Tuesday 4 October 2016

Reflections at R50 - Resurgence’s 50th Birthday Celebration: ‘One Earth, One Humanity, One Future’

22 September
I have a feeling the coming days will be an important marker for the environmental movement as well as an historic occasion for Resurgence and the many communities that are coming together around the themes of ‘One Earth, One Humanity, One Future’ for ‘R50’ - its 50th Birthday celebrations at Worcester College, Oxford. Satish Kumar is currently still Editor in Chief - the longest serving Editor of any publication in the UK. He will be handing over to the new editor Greg Neale at the end of the event and moving to a more supporting role. Satish is actually the main reason that all of these hundreds of people are gathered together, many of whom have accepted invitations to speak or attend specifically to wish him a Happy 80th Birthday year. People’s affection for him is palpable and genuine, their respect for him as a teacher and activist is a privilege to witness. Resurgence is a unique magazine dedicated to the environment, activism, social justice, arts and ethical living. Vandana Shiva the environmental activist says, “it joins what is interconnected. It is the most important magazine available.”

Resurgence Banner, Photo: Fern Smith

R50 brings so many incredible speakers, writers and activists from all over the world together. I'm due to chair a session tomorrow with three leading artist/activists two of whom I know well and have influenced me directly. I have just finished walking for three months round Wales and then four days along the River Thames in company with many other ‘pilgrims’ to be here in Oxford at this moment. It feels in fact, that I've walked my whole life to be here in this very place...

My partner Phil Ralph joins me in Oxford too since this event also marks the official launch of Emergence’s crowdfunded documentary on Satish Kumar, 'Being an Earth Pilgrim' which took us two years from inception to production to make. I've a sense this is going to be a pivotal few days in both our lives.

The opening session was a powerful and moving statement of intent, indictment of our current world order, call to action and vision of possible futures. It included contributions from Jonathan Bate, JamesSainsbury, Vandana Shiva, Satish Kumar, Prince Charles (on video) and David Puttnam. I scribbled a raft of notes throughout. These words taken from the speakers above are a radical prĂ©cis of the first two hour welcome session…

Awe, wonder and the resurgence of the human spirit,
This is true wellbeing and wealth.
We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.
But what is the role of the messenger?
In this theatre of life it’s reserved only for God/s and Angels to be lookers on.
What we resist is the destruction of the earth and human society
It's a battle worth fighting...

23 September
Breakfast at Worcester College in the beautifully impressive vaulted dining room. I wasn't up to eating much and deliberately avoided any caffeine to not trip my nerves into overdrive. I was chairing a session on arts and climate change at 11.30 and was determined not to shake and rattle my way through it!

Good friend Lucy Neal author of the brilliant book ‘Playing For Time: making art as if the world mattered’, was breakfasting with us. She was due to speak along with Peter Gingold of Tipping Point and Alice Sharpe of Invisible Dust at the session I was chairing. I'd prepared and over-prepared, which is always my way. At 11.30, we were all present in the Nash Room, the smaller of the two spaces at R50 and were ready to go…Peter reflected on the past eleven years of Tipping Point’s existence highlighting the many artworks relating to climate change that it has commissioned or inspired. Lucy spoke about her conviction that celebratory community events can act as powerful catalysts for change and Alice shared projects she’d commissioned such as High WaterLine Bristol, where residents chalked 20miles of pavements to highlight flooding. I felt privileged to be introducing these three amazing people and holding space for the conversation that was to follow. People really got a tangible sense with specific examples of the incredible role that artists have played and are playing, in documenting and responding to climate change and issues of social, ecological and economic justice WHILST ALSO helping us imagine and build the possibility of a more life-sustaining future. I had a giddy celebratory feeling after. My body tired with relief. The work of these three people is inspiring and ongoing, I urge you to have a look at their work by following the embedded links above.

Peter Gingold, Lucy Neal, Fern Smith & Alice Sharp, Photo: Alice Sharpe

After my session, I had a chance to really be at the event wholeheartedly to listen, absorb and be moved…There were so many speakers, so many choices. You couldn't see everyone especially as two sessions ran simultaneously throughout the event. You had to make difficult choices…It was an amazing line-up and you can see the whole programme here. I heard Caroline Lucas, now returned as joint-leader of the Green party, speak with calm authority and clarity describing a new political progressive alliance, "Where we have common ground we need to work together for the common good". Tim Smit from the Eden Project, spoke next - half stand-up, half sooth-sayer, "humans were in love with the natural world until they fell in love with themselves". This was only a flavour of the incredible sessions to come.

It was a beautiful warm day, with the ancient and stunning grounds of Worcester College to stroll in. Good vibrations were in the air - many meetings, talks, minds and hearts opening. Vandana Shiva, the great Indian activist, and RowanWilliams, Archbishop of Canterbury were the most incredible double bill imaginable - powerful words delivered from the heart. I knew I was slowly filling up to my limit. When Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall appeared for a  conversation with Satish, I had to disappear outside to decompress and just walk amongst the great old trees with Lucy, catching up on a summer's news. Off and out of the Worcester College grounds later into the city centre and a little Italian restaurant with Phil, Lucy and her husband Simon - our great saviour and Director of Photography for the Satish Kumar DVD - who'd just turned up for the launch. Warm company, stories swapped and making ready for tomorrow's 'grand launch' after breakfast. September slipping by. Into Autumn and onwards to the turning and the darker days to come. Till then, still blackberries to pick, dahlias to admire and sitting ducks to enjoy.

