A Deeper Focus


Magic at the Deep Ecology Collaboratory


Stephanie Mills and Deep Ecology Collaboratory participants work on a bioregional mapping exercise, October 2016 – Photo Ecologistics

You can provide the setting and all of the ingredients, but you never know if the magic is going to happen. The magic was present all weekend at the Deep Ecology Collaboratory, held October 21-23 at Rancho El Chorro Retreat Center in San Luis Obispo, CA. Luminaries from the conservation and environmental movement converged with local activists for a weekend of inspiring presentations and brainstorming sessions, all with the goal of designing, introducing and embedding Deep Ecology principles into the current destructive culture of our world.


Starting Friday afternoon with a success story, Ventana Wildlife Society Executive Director Kelly Sorenson took the stage with a 20-year history of the program to save the California condor from “extinction” (quotations to be explained later). Ongoing efforts including providing no-cost lead-free ammunition to ranchers (lead poisoning being a major threat to condors eating shot game) and putting eggs from captive birds into wild condor nests so that the chicks will be raised in the wild.

After dinner, Amalia Galpert, assisted by Evan Albright of Outside Now Nature Academy, performed a fire-making ritual she learned over a 10-year period from a Peruvian shaman and lit two bonfires flanking the outdoor amphitheater. It was a perfect Central Coast evening – no fog, no wind, and the perfect stage for the entertaining yet sobering talk by Dave Foreman on the damage anthropomorphism has had on this planet. Using the Shelley poem “Ozymandias” as a launching point, Foreman touched on many subjects, including the “extinction” of the passenger pigeon. “They darkened the sky with their flocks numbering in the millions,” he said. “People hunted them until there were none left and then shrugged and said, ‘oh well, they went extinct.’ No, they didn’t,” Foreman argues, “they were murdered out of existence.” Extinction, he points out, is something that happens naturally in the world.  But when human activity is the cause, that is not natural, and we should call it what it is.


On Saturday the main auditorium was packed with attendees, called Collaborators, who were present in mind and body, ready to work. People had traveled from as far away as Hawaii, Utah, Nevada, Seattle and Oregon to hear and commune with the Collaboratory topic leaders, who had been brought together in one place for the first time. At one point MC Denise Dudley asked everyone in the room 25 years old and under to stand up. Over one-third of the room rose to their feet. The participation of the young people in the Collaboratory was astounding and energizing, especially to some of the older activists in the room who look forward to working side-by-side with a younger generation.

The first presentation by environmental psychologist Robert Gifford was brought in via Skype as Dr. Gifford was unable to make his flight from Victoria, BC the day before. Dr. Gifford gave us a fresh approach for messaging and how to get the average citizen, distracted with his or her daily life and assuming the government and technology will take care of our problems, on board with Deep Ecology. One way is showing people there are issues happening where they live. “Polar bears on melting ice sheets just aren’t going to have the necessary effect,” warned Gifford. “That can be seen as a problem happening in a faraway place and not directly relevant,”  Gifford suggested that to be successful we must create a new social norm so that anyone who engages in the old behavior becomes an outlier. His comment made me recall back in my childhood in the 1960s that everyone smoked – in restaurants, on airplanes – smoke everywhere. If you complained, you were the oddball. It took 40 years, but now if someone lit up a cigarette in a nice restaurant, the reaction would be immediate. The smoker has become the outlier. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in 20 years, the person driving the gasoline-powered automobile was the outlier? Now that’s a worthy goal that has a place in the Deep Ecology Manifesto.

Following Dr. Gifford’s talk, a brainstorming session was held, and this was the routine throughout the Collaboratory. With his talk fresh in their minds, the Collaborators shared their ideas on how to reach people at an emotional level, where important decisions happen, rather than at an intellectual level.

