Liz Witham and Ken Wentworth at COP21

Liz Witham COP21

Liz Witham and Ken Wentworth presented about their December trip to the Paris climate change conference (COP21) at the gathering of the Vision Fellowship community on Monday, January 4, 2016.

We also were happy to host some of Louis Hall’s Charter School students who had planned and worked hard to be able to attend COP21, only to have the trip cancelled because of the Paris terrorist attacks in November. Be sure to read through to the end to get the recap (and video link) of Louis’ students’ interpretive dance(!) on climate change.

COP21 was the third climate conference Ken and Liz have attended. They are working on a feature length film called The Greening of Eden, which discusses humanity’s relationship with Earth and which has a projected release date in 2017. They are also releasing smaller pieces along the way.

At each of the climate conferences, Liz and Ken have focused on covering alternative environmental movements that run parallel to the COP conference, including, in particular, the Earth Jurisprudence Movement, the Indigenous Environmental Network and Regeneration International. There is more on this below, but first, some background, helpfully provided by Liz at the beginning of the presentation.


The United Nations Climate Conference (The Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change) (UNFCCC) is an environmental treaty negotiated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. As part of that original agreement, the 197 countries at the convention have met annually to establish new ways to address greenhouse gas levels globally.

The Conference of the Parties, or COPs, are now referred to in shorthand as their year number since 1995. This is why the UNFCCC in Paris also referred to as COP21 (it was the 21st COP).

COP15, which took place in Copenhagen six years ago, was a critical point. There was very little exchange between the public and the negotiations. It was difficult, even as a journalist, to get in and participate in any way. Environmental groups, businesses, etc., were frustrated that they were being left out.

The result was that COP15 was considered a “failure” on all levels. However, this failure inspired actions by those who were frustrated at not being included. Since then, parallel community movements have planned and participated in annual, public demonstrations during the same time frame and at the same place as each annual COP. And it is these groups which Ken and Liz are covering for their film.

Earth Jurisprudence Movement:

The first video clip showed Liz and Ken’s interview with Pablo Salon, former Bolivian Ambassador to the UN (2009-2011).

At COP16, Bolivia proposed the creation of a ‘Declaration of Rights for Mother Earth. This document sought to give nature legal rights, including the rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration. The earth jurisprudence movement wants governments to adopt these rights on behalf of and to protect nature. To date, Bolivia and Ecuador (and Pittsburgh, PA!) have adopted versions of this declaration in their constitutions.

Pablo’s essential messages were:

“It’s about changing our relationship with nature. We have to recognize that we are not the center of everything…we are just one more living being here on earth”

“We don’t have to expect anything from the government…we have to do it ourselves.”

“There is a different ambiance in these [COP21] demonstrations than the ones in Copenhagen. People don’t feel demoralized anymore. They know that the change has to come from them.”

Indigenous Environmental Network:

Liz and Ken also interviewed Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN). Established in 1990 within the United States, IEN was formed by grassroots Indigenous peoples and individuals to address environmental and economic justice issues. IEN’s activities include building the capacity of Indigenous communities and tribal governments to develop mechanisms to protect sacred sites, land, water, air, natural resources, and the health of all living things, and to build economically sustainable communities.

During COP21, Dallas recorded video blogs, and was surprised to see that some of them amassed upwards of 10,000 views. His primary messages were:

“We can’t depend on mainstream media to capture the essence of what we are doing or why we are here, so we have to make sure that we capture it ourselves.”

“The solutions to addressing climate change are grassroots, community-based solutions. The people carrying that message are locked out. We need system change.”

“[The solutions] on the table right now are just a continuation of the monetizing of mother Earth.”

Regeneration International:

This group, founded in June 2015, is an online and grassroots, non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization working to educate, unify and mobilize the food, farm, climate, natural health, environment, and economic justice movements around agricultural-based solutions to the world’s climate, hunger and environmental crises. Liz and Ken filmed this group in their meetings and behind the scenes.

Ronnie Cummins, a steering committee member of Regeneration International, is co-founder and international director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico affiliate Via Organica. He has been a writer and activist since the 1960s, with extensive experience in public education, grassroots mobilization, and marketplace pressure campaigns. Over the past two decades, he has served as director of U.S. and international campaigns dealing with sustainable agriculture issues including food safety, genetic engineering, factory farming and global warming.

