was leaving through the supermarket. Just 10% of that was 6 million pounds [that could be recirculating].

Returning to the slide at the beginning of the talk, Hopkins noted: When stickers were created, they weren’t Wal-Marts; they were small, privately owned shops.

Community resilience is a form of economic development, and it works.


Outside, I sat down on a bench and struck up a conversation with Jim Peppler, the official photographer for the Mid Atlantic Transition Hub. He told me that every Transition group has its signature project. Transition Rosendale has a brass band; Woodstock has a time bank; Saugerties is regenerating the local economy.

Before Rob Hopkins was swamped by grateful Transitioners, he autographed our copy of his book, The Transition Companion. He wrote: For the wonderful gem that is Transition Catskills. With all powers to your collective elbows.

I was succeeded by a woman who approached Rob with her confession, “I’m a lapsed Transitioner.” Well, the original Transition Handbook did promote a 12-step model, so I suppose there will be lapses ;)

I spoke to a few more Transitioners, but I had a long drive back to the Catskills, so I shuffled off to the parking lot and hit the unlock button, which is the only way I could distinguish Phil’s Prius in the sea of Priuses.


Sunday morning, having heard so many wonderful speakers already, I doubted whether anything could top the information we had already received – but I was pleasantly surprised. The first speaker was Bob Berkebile, a founding principal of BNIM Architects (among other achievements).

Berkebile: Where we are, where we have been, inform our vision of where we can go from here. If we’re going to address this moment with creativity and passion, we have lots of reasons to be optimistic.

Where we’ve been: the USGBC (US Green Building Council) has been transformational, but not enough. LEED certification (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) means that you’re doing less damage to the environment than anyone else. The next step is the Living Building Challenge 2.0 from the International Living Building Institute.

BNIM has worked with 12 cities in a post-disaster environment. The smallest was Greensburg, KS, which was flattened by an EF5 tornado. The only thing left standing was the grain elevator. Greensburg is populated by a record number of Tea Partiers and Agenda 21ers, [people who have rejected the UN’s Agenda 21 supporting sustainable development], so the firm knew that the topic of rebuilding sustainably might meet some opposition.

FEMA put up a large tent and served a meal. Everyone could come back, have a meal, greet one another for the first time since the storm, and celebrate the lives that were lost. The people who show up for meetings are usually the town council and the school board. Because BNIM was hosting the meals, all the women and children were present, too.

First we started by asking whether we should even rebuild there. Was this a place humans weren’t meant to inhabit? Then we asked 3 questions:

1.     What do you love about this area? 2.     What are the barriers – why are your children moving away? 3.     What would it take for the next generation to stay?

What came out of the meeting was a stronger sense of city. We were asking different questions and we got better answers, more collaboration. One example of why it was important to have everyone there: the Superintendent got rid of the remnants of the old school, and he was looking for land between Buckland and Greensburg, convinced it was best to combine the schools. The children challenged that idea, and he changed his mind and rebuilt the Greensburg school.

This city of Tea Partiers and Agenda 21ers became the first city in America to adopt LEED as their building standard. If we had approached them the way we’re talking today, we would have been thrown out of town.

Greensburg has a municipal wind farm – they sell the excess energy to the grid at a profit. They usually get about 22 inches of rain a year. Last year they got 5 inches. They’re on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is being depleted at a rapid rate.

Greensburg built a business incubator to house businesses until they were strong enough to go out on their own. The John Deere dealership sells personal wind generators. In the new school, kids are learning about natural systems thinking.

If Greensburg, Kansas can do this, what can we do here? Do we claim resilience right now?


In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which was hit by an EF4 tornado in 2011, whites are a minority, but the panel assembled to discuss rebuilding the city was all white men. We created an online town hall called Tuscaloosa Forward MindMixer and used social media to get the word out. The online participants came to the physical meeting, and it was the most diverse meeting ever held in Tuscaloosa. There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.

In Kansas City, there’s an area called “The Killing Zipcode” because of the rampant crime. BNIM completed the Bancroft School revitalization project, and wound up revitalizing the rest of the neighborhood as well.

Berkebile was part of the leadership on a project called MindDrive, where inner-city students created an electric car that gets 440 miles to the gallon at 25 mph.


Berkebile ended his talk by declaring BNIM’s focus: The year 2020 will be the year of perfect vision.

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else and failed.” – Winston Churchill


DAVID ORR is a professor, founder of the Oberlin Project, and author of numerous books, including Ecological Literacy.

Orr was one of the most entertaining speakers of the conference. At the beginning of his talk, Orr quoted the last words of the novel Howard’s End: “Only connect.”

Orr: We will have to connect to the political process, which has been hijacked. The Powell Memo launched an assault on the public good.

The Right Wing claims that we can’t afford to take care of people, we can’t afford to have clean air. Basically, we can’t afford to survive. But we pay for these things one way or another. The price of incarceration for one year is about the same as the price of a year of college – but with a different curriculum.

Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. *

Orr outlined the accomplishments of the Oberlin Project, and he closed with a quote from Martin Luther King:

“We are faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words ‘Too Late’.”


Rafael Casal composed a rap poem about what sustainability means to him. I highly recommend signing up on Omega and watching it, because I could never do it justice by summarizing it.


Sunday’s speakers formed a panel moderated by Bob Berkebile, who took written questions from the audience, sorted them into general topics, and posed them to the panel. Skip Bacchus pointed out that there was a box of tissues available, since the men were all over 55, the age after which men tend to start crying a lot.

Monsanto and GMO foods.

Janine Benyus: GMOs are a failed strategy on every single level, and we don’t need them to feed the planet. Genetically modifying an individual plant is part of that go-it-alone society. It’s a crude instrument that we use without knowing what we’re doing. Super Organics allow nature’s wisdom to create the offspring with characteristics we want them to have. A large proportion of our food crops are genetically modified.