Next on the schedule were William Ryerson and Joe Bish of the Population Media Center, an extremely focused organization that works to improve the health of people globally using entertainment-education soap operas on radio and TV. Much of the work focuses on impoverished areas of sub-Saharan Africa, where the average family size is 9-11 children. “Access to birth control is not the problem,” said Ryerson. “The problem is overcoming cultural biases toward large families.” There are other issues at work, such as concern by men in these cultures that birth control will allow their wives to be promiscuous. By embedding new ways of thinking into soap opera storylines as a teaching tool, PMC has had incredible success in moving the culture along to a way of thinking that is healthier for the planet and for themselves. One of the stories that stuck with me was one that Ryerson told about a letter he received from a woman in Africa in a community where nearly everyone tuned into one of PMC’s radio shows. They had done a program on obstetric fistulas, a horrific affliction of girls who are married off and impregnated at a very young age, as soon as they become fertile. Labor and childbirth in a 12-year old, immature body can cause damage resulting in the girl become incontinent. Leaking urine and feces, she is often turned out by her husband and family. This woman’s 14-year old daughter had been abducted from school, raped, and developed a fistula following childbirth. The families in the village were afraid to let their daughters go to school for fear the same thing would happen. After hearing the PMC radio program, the village elders got together and did some research. They learned there was a law on the books making this practice illegal, but no one was enforcing it. The woman reported that the village demanded enforcement of the law and it once again became safe for the girls to resume their education.

The brainstorming session following Ryerson and Bish’s talks included ideas of how to appeal to conservative religious groups on why population control is important, and how we can make such ideas culturally relevant.  White middle-class realities are so different from other people’s realities that it is imperative to work with respected cultural leaders in other places to effect real change. The solutions need to be localized and come from local leaders rather than from us. One Collaborator pointed out that we also need to focus on overconsumption as well as overpopulation.

After lunch, we were graced with the presence of Eileen Crist, an educator at Virginia Tech and a prolific author. Her message was that humans’ abiding love for the planet we call home has been buried by modern anthropomorphic conditioning. Human superiority to all other life forms and other possessive concepts are so a part of our belief system and culture that we are not even aware of them. Examples include calling trees, water and minerals “natural resources,” referring to wild animals as “game,” or calling areas in the ocean “fisheries.”  We have a tendency to downplay and stay blissfully unaware that our freedoms are secured at the expense of the natural world. Humans must join the community of life by embracing limitations to expansion, addressing the scale of human development and by learning to love and preserve the places where we live. As Janine Benyus once said, “you must take care of the place that takes care of your offspring.”

Following Crist, iconic author and activist Stephanie Mills led the group in an enjoyable exercise of mapping their home bioregions. This activity was structured like other brainstorming sessions but with the addition of easels and colored markers for creating the maps. Mills explained the bioregional concept that human activity, including environmental and social policies, should be based on ecological or geographical boundaries. She pointed out that some the ideas of the bioregional concept had been developed and promoted by people like wildlife biologist Raymond Dasmann, poet Gary Snyder, and Judy Goldhaft and Peter Berg at the San Francisco Planet Drum Foundation. There was great enthusiasm among participants as everyone went to work rendering on paper the details of their unique bioregions.

A brainstorming session for the Manifesto encompassing Crist’s and talks Mills’ took place. Ideas put forth from the Collaborators included joining forces with businesses to form a coalition or alliance to provide needed services to each region, to reduce imports and exports. Protectionism should be reinstated to protect local agriculture and a bill of rights for local ecosystems should be adopted. We need to work at creating local economies based on indigenous knowledge. Modern culture should reinstate rituals where we can celebrate the environment and manage our horror and fear and transform them into action.

Following the afternoon break, the Collaborators watched a video message from Bill McKibben, who could not attend in person, but who sent up-to-date information on struggles and victories across the country on climate change issues. We were then fortunate to hear from two local activists, Roberto Monge, who was just back from Standing Rock with a report of the struggles there and his efforts to set up a warrior tech camp for the tribes, and Sharon Rippner of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, who addressed that groups efforts to have Congress adopt a carbon fee and dividend program.

