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From Reddit to the EdCamp: Reimagining the Climate Conference

Claire Babbott-Bryan


One of my favorite parts about working with the EcoFarm Association during my GrizzlyCorps Service year has been the opportunity to attend climate conferences across California. Since my capacity-building projects revolve around programming for EcoFarm’s 44th and 45th annual conferences, I have been encouraged to attend other conferences to take notes on their structure, design, speakership, and attendees. To name a few, I’ve been able to participate in the Latino Farmers Conference, Small Farms Conference and Bioneers Conference. 


In the environmental field, conferences play particularly significant roles. They are knowledge-sharing hubs, spaces for networking and collaboration, and platforms for leading voices in the field to be heard and celebrated. The more I attend, the more curious I become about conferences themselves. When and where did they originate as we now know them? What function(s) do they serve in current professional society? Why are they structured the way they are? What is missing? Who is present, and who is not? As we envision healthy and just futures, how might we reimagine “the conference” to better serve its communities?


A critical function of EcoFarm in the 80s and 90s was to serve as a gathering space for farmers. There was no internet, no way to Google search for a state grant, a native species, or instructions on how to build a hedgerow. It was infinitely harder to answer a question about that mysterious goo growing on the celeriac. Now, the organic world is going digital. Just look at Reddit - the organic gardening thread has nearly 436,000 active members. Anyone can post a question and crowdsource advice within minutes. This knowledge is free and immediate, and its barriers are few (besides internet access and language). 


A screenshot of a Reddit post on the organic gardeners thread. Note the helpful, quick responses.

While it is difficult to compare a Reddit thread to a 4-day in-person conference, they share two primary functions: knowledge distribution, and networking spaces for organic community members. Where they differ most is in their reach and “the experience.” It’s pricey to attend events like EcoFarm, especially for farmers who are younger, BIPOC, lower income, and/or non-English speaking. While programs like scholarships, college credits, and work trade are great steps toward creating more access, these groups remain at the margin, and are not represented nor centered enough by the programming.


Feedspot’s list of the top 5 organic farming channels. Organic Farm TV, based in Thailand, has 29.6 million video views.

These numbers not only demonstrate the power of the internet to distribute organic knowledge, but it also shows just how many people are curious and interested. Regenerative/organic/sustainable/ecological farming is trending! Millions of people are actively seeking out these spaces. So why is there such a big difference between EcoFarm’s potential audience and its actual one? Where did this exclusivity emerge?


The Solvay Conference is one of the first examples of an exclusive gathering where leading scientists would travel from far and wide to attend. The first was held in 1911 in Brussels, and adopted a format that quickly became popular and has remained largely unchanged today: a multi-day event, closed to the public, covering a specific theme, led and attended by experts within a field. Three driving factors enabled this format: “infrastructural, particularly the growing ease of travel; social, with the emergence of interest groups (such as scientists) operating across borders; and political, in that conferences became considered a means of a collaborative regulation” (read more about “The Art of Gathering”). It was at the 1927 Solvay that Albert Einstein debated Niels Bohr, and together they laid down the foundations for what we now call quantum physics. These meetings would become “typical of a new type of conference: closed to outsiders, focused on big questions, and marked by the informal interaction of [invited] leading experts” who are devoted to pressing problems in their field. It is basically within the last century that the modern conference has emerged. Solvay continues to this day, adhering to its invite-only nature. Others establish their exclusivity using price or format.


I recall my experience as a participant of EcoFarm and Bioneers. On the final day of Bioneers, the first post-lunch program I attended was a 90-minute panel about the rise of fascism (light topic) in the U.S. Around 75 audience members settled into the red velvet chairs in the spotless UC Berkeley auditorium. No food or drink allowed, no phone use. We were reminded by surrounding signage that we would be asked to leave if we were found recording the event. The two speakers shared their work and answered the moderators’ questions until the final 10 minutes, where 2-3 audience members’ hands were chosen to allow for some crowdsourced dialogue. With such a charged presentation theme, the air felt like it was about to burst with the questions and conversations by the conference attendees. But the structure of the panel, wherein the audience sits quietly and politely for 99% of the meeting, didn’t seem to function in the way it needed to. The panel ended and 10 unanswered hands remained wavering in the air. The room was buzzing with unattended energy, as if we were all injected with caffeine and told that it was bedtime. We needed an outlet, we needed to turn to each other and talk. But this dialogue was stifled by the auditorium’s spatial limitations and the strict conference schedule. 


