This world view inspires the 17th annual Bioneers conference, taking place this weekend (October 20-22nd) in San Rafael, Calif. and streaming via satellite to more than a dozen sites across the country.
Speakers at this year’s conference include Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!; Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Lois Gibbs, grassroots champion of environmental justice at Love Canal; and Carl Anthony, founder of Earthjustice’s Urban Habitat program, among others.
I had a chance to speak with Bioneers’ founder and co-director, Kenny Ausubel. In addition to his work with Bioneers, Ausubel is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and social entrepreneur specializing in health and the environment. He co-founded Seeds of Change, a biodiversity organic seed company. He authored the books, Seeds of Change; Restoring the Earth: Visionary Solutions from the Bioneers; and When Healing Becomes a Crime.
Terrence McNally: You’ve done a number of other things besides developing and leading the Bioneers conferences. How did you realize this was your life work and where did the name come from?
Kenny Ausubel: Other work that I’d been doing led me to look to nature for Operating Instructions. The solutions to most of our problems lie in understanding nature’s ways as expressed in four billion years of evolution.
Often times nature offers pretty good metaphors for our social systems — reciprocity, cooperation, kinship, the fact that we’re all related, things like that. I realized that people who saw things this way were biological pioneers who had looked to nature as a teacher, mentor and model. That was the origin of the term.
I started Bioneers in 1990, just about a year after I’d started Seeds of Change. My wife and business partner, Nina Simons, and I left the company around 1995 and decided to focus on Bioneers.
TM: What are the aims of the conference and the related activities that are growing out of it?
KA: By the way, if I weren’t producing the event I’d be attending it. I just love the Bioneers.
TM: You’re obviously not alone. It’s one conference where most of the speakers and panelists stay for the whole thing to mix, mingle, and network.
KA: I find the attendees and the work that goes on there fantastically inspiring. I experience a deep sense of possibility and hope — and it’s a very grounded hope. This is real world stuff. Philosophy is all well and good, but at the end of the day what we really want to know is, “Does this stuff work?” It does work, and a lot of people are having great success.
This is the 17th gathering, and I can tell you that in 1990 when we had 200 people — as opposed to the 3400 that show up in Marin these days — these kinds of things had about as much credibility as UFO’s or something. Now we’re witnessing these ideas going mainstream, and in the next five and ten years, I think we’re going to see an even bigger shift in that regard.
For a lot of people it’s like coming home. We’re a flock of black sheep, because so many of us are iconoclasts. But a huge amount of networking that goes on, and we actually know of five marriages between couples that met at Bioneers.
TM: Boy, that’s taking the biology part of it to heart.
What are some practical solutions that have been developed over the years by participants?
KA: There’s always two sides. There’s the technical or technological realm of very functional practices, and there’s the sphere of social innovation where we’re changing culture and politics.
One of my big inspirations in starting Bioneers was the whole area called biomimicry, essentially imitating nature in our technologies — using nature to heal nature. A couple of people who are returning are front runners in the field. There’s Paul Stamitz, the mushroom man or mycologist. Paul has been able to remediate Sarin DX nerve gas for the Defense Department. Sarin is right up there with plutonium as one of the most deadly substances on the planet, yet two mushrooms actually digested and transformed it into harmlessness. He’s done the same thing with oil spills.
He has another mushroom that stuns E Coli bacteria and then gobbles them up. His work has huge implications for farming, where we’ve got the whole EColi spinach scare going on.
Paul is going to talk about some quite extraordinary new stuff, which I’m not allowed to tell you about yet.
A fellow named Jay Harmon grew up in Australia and was in love with the ocean. He studied the movements of water and discovered something that put him in a long lineage of other great discoverers — that nature’s favorite shape is the spiral. From galaxies to the blood in our veins, the spiral is nature’s favorite form. He looked at industry, and realized that it was not being used at all.
He resolved to change that, starting with fans and propellers. Motors which use fans and propellers take up about 60% of the energy in the world, believe it or not. Jay has designed spiral shaped fans and propellers that he is now proving could reduce our energy consumption by about 60% in the next ten or 15 years.
TM: His presentation last year blew my mind — and gave me hope. We keep looking at the supply side of energy, and the news there is pretty bad.
We’re close to peak oil and pumping out greenhouse emissions. The possibility of revolutionary changes on the demand side of energy is truly exciting. He points out that almost every water purification or manufacturing process is being performed with motors that have not changed that much for hundreds of years.
KA: Jay’s company, Pax Scientific, has made tremendous progress in just three years, and he believes they’re going to transform industry within the next decade or so.
Other remarkable solutions are hiding in plain sight in nature — if only we would pay attention.
Another huge issue we’re all facing now is the crisis of democracy. Government of the people, by the people and for the people is in crisis. Earl Katz, a filmmaker from Los Angeles, will premiere a clip from his new movie, “Hacking Democracy” in advance of its debut on HBO November 2nd. It’s a fully documented portrayal of how recent elections have been hacked and stolen. When Earl started this project two or three years ago nobody took this seriously. In fact, they ridiculed the idea. Now Bobby Kennedy has gotten behind it and there’s a lot of very compelling data coming out. There’s an election coming up November 7th and we may be confronting the same kind of scams.
TM: The Deputy Director for Energy and Environment for the Mayor of Los Angeles is also going to be there…
KA: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has said that he wants Los Angeles to become the greenest big city in the country, and Nancy Sutley is helping to lead that effort. She’ll be talking about some of the initiatives around greening the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
She’s part of a very wide national network of mayors and municipal government folks who have joined together, in light of the complete failure of the federal government to address these life and death issues. There’s a huge renaissance of action at the municipal and regional level. Tom Bates, mayor of Berkeley, is also on board, as well as Hughie Johnson, who has been studying governmental green plans for a couple of decades now.
TM: He started developing green plans at least as long ago as during the Jerry Brown gubernatorial era in California.
KA: They’re way ahead of the curve in some parts of the world, Australia for example, where they exist major elements of a national green plan. Parts of Scandinavia are moving in this direction as well. Hughie’s going to give the sort of eagle’s eye view of what’s going on both globally and in this country around putting these green plans into public policy.
TM: Anybody who’s at Bioneers is not working that weekend on the upcoming election in their local district. How do you see the conference in relation to the election that will take place two weeks later?
KA: Well we’re a 501 3C and we couldn’t endorse candidates even if we wanted to, but we’re very interested in is public policy. We have had some real influence by helping to bring policy makers to the table to help them understand and learn about alternatives. I believe we’ve helped to influence the course of the public conversation and ultimately public policy.
TM: When the conference 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’Neil, 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 US 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.
TM:> I imagine there’s some wonderful biological model at work here, where it remains tied to the original roots while growing its own local fruit.
KA: For us, part of the learning has been to recognize that we’re offering people a glimpse into the future world of what’s possible, which ignites people’s passion to do more to help make that transition in their own lives. Then we’re also facilitating local networking and organizing so that they can carry on beyond both the time and space of the conference.