So many choices … from the Aspen Institute |

So many choices … from the Aspen Institute

ASPEN – The Aspen Institute has a knack for making its summer programs relevant in an ever-changing world, and this year the fodder for the think tank’s three major events is as rich as ever.

The Aspen Security Forum, June 28-30, explores America’s preparedness to fight terror on the heels of President Obama’s dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the Afghanistan war commander and amid growing public doubts about the effort.

The Aspen Environment Forum, July 25-28, examines the potential of a sustainable future at a time when evidence of ecological damage from the leaking Gulf Coast oil well gets bleaker by the day.

Sandwiched between those bookend forums is the Aspen Ideas Festival, which has developed into the Institute’s signature event since its founding six years ago. It brings nearly 300 leaders in arts, science, culture, technology, business and politics from around the globe for a dizzying array of presentations and panel discussions July 5-11.

A fourth public forum, the McCloskey Speaker Series, brings leading authors, government officials and political figures to Aspen for presentations throughout the summer, starting July 13.

Elliot Gerson, the Aspen Institute’s executive vice president of public programs, said the big three programs in Aspen this summer allow the Institute to do what it does best while giving the public substantially greater access to decision makers.

The Aspen Institute has brought leaders together for 60 years in a neutral and balanced venue to discuss and act on critical issues. The goal is “encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

Historically, the doors at the meetings have been partially or fully closed. The Institute decided seven years ago to open more of those doors, realizing there is a “huge thirst” among intellectually interested observers to see the dialogue unfold and take opportunities to get actively engaged, Gerson said.

At a different venue, an average Joe might join a crowd of 15,000 to hear someone like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates lecture for 40 minutes, then that’s the end. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, it is conceivable that Gates will present a talk one day and be in the audience for a panel discussion the next, participating in a question-and-answer session with the public.

Attendees of the Aspen Security Forum will have an opportunity on successive days June 28-30 to listen to interviews with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the former secretary of Homeland Security. A person can immerse themselves in security issues in a way that’s unique to the Aspen Institute’s programs.

Gerson said all the presentations, interviews and panel discussions are kept as conversational as possible.

“It’s accessible. It’s a dialogue,” he said.

The Aspen Institute’s goal is to inspire audience members to grasp ideas that emerge from Ideas Festival or Environment Forum and get energized enough to apply those ideas in their own communities. The idea is to go beyond listening and pondering, and to actually spur action.

“We don’t design them as mere intellectual entertainment,” Gerson said of the three big public events in Aspen this summer.

But accessibility comes at a price, which means the Joes in attendance are, perhaps, not so average. A general pass to the Aspen Security Forum is $950 and $750 for government employees, nonprofit employees, and university students and faculty.

A festival pass for the Aspen Ideas Festival is $2,450 for July 5-8 and another $2,450 for July 8-11. Student passes are available for $1,225 for each of the two sessions.

The general pass for the Aspen Environment Forum is $1,800 and $1,500 for employees of governments and nonprofits as well as university students and faculty.

Day passes are sold to the Aspen Security Forum and some events at the Ideas Festival and Environment Forum are also open to the public. The McCloskey Speaker Series is more affordable, usually at $15 per event.

Following is a look at each event.

Although nearly nine years have passed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, questions remain about America’s preparedness to handle terrorism. The plot to bomb Times Square and the Christmas Day plot by a suicide bomber to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight show al-Qaida remains determined to strike the U.S. again.

“These recent scares only underscore how vulnerable we are to terrorism in the United States,” said Clark Ervin, director of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program.

The Aspen Security Forum aims to give participants access to top-level U.S. government security officials and industry leaders for discussions on both big-picture issues like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and everyday concerns like aviation security. Speakers include Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Jane Holl Lute, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; and former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado.

Top journalists will moderate the presentations or lead a “conversation” with the officials. Ervin said a panel of journalists will hold a discussion on the media’s role in reporting on terrorism. “We’ve whipsawed between near hysteria and no coverage at all,” he said.

