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CanadaChanging: Couchiching and Sustainable Lifestyles

outdoors.jpg Getting away from it all with a group of keen collaborators can be an effective way to get things done. There's something about going to a retreat in a natural setting that encourages bonding, deep conversations, and the emergence of new paths forward. Here are two happening in Canada this August for any who may live in or be visiting the area. Even if you can't make it, perhaps you can help start something similar closer to where you are.

The Couchiching summer conference is now in its 75th annual iteration, and takes place from Aug 10-13, 2006. It's a remarkable Canadian institution where interested citizens from all walks of life gather for 3 1/2 days of intense conversation, in the relaxing surroundings of Lake Couchiching in Ontario - see past conferences for a flavor of what to expect.

This year's theme is "Wedded to Progress: For Better, For Worse":

In the 1930s, when Couchiching began, many Canadians would have considered progress to consist of economic security – in large part because there wasn’t much of it at the time. Today, our notions of progress are more complicated.

Progress as an idea – whether we think we believe in it or we think we don’t – in many ways defines the tensions of our time. Some of us view the idea of progress as one that is out of date and hopelessly optimistic; others see it as an irrefutable fact.

Most of us in the West believe we can continue to make our own lives better. Globally, however, we are unsure which are more significant: rising terrorism, increasing environmental disasters, unsustainable development, and an ever-rising gap between rich and poor the world over; or the growth of democracy, a global economic system that is ensuring that more people in the world are better off than ever before, and new technologies that are improving our quality and length of life.

The 2006 Couchiching summer conference will explore a series of questions on the notion of progress. Among them: What is progress? Progress for whom? Progress compared to what? Progress at what cost? Progress by what measure? What will progress look like in the future?

At $900 (shared room, all meals), it's not cheap, but not outrageous either as conferences go. As always, the value is partly determined by what you take with you - seeking out interesting conversations, asking good questions, and checking out the conference reading list in advance help.

The second workshop is a brand-new startup (disclosure: organized by Ian Graham, an acquaintance of the author). Sustainable Lifestyles (Aug 20-25, 2006) will be a small and intimate affair for a few dozen people interested in "Personal and Community Preparedness for a Low Energy World":

We are living, as a species, beyond our means, addicted to cheap energy. To be sustainable, a society can not be dependent on non-renewable stocks, neither energy nor nutrients. Put another way, linear flows are not sustainable, cyclical flows are. A sustainable society (or any biological entity) must have a supportive net effect on the life-supporting services of the system within which it operates.

...You go to a symposium by choice, you go there seeking specific things to learn and do and expect surprises too. You hope to meet people you like and learn from, you expect to be refreshed and come home with a bushel of ideas and new approaches. You learn best with people face to face, information in books and web pages is sometimes not enough.

This symposium is about designing your sustainable lifestyle in the face of dwindling hydrocarbon energy resources, steadily increasing gas and electricity prices and possible shortages on the horizon, unprecedented climatic variability and frequency of extreme weather events, and a growing world population.

Checking in at $500 for 5 days including meals and basic accommodations (half that if you camp!), it will be at a Quaker outdoor camp on Georgian Bay. A variety of practical skill teaching is planned (installing a solar panel, canning and preserving, home energy efficiency, local food and business, interviews with co-housing practitioners, practical ways to influence local civic policy...).

These kinds of multiday focused events can be intensely productive with the right crowd - a way to plan your personal WorldChanging at a more serious level. We've covered larger-scale ones before, like Alan on the Tallberg Forum and Jamais at TED. One of the most interesting questions they bring up: how can collaborative technologies, shared knowhow, and past case studies be used to ramp up their effectiveness - or to provide similar experiences to more people at a reasonable cost?

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