After dinner, it was time for some fun in the outdoor amphitheater at the Protest Song Concert, where we honored the three winners of the Ecologistics’ Protest Song Songwriting Contest – runners up Bloom for “Earth Child” and Noach Tangeras for “Buffalo Don’t Roam, and grand prize winner Maria Woodson for “Daffodils.”  After each of the winners played a few of their songs, headliner Ranchers for Peace took the stage and kept us warm with music as the fog descended. The campfires were reignited and Roberto Monge led the audience in song and drumming until the close.


40 early-morning risers were treated to a very special hike through the normally fenced-off and inaccessible Pennington Creek Biological Preserve. We had to ride through several miles of bumpy dirt roads to get there, but it was well worth the effort to see this special place. 1,800 different plant species exist in this very few square miles, more than in the entire state of Alaska. Cal Poly professor and biologist Dr. Matt Ritter gave an entertaining and informative talk as we worked our way through the various forests and open spaces, mixing biology with place history and a lot of humor. The group took a short side trip to stand under the branches of one of the biggest coast live oaks in the county and see how this old and experienced tree is getting itself through one of the worst droughts in history.

Back at the Rancho El Chorro auditorium, Stephanie Mills again took the stage to continue her discussion on bioregionalism. Her talk, which reprised some of the themes she explored in her autobiographical book What Ever Happened to Ecology, elaborated some of her personal experiences as a bioregionalist, ecologist, and writer. She spoke of her involvement organizing and participating in many “bioregional congress gatherings over the years; her early involvement as an activist working on population issues; her commitment as a writer (she worked as an editor for Not Man Apart and CoEvolution Quarterly) to critique the claims of our culture’s technological triumphalism, and to explore how “we might work in local and particular ways to create a culture reverent enough to seek harmony with nature, and we ourselves try to live on that basis.” At the ensuing brainstorming session, the Collaborators’ ideas ranged from creating projects that wean cities from degenerative infrastructure, to making wild spaces a priority, to promoting small-scale solar projects in existing infrastructure.   As one participant pointed out, we can’t solve the problems of the dominant culture with the tools of the dominant culture.

After the lunch break, the floor was turned over to the one and only Derrick Jensen, who pulled no punches in his criticism of current “green” thinking. Beginning with a quote from Robert Coombs “Unquestioned assumptions are the authority of any culture,” Jensen challenged concepts as “sustainable cities” (there is no such thing), and the notion that getting off fossil fuels is the answer (“the planet is dying because of civilization itself, not because there aren’t enough solar panels”). Nothing short of decolonizing, which is breaking one’s attachment to the current culture and reconnecting with the natural world, will save us.

And how will we get there? Deep ecology is one answer – a paradigm shift toward an earth-based, rather than a human-based mind set. What is best for the planet should be our primary concern, not what will make us more comfortable or life more pleasant.

A truly memorable weekend of convening, collaborating and acting. Now the work of creating the Deep Ecology Manifesto begins. Collaborators will continue to participate via the cloud collaboration platform Loomio as we work toward publication of a collection of the ideas recorded at the Collaboratory. The Ecologistics board wishes to thank the Collaboratory sponsors and partners, the speakers who came from all over the country to share their wisdom (and who stayed and participated all weekend), our volunteers who kept things running smoothly, and the over 100 Collaborators who took a weekend out of their busy lives to be the change.

By Stacey Hunt and Ted Hamilton

2 Responses

  1. Wow – that’s a lot of “magic” – sounds like a ton of good information and ideas were floating around. I’m especially interested in Eileen Crist’s bit about the terms we use for natural phenomenon. Words have power, and I think she’s right that we need to take that power back and pay attention to the linguistics of ecology. Great stuff – thanks! Will there be another Collaboratory in 2017? I hope you’ll post it up on your calendar ahead of time…

  2. Stacey Hunt

    Hi, Bill. We are just finishing a short video recap of the Collaboratory that features some of Eileen’s remarks – she is amazing. No plans for a 2017 Collaboratory. We are still digesting information from the last one. This year Ecologistics is planning to create an activism training program as so many people are fired up by the election and want to help in any way they can.

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