Segments of the conference will look at issues such as aviation, maritime, border and mass transit security; intelligence; emergency preparedness; and counterterrorism.

The Institute’s website for the event poses intriguing questions to be addressed during the forum, such as: “Exactly how prepared are we for the next attempted attack, and how much more prepared should we be? Where should the line be drawn between security and liberty, and in the years since 9/11 have we erred too much on the side of security?”

The event begins Monday at 6 p.m. with an opening address and reception featuring Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on “Afghanistan/Pakistan: The National Security Challenge.” Tuesday and Wednesday are full days of debate and discussion.

The Security Forum is being presented by the Aspen Institute in partnership with The New York Times and GSN: Government Security News. More on the event can be found at

The Ideas Festival agenda can be overwhelming. The website for the event sums up the eight-day event as offering a “substantial array of lectures, presentations, debates, and panel discussions by leading thinkers who span a vast range of topics, from the economy to the environment, from science to the arts, and from across ideological spectrums.”

Events run from early morning to late at night, at the Aspen Institute Campus and in various venues around town. Events often run concurrently, requiring attendees to make tough decisions.

The event has been divided into two four-day sessions. The programs from July 5 to 8 are Living Digitally; Race in America; The Century of Biology; and Ideas in Education.

Topics to be tackled July 8-11 are The Next Economy: Innovation as Catalyst; Global Health; The Promise of “Play”; and Latin America: Power, Politics, Potential.

“I think people like it because it allows them to delve in deeply to topics they typically only read a little about,” said Kitty Boone, vice president of public programs at the Aspen Institute and an organizer of the Ideas Festival. “You’re a leg up.”

There are close to 300 speakers, Boone said. There are the usual big names the Institute typically lands for the Ideas Fest, such as Bill Gates; DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg; Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams; former President of Mexico Vicente Fox; U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

There are less famous speakers presenting information on vital or fascinating topics. K.R. Sridhar, co-founder and CEO of Bloom Energy, will outline his vision on energy and climate issues that led Fortune magazine to name him “one of the top five futurists that are inventing tomorrow today.” David Blood, co-founder and senior partner in Generation Investment Management, will talk about sustainable capitalism. Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute for Play, will outline the importance of play throughout human life, something Roaring Fork Valley residents will certainly understand. Brown’s research showed an absence of play in murderers and felony drunk drivers, while highly successful and creative folks showed playfulness throughout life.

The common theme in the mishmash of speakers and topics is “Ideas in Action” – spotlighting the thinking that can translate into actions that make a difference in everything from foreign policy to the environment to the arts.

“What’s it really going to take to get society to get involved?” said Boone.

The festival won’t delve directly into the Gulf Coast oil leak crisis since the Environment Forum will be held just two weeks later, Boone said. Shell, one of the major underwriters of the event, will talk about oil drilling in general, she said.

The Aspen Ideas Festival is being presented by the Institute in conjunction with The Atlantic magazine. Close to 2,000 people will attend events in Aspen, but the festival also has a large following online. Boone said there were nearly 1 million visits to various media covering the 2009 Ideas Fest.

More information about the 2010 Aspen Ideas Festival can be found at

The Aspen Institute third annual Environment Forum, presented with National Geographic, will focus on what technical solutions must be achieved to make life on earth sustainable – and a sustaining vision of humans’ place on the planet.

Many of the speakers and topics were selected before BP’s Gulf Coast drilling accident, but the environmental disaster is bound to dominate discussion along with legislation on greenhouse gas emissions. Lisa Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is a featured speaker.

Each day of the three-day event focuses on a different topic. Day One will be “The View from Now: Our Task Ahead.” Speakers will discuss what the most current environmental signals say about sustainability, or the lack of it, in our current technologies and lifestyle.

Day two is titled “The Art of Possibility: Choice and Opportunity.” It will examine “clear warnings that we have pushed the environment past its ability to reset to ‘normal’ and that we are nearing tipping points in several key areas.”

Day three is “New Horizons: Building a Sustainable World.” It will examine what it will take to live fulfilling lives without exceeding planetary limits.

More on the Aspen Environment Forum is available at

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