Simon Maggs & Fern Smith, Photo: Phil Ralph

24 September
Up and ready for breakfast in the great hall. I played Lucy's husband, our Satish cameraman, Simon at 5aside chess. Twenty minutes or so of manoeuvres and pawn ponderings. We prepared ourselves for maybe speaking/maybe not about our DVD in Satish's session this morning. You never know till the last minute with Satish what might happen. We’re OK with that, we are called ‘Emergence’ after all. The most likely outcome was what happened - he spoke, briefly mentioned the DVD, then played our short trailer. Here it is...

It was a proud movement. Satish is definitely behind it and clearly delighted with it which is as much as we could have asked.

Phil Ralph, Fern Smith, Satish Kumar, Jane Davidson & Simon Maggs, Photo: Roy Riley

Charles Eisenstein spoke as the other half of Satish's session. Calm, authentic and a great wordsmith. He spoke of the "conversion of nature into numbers" and the myth and problem of the "separate self". We could have listened to him all day but it was not to be. A short break, and then the brilliant BruceLipton, author of The Biology of Belief. He talked about epigenetics and the new human consciousness. It was a delivered at a breakneck fast delivery to fit in in the allotted time - we were all racing to keep up with his impeccable logic and lightning fast mind. Evolution was going to save us. The future is a story of unity and not separate units. All of us are potentially the individual cells of a new super-organism.  If you've not come across his work before do check him out. Remarkable stuff. Madeleine Bunting then spoke about identity and place, "where is your spot? What is the place which holds your sense of self and community?" I'd got her book. Had it now for a good few years, and now after hearing her speak, I'm finally committed to reading it. Lunch in the sun, on the grass under the great, old Worcester College trees.

25 September
We - Phil, Lucy and I - sat on the usually deserted 'top-table' for breakfast in the great Hogwarts-like hall at Worcester College. The only other Breakfasters on our table (at the other end) being Bill McKibben, George Monbiot and George Marshall. What a power trinity! We cleared our rooms for the 10am get-out and made ready for the morning session... I'd read Bill McKibben's last book 'Oil and Honey' and knew he was probably the top world heavyweight climate writer and activist. Older and taller than I imagined, his voice was like the voice of the deep earth. What a force – not over-bearing or hectoring but speaking with a rationality, stillness and quiet knowing that feels like it could power the earth for centuries: "Getting arrested isn't the end of the world. The end of the world is the end of the world".  What a line. What a notion. Certainly not one to pull punches or soften blows but a deeply humane, thoughtful and compassionate individual. Words that really rung true and moved the heart and mind: "The planet is well outside its comfort zone. We need to be outside our comfort zone." He spoke about himself as being quite an introvert and preferring a life as a solitary writer than an activist and leader of the international climate movement, 350degrees.org. To follow him - an unenviable task but done beautifully - was Paula Byrne, another writer. She spoke about the power of poetry being the only thing strong enough to help us as we stare into the abyss of grief, depression or overwhelm. Poetry - "the best words, in the best order" said Coleridge. "Poetry like wilderness is something that can break us out of the enchantment of consumerism" responded Bill M in the Q and A. Here's to the language of the soil and of the soul and praise be to the poets for writing it.

Bill McKibben, Photo: Fern Smith

The end of the Resurgence event was drawing near. More chances to meet and talk with lovely people and walk the beautiful grounds of Worcester College by the lake, past the sleepy ducks, through the orchard and under the weeping willows. A final session with George Monbiot and others with the tough task of bringing it all together. As he spoke, the rain rose to a crescendo finale - it really was like the voice of the gods. A number of times, he just had to shout from the podium, though amplified, to be heard over the thundering downpour. It was awesome - total theatre. "We are surrounded by a socially constructed silence. That's how we can live with the injustices of today...Our task is to live as if viewed from the future." It felt like nothing more could be said, then Scilla Ellsworthy, three times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize said it, and so much more. When asked by people what they could do in response to the crisis we are living through, she immediately responded, "What breaks your heart? What skill or passion do you have which aligns with this? Do that...”

Satish spoke next, to whoops, whistles and rapturous applause - stepping down as editor of Resurgence and handing over to Greg Neale, for hopefully another fifty years. R50 drew slowly to a close with more content than we really knew what to do with. Ideas, conversations and connections that couldn't possibly all be followed up in one lifetime. I was pleased I managed to tell Bill McKibben as he was leaving that his now famous quote, "Where are all the goddamn operas?" has motivated so many artists including myself into action. It was the inspiration behind Emergence's report to the Arts Council of Wales, ‘CultureShift’ in 2014.

I know for sure that I did walk to Oxford, walked Wales before that and walked my entire life before that for 52 years to arrive where I needed to be, at ‘One Earth, One Humanity, One Future’ Resurgence’s 50th Birthday Party.  I was in the right place. The only place I could be in, feeling what I feel and knowing what I know. Now at home, a week later, how to integrate all this and to respond creatively and effectively? Onwards from here for me and for Emergence. Wherewards? Whatwards? With whom? A new day and a new moon is coming. I trust I shall find my way…

Fern Smith is an artist and creative director of Emergence www.emergence-uk.org.

She is co-director of the Emergence documentary, 'Being an Earth Pilgrim' a six hour landmark documentary series about internationally renowned peace activist Satish Kumar available now from the Resurgence Shop. All proceeds go to Resurgence.