The One Earth, One Humanity, One Future Festival at Worcester College brought together leading figures from the world's green and social justice movements to share ideas for creating a fairer, more sustainable future.
One of the Indian dance performances at the three-day event at Worcester College
By Olivia Gordon
Every Oxford conference – and there is a constant stream - gathers a completely different sub-culture of people at the University. On any given month, there might be a gathering of computer geeks, or geneticists, or literary theory devotees.
It felt fitting that the One Earth, One Humanity, One Future sustainability festival, which took over the city this September, was held at Worcester College as Oxford has long been a place where charities and green politics have been active.Oxford resident George Monbiot (Brasenose, 1982) talking about how our descendants might judge us in future
Many of the speakers at the festival, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Britain’s ecology magazine, Resurgence, have Oxford connections, from Mark Goldring, Oxfam’s chief executive, to Nobel Prize nominee Scilla Elworthy, founder of pace charity the Oxford Research Group, to zoologist Andrew Mitchell, whose Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme is trying to save the rainforests.
Among the speakers were many alumni. There was the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (Wadham, 1972), formerly Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, talking about the world as a form of communication; Professor of Poetry Simon Armitage, lecturing on poems of the land and in the landscape; Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology Mark Williams, speaking on transforming perception through mindfulness; Principal of Lady Margaret Hall Alan Rusbridger, who spoke at a celebratory dinner (vegetarian, of course); and campaigning journalist and Oxford resident George Monbiot (Brasenose, 1982) talking about how our descendants might judge us in future.Campaigner and chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (St Peter's, English Literature)
The hosts for the festival, who welcomed everyone to Worcester, were college Provost and Professor of English Literature Jonathan Bate, and his wife, biographer and mental health campaigner Paula Byrne. Professor Bate spoke to the audience on the possible fusion of the rising academic fields of environmental and medical humanities, while Paula Byrne talked on bibliotherapy for mental health.
The organisers of the festival are also linked to the University – the editor of Resurgence, Greg Neale, studied here (Pembroke, 1999), and the Resurgence Trust’s Chairman, who facilitated the festival happening at Worcester College, is college alumnus James Sainsbury (Worcester, 1948).
The list of names may sound worthy, but the event was the opposite of dull. The audience, full of activists who had journeyed from all over the country, was proudly alternative – one woman was knitting rainbow yarn while listening to the talks, while another, resplendent in a multicoloured central American hat, heckled James Sainsbury to invite more women from the audience to speak (‘whoops!’ was his embarrassed response). Left to right: Lord David Puttnam, Vandana Shiva, James Sainsbury, Satish Kumar
The stage was decorated with trees laden with berries, and as Andrew Mitchell, a ‘self-confessed tree-hugger’, gave an impassioned speech on saving the rainforest which started, ‘Have you ever really looked into the eyes of an orangutang?’, torrential rain suddenly poured from the heavens, rousing amazed applause from the audience.
‘It’s coming to press your point,’ smiled the peace activist and former monk Satish Kumar, the editor-emeritus of Resurgenceand the spiritual leader of the festival.
The issues discussed were dark – price and profit, it was clear from the talks, are threatening our world. George Monbiot explained in the festival’s closing ceremony that we have 60 years of harvests left until our soil runs out – yet the news, written by blinkered metropolitans and controlled by billionaires, is full of trivia instead. ‘Our task,’ he said, ‘is to listen for what is not being said, for the urgent crashing critical issues surrounded by silence.’
But there was hope, too. Andrew Mitchell noted that power and profit may be the solution to saving nature where love has not been enough - banks are starting to refuse to support deforestation, for instance.
This was one festival where everyone looked everyone else in the eye as they walked past one another, and there was a sense of people consciously trying to be peaceful.
The festival took two years to organise, having started when Greg Neale asked Resurgence trustees, ‘How about something crazy, like a three-day festival at an Oxford college?’
He reflects: ‘Oxford is an internationally distinguished centre for the study of many of those subjects that Resurgence has covered over 50 years - environment and development, peace and international relations, religion and spirituality, as well as some of the exciting new developments – work on mindfulness, for example. It’s also a location for many new interdisciplinary research projects and institutions that work in these fields.’
James Sainsbury adds: ‘The connection between Worcester and Resurgence at this moment is particularly perfect. Sir Jonathan Bate, the Provost, is a world-renowned scholar of the poetry of nature and of ecopoetry. His wife, Paula Byrne, works with the healing power of literature. Worcester itself is famous for the great natural beauty of its gardens and the principal concern of Resurgence is to promote a reconnection between humanity and nature. Thus it is a wonderfully apt collaboration and I am delighted to have played a part in bringing the two together.’
One thing is certain: by welcoming environmental causes, Oxford University gives them some of its authority, and could actually help save the planet.
Olivia Gordon is a regular contributor to Oxford Today and lives in Oxford
Images © Roy Riley