Ronnie’s primary messages were:

“If you look at the real source of greenhouse gas emissions, 15-20% comes from the fossil fuel use on farms, from food processing, packaging and distribution.

“We have to re-localize our farming systems and pay attention to our diet. As we start to transform this system, we can put this carbon back into the soil where it used to be, which will enable the soil to hold more water, and make for healthier food and animals and plants and people, and less conflict socially.”

“We aren’t just talking about food regeneration. We are talking about regeneration of the spirit. We need to regenerate our ethics and our souls. We have to start from right where we are today.”


Liz and Ken’s presentation prompted a lively discussion about grassroots movements, personal accountability and learning to ask the right questions. The following quotes are highlights:

“Personally, I think it is so wonderful to see all these groups taking charge. It is the only way to make change. We can’t put the power in the hands of the people who have already had it for hundreds of years. I didn’t know anything about any of these groups before you guys showed us this.”

“It is very exciting to see these movements, which have become very big since Copenhagen. The people understand the power of grassroots movements and are ready to keep going and not wait for the government.”

“A few months before each of the UN conferences, there is a world development conference where people are setting goals for 5 or 7% growth and these are more influential than the COPs because when you have a growth based economy, that’s just more development and construction. If they are making these declarations that we are going to have X amount of growth, it’s hard to go back and actually do anything about climate change. When you’re growing, you’re consuming.”

“I really don’t think the negotiations are where it’s at. Even if they were good, they aren’t enforceable, and they were intended to be that way.”

“The COP conferences create a space for all these other groups to come together, and these groups really do make a difference. And it puts the conversation front and center”

“In the end, we are all talking about the lifestyles we are living, and how we are relating to the planet.”

“[Attending COP21] made me feel really good about living on the Vineyard, where we have access to farms and care about conservation and we can actually live how we want to live with nature to a further extent than a lot of people are able to.”

“The fundamental questions at heart aren’t being asked, let alone answered, by these big companies. It still comes back to our values, and what we’re willing to not consume. Not just so other people, but other species, can survive and thrive. When I look at huge governments and huge companies, and I drop it down to my institutional companies, they still aren’t asking any fundamental questions. And that’s where the grassroots part comes in.”

“I think the people we heard from in those clips are at least trying to ask those questions, and I think that’s what’s inspiring.”

“A lot of these offsetting schemes look good on paper but aren’t actually making a change.”

“Maybe, as humanity, we need to question what we know or what we say we know. It’s very dangerous because sometimes we don’t have the right answers.”

“The concept of giving the planet its own rights, kind of like a human, is a very inspirational and great idea.”

“Dominion vs. “part of” is a very central theme to this problem. Is this something that we have dominion over, or are we actually just part of this thing?”

Interpretive Dance on Climate Change: Louis reported that he and Jonah Maidoff, who co-teach a Social Justice and Social Sustainability course at the Charter School, were set to take 9 students to the Paris conference. The terrorist attacks forced them to stay home, leaving them with a large chunk of time to fill, which they did by looking closely at what it means to live locally on the Vineyard. Louis reported that they ate a lot of locally made cheese, went to Vineyard Bread and made bread, went to Chilmark Coffee and, ultimately, to The Yard, where they worked with The Yard staff to choreograph an interpretive dance on climate change.

Here is the link to the dance video:

Louis described the experience as follows: “75% of our time at The Yard was conversation, 10% was goofing around, and 15% was actually dancing.”

The students had this to say:

“It was so much fun. I don’t think any of us really expected to take it very seriously, but we ended up working really hard.”

“It was hard to go from talking about it to translating it into a dance. It was very detailed at first.”

“There was one scene where we were representing the atmosphere, and the students down below were going up and down, representing the climate cycles.”

“We had these big posters of ideas up on the wall and we were like, “Ok, how do we represent politicians, and how do we represent consumerism” and things like that.”

Thanks so much to Liz, Ken, Louis and his students for an engaging, multimedia-filled evening!