This structure, seen in most conferences, is clearly influenced by the Solvay Conference. Solvay introduced a format that uplifts an expert’s voice while disallowing dialogue and conversation, in the name of disciplinary progress. This is not to say there is no value in uplifting expert voices and work, but the imbalance of the Bioneers panel was blatant and ultimately seemed to stifle the community action it sought to induce. One article acknowledges that the “sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of the expertise of the people on stage” (read more here). This structure can be extremely harmful. It creates a hierarchy where the esteemed experts (predominantly representing the elite ruling class) are the only ones with a say about the topic at hand, participants are reduced to passive witnesses, and the rest of the world does not have access to any of it. I should also add that many workshops at EcoFarm and Bioneers were formatted as dialogues, discussions, forums and affinity spaces. But the vast majority took on this more traditional format.


When it comes to global climate conferences, this dynamic takes on a whole different scale. Take COP, the most prominent climate conference in the world. This event has largely been co-opted by big oil and gas, which is a devastation considering the urgency of global action. This year, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, was named president of the climate summit. (Yes you read that right!). Out of its 84,000 participants, there were over 2,450 attendees that were lobbyists for oil and gas industries, advocating for “ungrounded climate solutions like ‘low-carbon’ biogas and blue hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, geoengineering, carbon markets, and abated emissions” (Dissent Magazine). These participants influence the dialogue of the conference and the language of the final agreement. 


With its investors and intentions, COP won’t produce anything effective, like a global climate treaty with structural accountability for wealthy petrostates. Its final deliverable, a completely nonbinding document, is absent of regulable takeaways. (Here is a Guardian article listing COP’s failures).


Where are the in-person gatherings with diverse stakeholders, whose structure centers resistance and challenges co-opted events like COP? One example could be the Unconference. Unconferences subvert the expert-centered structure of traditional conferences by instead prioritizing participant voices (whether they be farmers, educators, activists, health care workers) as the conference’s leaders and decision makers. “At an unconference, no topics have been predetermined, no keynote speakers have been invited, no panels have been arranged. Instead, the event lives and dies by the participation of its attendees. They decide what topics will be discussed and they convene the individual breakout sessions. In other words, an unconference has no agenda until the participants create it.” The unconference’s open and democratized design is wonderful. However, relying on loose structure, unconferences risk devolving into chaos and are generally only effective with very small groups. Also, their audience so far has been educators, and they are quite new; the unconference hasn’t permeated into the mainstream conference industry just yet.


A schedule being made on the fly during an Unconference.

(Image source)


In my research I have yet to encounter a modern climate conference that successfully addresses these dilemmas. As online communities continue to expand in scope and depth, what is the special, irreplicable value of “in-person,” and how can it be harnessed and shared? Maybe it is free, completely digitized, well-advertised and broadly accessible (including multilingual). Maybe it anchors itself locally, hosting local tribes, orgs, and mutual aid initiatives. Maybe its programming features keynotes and expos, while also holding space for sections that are planned by participants, modeled after the unconference and emergent strategy (shoutout Octavia Butler & adrienne maree brown). Maybe it features local food, music, art, and enough space in between programs for restoration and reflection. Maybe all the profits directly benefit these local initiatives and their movements. A lot of this is inspired by what EcoFarm already does, and I am truly moved by how eager they are to continue to grow their community, participants, and values.


Futures are painted for us constantly. From social media to news and politics, even in our own relationships, we are constantly being told what will come next. So, why don’t we paint this for ourselves: what is the future of the climate conference, as we want to see it? 

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