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Apocalypse or Utopia: Cocktail party of the year kicks off Homecoming 2011
Posted Wednesday, September 28, 2011 9:38 AM
When David Barber was asked to participate in a series of panel discussions that would engage with the larger community on topical, relevant issue, he says he envisaged “a small cocktail party and a low-key discussion about climate change over a single-malt scotch.” Instead, the launch of the Visionary Conversations series was a full-house event that doubled as the kick-off to 2011 Homecoming and was held in the Schultz Theatre, St. John’s College, on the evening of Wednesday, September 14.

Six panelists were hosted by President and Vice-Chancellor David Barnard to discuss the topic “The Future: Apocalypse or Utopia” from the perspective of their own expertise.

Leading off the conversation was Brenda Elias, Medicine, whose research focuses on population health with an emphasis on economically and socially disadvantaged populations. Elias argued that evidence-based research can be a route to building a “better future” of social equality rather than reverting to stereotypes.

The better future, suggested David Barber, Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Arctic System Science, is one that takes into account the significant amount of environmental change that has taken place over a relatively short period of time. “We can’t exist with our heads in the sand,” he said. The question of “utopia or apocalypse” is one best applied to the economic benefits of alternative energies in relation to “whether we want to pass the costs on to future generations,” he said.

Karen Busby, Law, broached the quality of the Canadian future with regard to human rights, religious freedom and inter-religious tolerance and respect. Busby pointed out a gap between the general self-perception or even self-definition by Canadians and reality. Though Canadians continue to define Canada as broadminded and accepting, with an overall acceptance of difference, research based on recent news stories point, on the contrary, to greater government interference in questions of religious freedom and an increase in certain kinds of intolerance of religious minorities on the part of Canadians, perhaps in part because of security fears.

Rick Holley, Food Science professor, shook up the discussion a little by discussing food safety, suggesting that “we have no way of measuring effectiveness of our agencies and interventions” because “we are preoccupied with whether we are doing things right, rather than the whether we are doing the right things.” There are too many questions, he said, about food-borne illnessness and cross-contamination between animal and plant industries. “We need to become preventative rather than reactive,” he said.

Diana Brydon, CRC in Globalization and Cultural Studies, spoke of “the danger of a single story” in an increasingly global culture. Brydon echoed some of Busby’s concerns about respect by suggesting that more collaboration and dialogue—more honest, open, respectful dialogue, even in cases of deep disagreement—was needed in order for us to “learn how to come to at least respect others’ decisions and how they come to those decisions.”

The final panelist, Michael Freund, CRC in Conducting Polymers and Electronic Materials, stretched the idea of a more collaborative future from another angle. Demonstrating the technology and materials fields moving into mutual, cross-disciplinary efforts, Freund used the example of silicon based electronic memory in computing being replaced with polymer-based technologies in order to expand electronic memory capacities.

Remarkably, all of this thought-provoking discussion—plus a question-and-answer period with the audience and a clever summary round-up by Digvir Jayas, VP (research and international)—took place in a time span of a buzzy hour and a half. Audience members commented that they appreciated an opportunity to be part of a conversation that sits at the heart of what a university is, and what it does. And a heady cocktail it was!

The conversation continues

On October 18, the next instalment of Visionary Conversations is hosted by President Barnard on the subject, “Liveable Cities.” Panelists are Ralph Stern, dean of Architecture, Michelle Richard, the newly installed director of campus development and planning, and Richard Milgrom, head of the department of city planning in the Faculty of Architecture.
For more information, contact:
Mariianne Mays Wiebe
Editor, The Bulletin
Marketing Communications Office
Phone: (204) 474-8111
Fax: (204) 474-7631
Related Links (Internal):
  •Visionary Conversations