Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.6

November 20, 2003


Ursula Franklin calls for 'coexistence with the biosphere'

by Mary Fowles

The ninth international Karl Polanyi Conference was held at Concordia’s Sir George Williams Campus Nov. 12 to 14, drawing 80 scholars of varied backgrounds from around the globe to discuss the theme of coexistence.

The theme took shape two years ago during the last conference, held in Mexico only two months after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Those of us who were there were very shaken by world events and felt that coexistence would be an absolutely appropriate topic,” said Margie Mendell, director of the Karl Polanyi Institute for Political Economy at Concordia University.

The conference explored coexistence from numerous angles: among world religions, nations, communities and cultures, people and nature; and addressed topics ranging from globalization to human rights, security, democracy and conflict in the Middle East.

“This public gathering provides an occasion for debate and dialogue among scholars and students,” said Mendell in an interview before the conference. “Our hope is that this dialogue will generate fruitful debate and constructive and democratic approaches to resolving the many issues that speakers will address.”

The five-day conference was launched with a lecture by Dr. Ursula Franklin, Professor Emerita and Senior Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. Franklin, who emigrated from Germany in 1948 after earning a PhD in experimental physics at the Technical University of Berlin, is internationally renowned as a scientist, peace activist and advocate of women’s rights.

Her keynote address, entitled “Coexistence and Technology: Society Between the Bitsphere and the Biosphere,” focused on the capacity of societies to coexist in a world transformed by technology and marked by a disregard for the environment.

“Coexistence with the biosphere is a prerequisite for every other kind of coexistence,” she said. “We are in the presence of a second superpower, and that is nature.”

Franklin said she has often wished the Canadian government would worry about offending nature in the same way it worries about offending the Americans.

She spoke of four criteria that have been established as pre-requisites for coexistence. These are reciprocal recognition of the right to exist; respect for and acceptance of the other’s basic needs; self-limitation and reciprocal constraints on the use of power; and genuine communication.

Franklin insisted these four criteria should be applied not between people, between nations and cultures, but also between human society and the biosphere.

In a world facing crises on many levels, “coexistence should be seen not as an end but a beginning, a prerequisite for dealing with modernity.” For more on this conference, go to