Bringing Together Visions and Voices for Ecological Living

“Can we change the ways we live and work so as to establish a preserving harmony betweenpersuasive essay outline the made and the given worlds?”   Wendell Berry

What would it mean to live in “a preserving harmony between the made and the given worlds?”  What would it mean to search for this harmony in a world encountering ecological crises?

A group of friends gathered together in 2009-2010 for a series of conversations to share our thoughts and reflections on these questions. This was an intentional coming-together around several streams of thought rooted in our mentors, people like Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry, Thomas Berry, and Joanna Macy. We had come together to consider a project aimed at the question: how do we live through the coming era when humanity by necessity must come to terms with the planet’s ecological limits? Our concern was rooted in the growing awareness that industrial society and a market economy had not only brought us to the brink of ecological collapse, but had also deeply wounded the human spirit. The wasteland of industrial contamination, habitat destruction, violence against other humans and species, and social and economic injustice, seemed apt expression of the sickness that emerges from a world based on extraction, consumption, and waste, a world increasingly consumed by the monoculture of the global marketplace.

Our proposal was quite simple: to create opportunities for conversations among friends, to create space and time for shared reflection on these critical questions, to engage in a dialogue in which we could articulate a clear vision not only of the crises, but also how to live through them. We wanted to create a compelling description of the kinds of resilient communities that might form the foundations for new ways of ‘living’ that these times demand.  Aware that humans are deeply motivated (often unconsciously) by their hopes and fears, and by the frameworks of meaning that support their day-to-day choices, we wanted to go beyond the many practical ways of living ‘differently,’ and get to the values and principles that could shape these new ways of being human at this critical time.

We started with a conviction about where society stands at this moment:

The critical question facing us in the twenty-first century is: How can we discover and preserve ways to live that are both economically just and ecologically healthy?[i]

The interlocking nature of this dual crisis – the ecological and the economic – has become clear in recent decades. To find new, appropriate, more convivial ways of living will require addressing them both.

Instead of having yet another conference, gathering, workshop, or retreat, we asked: What if we brought together individuals from various ‘streams of thought’ (we affectionately call them ‘pulses’) for in-depth conversations about how they see the crisis, the effects of the market mentality and its role in our lives? How might they help us envision and reshape new ecologically sane communities and societies?

In just our little planning group were people whose lives had been influenced by cultural critics like Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry and other conservation-minded writers and practitioners, Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, Chellis Glendinning and other eco-psychologists, Engaged Buddhists such as Joanna Macy, liberation and eco-feminist theologians, and more. What if we could create the opportunity to put these various strands of thought and approaches into dialogue with one another for the purpose of expressing together the basic foundations for new resilient communities prepared to opt out of the global market and live as if another way of life is really possible?

And so we gave birth to ‘The New Confluence Project,’ the intention being to bring together divergent streams of thought and practice into one dynamic flow of creative insight and expression. The idea would be to gather together no more than 15-18 people, carefully invited to ensure various ‘pulses’ are represented, and then spend 2-3 days in conversation and conviviality. Our organizing principle would be simple: friendship. Who do we know from our own network of friends and colleagues who could contribute to this kind of conversation?

From our founding document:

All around the world, there are people searching for alternatives to the modern industrial economy.  Conservationists and agrarians are promoting local food production and other bioregional solutions to the crises we are facing.  Another group is examining our spiritual and religious traditions for the wisdom to create a new story to guide us through these difficult times.  Still others view modern “development” – with its institutions, systems, and experts – as exacerbating the crises by undermining the self-reliance of our communities.     

The New Confluence Project will bring people from these various streams together in order to find the tools we will need to build communities based on friendship, appropriate limits, compassion, celebration, and justice (what we call “convivial life”) – paths to repair the torn fabric of the human experience.

This process is described as an ‘exploration.’ We do not bring answers or solutions to these conversations. There is no map for what we are about to undergo or for how to move out of this all-consuming global market, no carved-out path that tells us exactly how to proceed or even how we will do. Thus the emphasis on ‘tools’ rather than solutions, those necessary instruments that help us make our way towards the goal of communities that embody convivial life.

For while we do not have a map, we do have wisdom collected over many years by ‘elders’ who saw the crises coming – not just the ecological and economic crises, but the crises of meaning and spirit manifested by the state of our world at this moment.

Wendell Berry and Thomas Berry, for example, may never have had a chance to engage in a long conversation (T. Berry died in 2009), but those who have read and loved and known them can.

Ivone Gebara and Chellis Glendinning may never have a chance to work together in person, but those of us who have learned from them can, and then we can sit down with the scholars and students of the Berrys and of Illich, and – well, you can imagine the rich possibilities.

So in 2010 we gave it a try. Fourteen friends (everyone there was invited by someone there and everyone knew someone though no one knew everyone) gathered at the Cenacle Retreat and Conference Center in Chicago for two days in September 2010 to have a conversation about the nature of the crises and the meaning and principles of convivial life. It was a remarkable sharing – not always easy, sometimes even a bit contentious, but also brave, honest, open, and immensely rich.

And then we asked how we might use this ‘tool’ to widen the creative discourse, to include the voices and perspectives of others who are asking the same questions, who would appreciate the opportunity to spend a couple of days with a diverse group of people to think out loud and enrich their own thoughts and ideas with those of others – writers, artists, teachers, practitioners – as we attempt to imagine and envision our way into the new creation that must emerge as the old way of life collapses. And so this website came into being as a way to share the wisdom, and as invitation to others to enter into the process. We hope this is the first of many conversations to come.

Using friendship as our organizing principle, The New Confluence Project seeks:

1.      to help a growing number of people understand the nature of our present crises and realize that limits are necessary and that other more convivial ways of living are possible and desirable;

2.      to bring people struggling to create alternatives to the global growth-based industrial economy into contact and conversation with each other for mutual support and to foster commitment to convivial life; and

3.      to discover and revalue the political or legal tools that are accepted within a society and learn how to use them to establish and protect convivial life where it emerges.

 And so we begin…

Margaret Swedish is former director of the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico in Washington DC and coordinator of the project, Spirituality and Ecological Hope, sponsored by the Center for New Creation.


The group that gave birth to the New Confluence Project:*

Daniel Grego, Executive Director, TransCenter for Youth, Inc., Milwaukee WI

Patricia Inman, Senior Research Associate in Community and Economic Development at the Center for Governmental Studies-Northern Illinois University

Christine Kelly, Founder Midwest Collaborative for Sustainability Education, Washburn, WI

Robert Raccuglia, Director, Cenacle Retreat and Conference Center, Chicago IL

Robert Shiel, Chair, Department of Clinical Science, National University of Health Sciences, Lombard IL

Margaret Swedish, Project Director, Spirituality and Ecological Hope, Center for New Creation, Milwaukee WI

Richard L. Westheimer, Cincinnati OH


*organizations listed for identity purposes only


[i] this and subsequent quotes are from our founding document


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