Agora for the Great Transition, Paris, 21–23 March 2018
When planning the event, we thought that the current political context required special attention: Our observation was that the world was polarised and that different tribes lived in increasingly separate worlds, with little knowledge about the motivations and realities of the other tribe. Social media algorithms bring out the worst in humans by activating our ancient tribal circuits. We are operating in ever soundproof ideological echo chambers, where we only listen to opinions that we already hold. We develop and strengthen closed ideologies that become difficult to break though.
Our assumption is that to be politically successful the Great Transition cannot take shape inside an ideological echo chamber in this increasingly polarised world. In an effort to burst our own ideological bubble, we wanted to listen to and discuss diverse ideas that we don’t always openly discuss in activist circles.
The dogmatic attitude that people we dislike and disagree with are incapable of contributing to the future will only cripple our ability to engage with reality. Instead, can we be open to questioning our long-held beliefs and truly listen to diverse points of view and perspectives about systems change?
We wanted to revitalise Hannah Arendt’s idea of the agora, a public space where people come together, talk, listen, argue, agree, compete, show, and see the world they share.
We made a great effort to bring together a highly interesting group of participants from diverse fields of knowledge areas and perspectives. We had grassroots activists, people from different NGO sectors, a number of representatives from grant-making organisations and a great range of researchers and academics with knowledge about and interest in transition models and strategies. Overall we had 62 participants.
The guiding question of the event was: What can we learn, with the Great Transition in mind, from the best ideas and truths from women and men across the political spectrum and from the best knowledge and wisdom in science, history, and cultural heritage? We aimed at creating enlightening dialectics on core questions about strategy and vision for the transition from the current neoliberal growth paradigm to the next system.
As an impulse to the discussion, we wrote a discussion paper, which was shared with participants in advance. The paper introduced a number of crucial questions to clarify for the design of strategies and approaches to systems change, especially in the current political climate.
Overview and videos of the core discussions at the Agora
Sociometry | We kicked off the event by asking some challenging questions to spark some debate among participants. Take a look at the questions and a summary of the comments made.
Keynote by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, “Evolving beyond the event horizon: In search of a fair, stable and abundant future” | The human mind is the most complex entity in the known universe, and that complexity evolved for a reason. It provides human populations with the ability to discover new niches. But in endowing people with that marvellous superpower, evolution sowed the seeds of our potential destruction. We have discovered the means by which to steal from the future in order to thrive in the present. Self-destruction would be inevitable but for another evolutionary gift, the ability to describe alternative futures and to choose amongst them. Watch a very similar presentation given by Bret Weinstein on the same topic.
Fishbowl discussion | On the question: “A better economic system, post-growth and post-homo-economicus, but which?” Diverse perspectives from different fields of knowledge. Exploring difficult questions about the next system. Watch the beginning of the discussion, kicked off by five initial discussants: Felix Ekardt from the University of Rostock, Silke Helfrich from the Commons Strategies Group, Vincent Liegey from the degrowth movement, Henry Leveson-Gower from Promoting Economic Pluralism and evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein.
Keynote by Alex Evans | On how to find new myths that will help us to navigate our way to a better future. Alex Evans is the author of the book The Myth Gap. He argues: “In this time of global crisis and transition — mass migration, inequality, resource scarcity, and climate change — it is only by finding new myths, those that speak to us of renewal and restoration, that we will navigate our way to a better future. It is stories, rather than facts and pie-charts, that have the power to animate us and bring us together to change the world.” The subsequent conversation with evolutionary biologist Heather Heying focused on how narratives can be grounded in science and reality, and participants made comments and asked questions at the end. Watch the full speech and discussion session.
Session on effective leverage points for the Great Transition | We had a group conversation to discuss how to identify effective leverage points for the Great Transition and which actions have more potential to be effective than others. Prior to the event we asked participants to respond to a survey, where we aimed to understand the current thinking among participants about what can be the most effective ways civil society can/should work on systems change. At the event we built on the survey results and continued the discussion. Our session summary talks about the background of this research, how we approached the session and what the results were.
The Agora was an initial experiment to create meaningful dialectics about important questions and tension points for the Great Transition. The format and the mix of participants allowed for moments where we experienced enlightening dialectics, but we also realise that it will require more work on creating spaces and formats and attracting diverse viewpoints to fully achieve our goals.
There was great appetite at the event for continuing the work and discussions on several of the topics, especially on creating useful tools for activists to identify effective leverage points and also on how we can create prototypes for systemic change that take evolutionary biology into account. These are some of the conclusions that we, the Smart CSOs team, want to take with us going forward as part of the Pathways to the Great Transition research project.
The venue was graciously offered to us free of charge by the local artistic, political and social lab, La Génèrale, for which we are grateful.
On the last day of the event, and upon request of a few participants, we organised a spontaneous plenary forum to discuss issues about identity and intersectionality that had been raised in the discussion paper. The paper proposed a number of arguments critiquing current trends in social movements, which often see the world almost entirely through the lens of power and privilege, and asked if intersectionality might actually be increasing polarisation and division in our societies, instead of supporting a positive transition.
We had initially provided some space to discuss these questions at the beginning of the gathering and were aware of the possibility that the issue might be raised by those who would like the Smart CSOs Lab to take on a perspective of intersectionality. But we didn’t go deep enough to get a clear sense of existing tensions among participants. This spontaneous discussion turned out to focus almost entirely on the question of whether there was a culture of patriarchy at the event that led men to participate more than women in some discussions (approximately 50% of the participants were women) as well as the question of whether the group was diverse enough. There were participants on both sides of the argument. A small number of women believed that they perceived a culture of patriarchy and male power and privilege at the Agora that made them feel uncomfortable, while other women expressed that this wasn’t an issue for them at all.
There were also a few strong advocates for more racial diversity in the group while others expressed their satisfaction with the diversity. And finally, a number of participants were unhappy that we had changed the agenda of the day for this discussion. They felt that the event had been hijacked by a small number of participants who wanted to “impose their agenda”.