Camden Conference aims to give attendees 'a really good start' on global issues
Camden — If you have fond memories of late-night conversations in a college dorm room where you solved the problems of the world, the Camden Conference could be for you.
This year's conference is titled, “The Global Politics of Food and Water,” and it takes place Feb. 21 through 23 at the Camden Opera House and other venues. Sarah Miller, president of the Camden Conference's Board of Directors and a member of its program committee, said the conference is designed to give attendees a good grounding in the topic, and to pique their interest in learning more.
“You don't feel like you're done. You feel like you've gotten a really good start,” she said, comparing the immersive experience of the conference to cramming a great college course into a single weekend.
Miller said the idea for this year's topic had been brewing in the minds of staffers for a while. Then, at the end of the 2012 conference, it got the most votes on evaluations filled out by conference attendees.
And so, “With the world changing the way it is … it seemed like a very important issue for us to try to take on,” Miller said.
The key question, she said, is how can the world feed and provide adequate fresh water for a population heading for 9 billion.
With topics that are intentionally broad, there are far more potential questions to ask and speakers to address them than the Camden Conference can entertain in any one year. That is where the program committee comes in: some of the members have been career diplomats, most have lived abroad for an extended period. The committee determines which aspects of a topic to include and gives shape to the program, including the many community events that lead up to the weekend conference in February.
This year's topic was unusually large, Miller said, even for an organization with a global scope. “There were untold directions we could have taken the conference.”
The program evolved over the course of multiple conversations, with committee members seeking out online presentations by speakers who were being considered. The committee looks for speakers who are knowledgeable and engaging, and who represent a balanced spectrum of opinions. “It's just a kind of gradual process of talking it through,” Miller said.
Balance is important, she said, because the conference is not interested in promoting a particular viewpoint so much as in getting attendees involved in a topic and learning about it. The goal is for them not only to develop an informed opinion of their own, but also to understand other points of view.
This year's keynote speaker, Fred Kirschenmann, is a case in point. Miller said he was recommended by Eliot Coleman, a friend of hers, and a pioneer of the small farming movement, and owner, with his wife, Barbara Damrosch, of Four Season Farm, in Harborside. The couple practice farming methods developed by Coleman to grow vegetables year-round.
Kirschenmann combines academic and practical experience: according to a Camden Conference press release, he is both a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. He also continues to manage his family’s 1,800-acre certified organic farm in south-central North Dakota. He also has been an adviser for several documentaries, including “American Meat” and “Symphony of the Soil.” In April 2010, the University Press of Kentucky published a book of Kirschenmann’s essays, “Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher,” which traces the evolution of his ecological and farming philosophy during the past 30 years.
Kirschenmann also teaches philosophy, which gives him “the kind of thoughtful approach to the issues that we're looking for,” Miller said.
Even with topics that can be daunting, the news for conference participants is not all bad. Besides describing the scope of problems associated with a topic, “We do try very hard to indicate that there are avenues to pursue, policies that would make things better,” she said. She noted that after working on a number of conferences, she has begun to see how topics are related and overlap.
With so much information to absorb in a brief period, it might seem that conference participants would go away feeling overloaded, but Miller said that is not typical. Instead, she said, attendees tend to feel exhilarated, eager to continue the conversation and learn more. In response, this year for the first time followup discussions will be held at the libraries in Belfast, Camden and Rockland about 10 days after the conference, she said.
Miller also said attendance at community events, most of which are free, and the weekend conference has grown in the last few years. She said that is partly because of the intellectually engaged population of the Midcoast, and also because student attendance has increased.
This year, the University of Maine at Orono, Unity College, The College of the Atlantic and University College at Rockland are offering courses related to the Camden Conference topic, and students will get a $100 discount to attend the conference, either at the Opera House, or one of the satellite locations. The conference is simulcast at the University of Maine's Hutchinson Center in Belfast and The Strand in Rockland.
In addition, this year students from Camden Hills Regional High School and Oceanside High School will attend, along with students from Watershed School, who have come to the conference for several years, Miller said. There will be special facilitated discussions during lunch for the students, and a student-planned event Saturday night.
Miller said her idea of a successful conference would be one where people leave feeling a lot better informed than when they came, interested in learning more and wanting to understand other points of view. For those who are unable to attend, CamCasts of the Opera House sessions will be available on the organization's website at camdenconference.org within two weeks after the conference. A full schedule of community events, as well as the conference itself, can also be found there.