The Evolution of Environmental Activism

On the eve of the 16th annual Bioneers conference, co-founders Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simon discuss the changing nature of living and acting green.

October 13, 2005  |  News flash: Reality is not dead, mechanical, or separate; it is alive, evolving and composed of interdependent systems.

This worldview — shared by indigenous peoples for millennia, revealed by science since early in the 20th century, and obvious every time we walk outside or look into the eyes of another living creature — is disavowed in practice by almost every powerful institution in American society. It thrives, however, at the annual Bioneers conference, held each fall in the San Francisco Bay area.

In addition to founding and co-directing Bioneers, Kenny Ausubel co-founded the organic seed company Seeds of Change. He is the author of Seeds of Change; Restoring the Earth and When Healing Becomes a Crime. His wife, Nina Simons, is co-executive director of Bioneers and co-producer of the Bioneers Conference since 1990. In 2002, she produced a retreat called UnReasonable Women for the Earth, out of which grew the women’s activist group, CodePink.

AlterNet spoke to the two just in advance of this year’s Bioneers conference.

What is a Bioneer? You coined the term, what does it mean?

Kenny Ausubel: I came up with the word Bioneer while working on the very first conference in 1990. It grew out of other work that I was doing. I was meeting a lot of people who were looking into how nature operates and then emulating how life does what it does. After all, we have 3.8 billion years of successful evolution — there are no recalls in nature — yet we haven’t paid attention to nature’s own operating instructions. There’s a whole field of science now called biomimicry that looks at how nature does things. By imitating nature, we can actually live quite harmoniously with a higher quality of life than we have now. Those realizations were a lot of the inspiration for the concept.

It’s expanded a great deal since then. As we know, how humans relate to each other is also how we relate to the land. It’s really one enterprise at the end of the day. Bioneers is not just concerned with restoring our relationships with the natural world but also our relationships with each other.

One of the key things that I noticed at my first Bioneers conference: it’s a place where environmentalists, political activists, labor leaders, racial justice folks and spiritual people all come together. They have their laughter and they have their anger. It’s quite a mix. Did that evolution happen over time?

Nina Simons: I think that was always in the design. Kenny’s initial vision recognized the false separations that divide us because of our tendency to have a mechanized world view. We saw the need for people to recognize the unifying factors among ourselves, and to begin to see that we actually are all potentially part of one movement — a movement of people who care about restoring the health and vitality of the living world. There’s actually a great deal more that unites us than that which divides us. For me, one of the most exciting things is how we draw together all of these different constituencies, you know, doctors and nurses and healers and nuns. It’s a fascinating mix of people.

There’s also an interesting age variation. There are elders and young folks as well as folks in the middle.

NS: We started a youth program about five years ago and it’s been taking off like gangbusters. We have between four and five hundred young people there who are incredibly inspiring. They participate in the main program and also in a separate youth program, which, of course, also is open to anyone of any age.

When it began to sell out every year in San Rafael, you resisted what would have been an obvious bottom-line decision to move to a larger venue, where you could have packed in more people and made more money. How are you handling the growing interest?

KA: You probably remember Tip O’Neill, the Democratic politician, said that all politics is local. Well, all ecology is local too.

Someone from Canada came to us and asked if we could beam up part of the conference by satellite so they could download it in Toronto, and then build a conference around that. We thought that was kind of a perfect, elegant solution. There will be 17 of these “beaming Bioneers” satellite conferences in local communities across the country this year, 16 in the U.S. and one in Canada. People beam in the three mornings of plenary talks, and then for the rest of each day and night, they organize their own conferences with local speakers, local issues, and local events and parties. So this really supports local people to do the work in their own ‘hood.

Let’s broaden out. I think at this moment the crisis is so large and the ripple effects so enormous that there’s little mileage in simply blaming the Republicans, blaming the Democrats, or blaming the media, as much as they’re all grievously at fault. If we’re going to survive and leave this place better, we’ve got to radically shift everything. What do you think are the hopeful strands of that?

KA: Well, as bleak as our national picture looks right now in many ways — and you never know, things can change very suddenly — there’s tremendous energy on the ground locally, regionally, in cities, communities and states to actually solve problems.

A lot of the hope is in nature’s own solutions, this whole field of biomimicry. Technologically, we can absolutely figure out how to do this right; that’s the least of our problems. What we need is a massive political and economic commitment to really go in that direction.

A lot of the hope right now is in people, as Paul Hawken pointed out at the Bioneers conference last year. He has used a very interesting software tool to drill down on the worldwide web all over the world to find out who’s out there, what kind of groups, who’s working. … He discovered that the global restoration movement is literally the biggest movement in the history of the world. It is everywhere and it is unprecedented.

KA: — the whole mix of environment and justice and peace, all together …

I remember his talk. He’s pointing to what’s gathering outside of politics and outside of the corporate world — all the NGO’s, the non-profits, the foundations, the charities. It’s us when we’re not a corporation or a government.

KA: It’s civil society, and it’s now being called The Other Superpower. What really needs to happen now is for us to all get connected. That’s a lot of the work that we’re involved with, and we’re just one among many groups. It’s actually quite extraordinary: the creativity, the originality and the determination of people on the ground all over the world to roll up our sleeves and solve problems.

As you indicated, this is a civilizational crisis. We’ve built a civilization that itself is a suicide bomb. We need to start disarming it right away. And it’s not about Democrat or Republican. I would make a case that it is about corporate power. If there’s one single problem in the world, that’s the central problem. That’s a whole other discussion, but it’s pretty clear the whole civilization needs to retool.

One of the things that’s become very clear now is the approach of peak oil. We finally have even George Bush advocating for conservation — hell froze over. But every time we sit down to eat a meal in America, our food has traveled an average distance of 1300 miles. We have an oil-reliant economy and a global free trade model, both of which are so 20th century. As America continues to forge ahead with those as givens, both absolutely smash on the iceberg of peak oil. What are some of your thoughts about how we get a hold of this thing beyond the blame game and towards something that’s actually going to work?

NS: I agree with you that we are ready to parachute from the blame game. I think you’re pointing to something we call social technologies, and we have a lot of it programmed into the conference this year.

When we’re talking about social technologies, we’re actually asking how do we learn to relate to each other differently and better? I feel that we’ve really lost some of what I would call our relational intelligence. If ecology is the superb art of relationship, we need to learn how to respectfully disagree, we need to learn how to come together. In fact, there are all kinds of examples of nightmare coalitions, where people may disagree on some things, but in order to achieve a win they agree to collaborate. I think it’s essential that we master the social technologies of how to speak to each other differently, how to listen differently, how to hold disagreement in a respectful way.

The 16th annual Bioneers conference takes place October 14-16 in San Rafael, California and will stream via satellite to over a dozen sites across the country.

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