Skip Bacchus: It’s another method of control. It takes power away from communities to sustain themselves.


Majora Carter: I have noticed that countries with greater economic supports have fewer children.

Fossil Fuel Subsidies

David Orr:  Fossil fuels are subsidized with tens of billions of dollars per year. It’s tough to de-subsidize only some things, so the answer is to de-subsidize everything, including renewables. Then everything would be priced at its full cost. For instance, coal would include the true cost of mountain top removal. There are 40,000 lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry. It’s the control of nature by which they control the rest of us. Our planet is our common heritage. Unfortunately, it’s legal to fry the planet. Not just legal – it’s patriotic.

People feel depressed by reality, but if it’s factual, face it. Don’t get so hung up on your emotional state.

Janine Benyus:  We need to facilitate each other. As activists, what are we going to work on shutting down? How do we finance that?

Skip Bacchus:  That list [of problems] causes disconnect, a point of overwhelm. The challenge is to put it in context. There’s not support to get the public to do that. So much overwhelm.

Orr: We’re visual creatures. Create a model of things people can see, touch, feel. Leverage points. Strategy. The pedagogy of change. How do people learn visually?


One of the most surprising moments of the panel discussion was when Berkebile asked Majora Carter where she got her strength, how she kept from jumping off a bridge in the face of so many obstacles. Carter took a long moment, which really got the audience’s attention. Then she said:

The reason why I can’t jump off that bridge is because nobody really includes us. All of you on this panel have worked together, but if the past is a predictor of what the future holds, I won’t be working with any of you.

[Carter went on to reference a New York Times article that called her a traitor to her community because she took a paid consulting job. “No one thinks a black woman should be paid.”]

I know I have work to do. I’m going to go home and work my ass off. I prefer not to be working in isolation. I work ten times harder for one-tenth of the resources. A sister can use some help.

[The crowd showed its support with loud applause.]

Berkebile said he knew that Carter could feel that response. He said she was like a test pilot trying to break the sound barrier. He reminded her that everyone on the panel had been attacked in the press.


[Bacchus grabbed the box of tissues to a roar of laughter]

Bacchus first addressed Carter’s ‘breaking of the flow,’ saying that it was healthy because even when we’re motivated by a cause, we’re unconscious most of the time. Then he went on to address the issue of hydrofracking:

Bacchus said he was amazed it had gotten as far as it had, considering there was no scientific data to back up assumptions. Hydrofracking was really venturing into the unknown, and there was an absolute threat to water quality. Pennsylvania communities with hydrofracking experienced a shift in reality. Suddenly, you find yourself in traffic behind tanker trucks. Hydrofracking buys time, but at what expense? It’s one of these things we latch onto without having a clear picture. What is it actually going to buy us if we do this? It’s an unnecessary risk.

Beynus: The right wing talks about “scientism,” which is somehow less than their magical reality thinking. With the information online, there’s no way to filter what’s true. Folks want an easy thing to believe in.

Orr: There’s a TV ad for a sleeping pill that starts with a butterfly floating through the room, but if you stay tuned to the end of the ad, you get the disclaimers about what the pills really do: cancer, suicide, depression.

80% of US energy consumption is wasted using existing technology. 400 people have more net wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans. That’s not sustainable.

Benyus: Unless people redefine abundance. This is the time where we change our culture.

With 5 minutes left, Berkebile asked the panel: What are you optimistic about?

Benyus: I take my optimism from the confidence we’re surrounded by. If we can begin to gather the best strategies from the natural world and make available to people how our world actually works… 18 to 34 year olds are getting info from MOOCs (massive open online courses). People coming up are learning in a different way. My goal is to ensure that people who want to mimic living systems (instead of death regimes) have access to information and how to apply it. Behaving more and more like natural systems we’re a part of. Participants in the water cycle, the carbon cycle.

Orr: Your emotional state, whether optimism or pessimism, is irrelevant. We’ve got work to do. Let’s get at it. Do what’s in front of you. We’re going to win because we’re on the side of life, and that’s what this is all about.

Carter: I’d like to dispel the notion that there’s anything romantic about poverty. I’ll continue to help poor people be less poor by participating in the economic boom that’s happening around them.

Skip Bacchus ended by saying he was optimistic because of the number of people coming to Omega. He said we must commit the time and not have an aversion to politics. People building self-resilience: this is a long haul.


Carla Goldstein is co-founder of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center: She summarized some of the points made and asked us to answer a few questions. These are my notes of her summary:

We choose creative cooperation over constant conflict. We move fully into the Third Industrial Revolution and the Promised Land where everyone is valued. We choose today a different direction, where garbage isn’t even a concept. We create the conditions conducive to life. We foster mutualism and community. We recognize the miracle of life. We claim our agency to change the human story. It’s not somebody else’s job. Take responsibility for the change in course.

We have to build in transition. Plan for failure. Build in coaching along the way. We don’t hide from our waste. We don’t hide from our own shadows.

We redefine humanity’s capacity and claim our own natural genius.

We connect the dots between our place, process and politics. Full spectrum vision. Build it by leveraging our efforts.


Here are the three questions conference attendees were asked to consider:

  1. Where do YOU go from here? Consider the thing you want to see changed. Just pick one thing to do differently when you leave here. What is it that would help you really make that change? Think about the one thing you’re going to do to get that support and write it down.

  2. In spite of our 99% similarity, we engage in Otherizing (they belong in the Other camp.) Think about somebody who represents the Other. What is one thing you might do to step towards that person?

  3. If we accept we live in an abundant universe and live in a connected community, think about the kind of help you’re going to need. One thing you know that will help you make that step. What is it that would help you really make that change? What is the one thing you’re going to do to get that support?


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