On Saturday, Nov. 2, the College of the Environment (COE) held its annual symposium, “Where on Earth are We Going?”, which featured guest lecturer Deborah Bird Rose and Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment Frédérique Apffel-Marglin ’66. Bird Rose gave a lecture titled “Kinship with Nature in the Time of Loss: Can Animism Help Revitalize the Commons?”, while Frédérique Apffel-Marglin’s lecture was called “Re-imagining the Commons: Natural Resource Management or Biocultural Generation?”
Each symposium focuses on that year’s COE Think Tank topic. Director of the College of the Environment and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program Barry Chernoff spoke about the importance of this symposium.
“We’ve had very impressive speakers over the years,” Chernoff said. “It is important for our students to get exposed to leading speakers in the environmental field and exposed to unique, cutting-edge voices from outside Wesleyan. It gives our students a chance to test ideas and learn different points of view, even if they disagree. We want our students to engage in the critical issues of our time.”
The COE holds “Where on Earth are We Going?” over Homecoming/Family Weekend so that parents and alumni can attend the event as well as students.
Chernoff commented on the diverse nature of the symposium’s sponsors, which include the Baldwin University Lectures, the Mellon Fund for Lectures, the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, the Science in Society Program, the Animal Studies Reading Group, Center for the Americas, the Anthropology Department, and the History Department.
“The amount of groups and departments sponsoring the event shows that the issues we’re dealing with really affect a lot of people at the university,” Chernoff said.
Bird Rose’s talk focused on how her work with Aboriginal people has helped her better understand animism, which she defined as humans’ relationship with all natural objects, including plants, animals, rivers and rocks.
“Animism can help us to revitalize our capacity to understand ourselves and our place in the world to restore us to a sense of humanity,” she said.
She explained that animism makes life meaningful because it allows people to realize that birds have ceremonies of their own and plants have their own cultures and kinships.
“What does it take to live in a culture where other beings are bumping up against you?” Bird Rose asked. “You’re not bumping up against inanimate objects.”
She told the story of Australian porcupine hunter, Snowy Kulmilya, who uses a boomerang to slay porcupines. He sees porcupines as intelligent, tricky beings, and consequently talks to them when he hunts them.
“You need to acknowledge the multiple knowledges in the universe,” Rose said. “Where the human knowledge stops is not the end of knowledge.”
Commenting on the topic of this year’s Think Tank, Bird Rose explained that the entire biosphere is a common space, shared by all.
“There should not be property questions, but belonging questions,” she said. “We belong to it; it doesn’t belong to us. It isn’t ours to trash and throw away.”
After her lecture, Bird Rose explained why it is important for young people, like University students, to learn about issues such as animism and the commons.
“You’re the ones who will have to live through a world of tough changes,” Bird Rose said. “You need inspiration and resources and an awareness of a diverse human experience.”
Apffel-Marglin spoke in front of a photograph of the Sachamama Center for Biocultural Regeneration, which she founded in 2009, in the Peruvian High Amazon. She analyzed the word biocultural, which comprises the roots for the words nature and humanity.
“Nature and humans are always entangled,” she said.
Apffel-Marglin showed a short video clip of two boys in Bolivia praying to and discussing the merits of El Tio, who is said to protect miners and eat men. She also explained the idea of moral economy, which, she stated, is humans’ responsibility to the nonhuman world.
After her lecture, Apffel-Marglin explained that her goal is to motivate young people to take action.
“Thinking is great, but not sufficient,” she said. “If people only do with their minds and don’t connect learning with activities, it’s very problematic.”
Apffel-Marglin’s suggested that one remedy to this problem for University students is to work on Long Lane Farm and do other activities with real-world applications.
“Long Lane Farm shouldn’t be an elective or a side thing; it should be incorporated into the curriculum,” she said. “There are some community engagement courses, but they are few and far between. Courses should have a hands-on aspect.”
Ross Levin ’15 said that he enjoyed Apffel-Marglin’s presentation.
“She was able to make connections between types of knowledge and how people relate to each other,” Levin said. “It was exciting that there is a new type of economy, which is at the center of what Frédérique was talking about.”