Bioneers: Groundbreaking Ways to Repair the Earth

An interview with writer/filmmaker Kenny Ausubel about taking back the planet.

October 19, 2007
 |  Human creativity focused on problem solving can explode the mythology of resignation and despair. It is this point of view that inspires the annual Bioneers conference that takes place each fall in the San Francisco Bay area, which now streams via satellite to 19 sites across the country. The conference (10/19-21 in San Rafael, Calif.) is a gathering of scientific and social innovators who are developing and implementing visionary and practical models for restoring community, justice and democracy, as well as the Earth itself.

Speakers this year include author, Alice Walker, inventor and entrepreneur; Jay Harmon, community arts pioneer; Judy Baca, environmental justice leader; Van Jones, Whole Earth Catalog founder; Stewart Brand; and Native American activist Winbona LaDuke.

In addition to founding and co-directing Bioneers, Kenny 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 and When Healing Becomes a Crime; edited the first two titles in the Bioneers book series Ecological Medicine and Nature’s Operating Instructions; and was a key advisor for the Leonardo DiCaprio documentary The 11th Hour.

Terrence McNally: I believe your founding of Bioneers grew out of personal experiences and personal trials in your life. Could you weave a bit of that story for us?

Kenny Ausubel: There were two primary experiences for me. First, I had a very severe health crisis when I was about 20 years old. Conventional medicine was not able to help me, and out of desperation, rather than any philosophical bias, I sort of fell through the rabbit hole into the world of alternative medicine. I began to learn a lot about natural medicine and, over a long period of time, began to recover. Second, in the midst of that, my father very unexpectedly got cancer and was dead six months later at the age of 55.

A couple of weeks after my father’s death, I began to learn about alternative cancer therapies — amazing stories of what Bernie Siegel calls “people who got well when they weren’t supposed to.” In the course of my research, I discovered that there was a deep philosophical conflict between the conventional medicine tradition and the natural medicine tradition. This was quite apart from the war over money and power that continues to this day.

Natural medicine holds that as a healer or a doctor, your job is to support the body to heal itself. Nature has an incredible capacity for self-repair that we barely understand. These experiences led to one of the founding principles of Bioneers: the idea of working with nature to help nature heal itself.

In the course of all that, I was asked to make a film about a very unusual garden on an Indian pueblo north of Santa Fe, N.M. Long story short, it was there that I met Gabriel Howard, a maniac seed collector and master organic gardener, who introduced me to biodiversity in the garden. In nature, diversity is the source of resilience. The only constant in nature is change. It’s the only thing you can really count on. Nature is dynamic and ever-evolving, and diversity is your deck of adaptation options. Those who adapt are the ones who survive in the long haul.

The whole idea of resilience, diversity and what it takes to adapt to a changing world informed my thinking very profoundly. In 1990 I decided to pull together all these people that I had been finding one by one — people who were looking to nature as teacher and mentor and model — and then imitating how nature does it. That was the origin of Bioneers.

McNally: So personal crises with your own body and that of your father led you to a vision of the interdependence of nature around you.

Ausubel: As John Muir said, “Everything is hitched to everything else.” So to think that our health as human beings could be separate from the health of the environment is just preposterous. Human health is utterly dependent on the health of our ecosystems and the world that we live in.

McNally: A book you edited, Ecological Medicine, goes into that notion in depth.

Not only can health be a very powerful motivator for people to change behavior, but I think there’s a possibility of a shift in worldview where health becomes a metaphor. You can begin to ask not only how healthy is my body, but how healthy is my home or my workplace? How healthy is my community, my corporation or my democracy?

Ausubel: It’s all connected. Because the world will always be changing, the ultimate goal is not stability but some sense of dynamic equilibrium.

Businesses and governments use something called scenario planning, where they try to envision different scenarios for how the future might unfold so that they can anticipate how to respond. We’re going to have a session at the conference with one of the leading lights in that field, Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network. The premise of Peter’s book, Inevitable Surprises, is that if you’re paying attention, things should not come entirely as surprises.

Though we’ll never predict or imagine everything, he believes a lot is hiding in plain sight. For instance, we can expect the massive spread of infectious disease in the world. Why? Because we’ve disrupted the basic ecology of the planet, globalization has accelerated how quickly these viruses and pathogens can spread and our immune systems are weakened from living in polluted environments, eating bad diets and, frankly, from our being stressed and unhappy.

Americans work more than anyone else in the world and have some of the worst health and emotional problems, so it’s not like all this working has made us terribly better off or happier.

McNally: Andrew Weill wrote 25 years ago, “Health is wholeness … “

Ausubel: Exactly … and the author and farmer Wendell Berry says that health is membership. As human beings we’re social creatures at heart, and being part of a family or a community is really important. One thing I think people get off on a lot at the Bioneers conference is connecting with kindred spirits.

McNally: I know there are people who return year after year to San Rafael, but there are also 19 satellites this year. Can you talk a bit about the evolution of the physical event?

Ausubel: The first conference in 1990 in Santa Fe drew 200 people, which seemed huge at that time. It felt almost like being in church, in the best sense: People were just so grateful to come together to look at the magic and mystery and wonder of nature, and how to apply that knowledge and wisdom in very practical ways. Our focus has always been on solutions, on what people are actually doing that’s working. A lot of our emphasis has also been on media, communications and education because so few people know about these viable alternatives.

At that first conference, another huge cornerstone was hiding in plain sight. I figured all these people must know each other, but it turned out hardly anybody did — even in the same fields. It became clear over time that getting connected and building social capital is as important as getting the word out and educating people.

We moved the conference to the Bay area in 1993, and it has grown and grown year after year. There’s usually about 3,400 people in San Rafael. Now we beam three mornings of the plenary session by satellite to local sites who self-organize their own conferences with local speakers on local issues. Tip O’Neil (former speaker of the House of Representatives) once said, “All politics is local.” Well, all ecology is local too. We each live in a food shed and a watershed and an energy shed, and it’s important that we take this knowledge and apply it in our own backyards.

McNally: Could you talk a bit about your involvement with the feature documentary The Eleventh Hour?

Ausubel: Because so much cutting-edge work is highlighted at the conference, Bioneers has started attracting a lot of journalists looking for interesting stories. I met the two directors of 11th Hour, Leila and Nadia Conners, about four years ago in Los Angeles. Their company, Tree Media, had done mostly web work at that time, including a couple of short films with Leonardo DiCaprio. A few of them came to the conference three years ago, and it opened up a whole new world for them. As a result, they asked me to be an advisor to the film, and they came to the conference the following year and shot about 30 interviews. I ended up in the movie as well.

When I first saw the treatment for the film, it was very powerful, but it was completely focused on the problem, on the crisis. I really encouraged them to move beyond that to look at solutions. The Bioneers conference had a big influence on their thinking in that regard, and the last third of the movie now opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

From what I understand, audiences come away with, No. 1, “Yes, this is the eleventh hour.” It’s astounding how many people still have not quite awakened to that. But in addition, they also learn that in good measure we know what to do — and that’s the mobilizing factor.

McNally: So they leave the theatre motivated rather than depressed …

What are some of the key themes at this year’s conference?

Ausubel: We try to stay current, and at any given moment there are things that seem more timely. The beating heart of the conference from day one has been the science of bio-mimicry, of imitating nature for our technologies. One of the most influential people in the country will be speaking, Dr. Paul Anastas, chair of newly created Green Chemistry at Yale University. Paul, who ran the Green Chemistry Institute for many years and worked in the Clinton White House, describes a very fast-moving field that over the next decade is going to completely transform the chemical industry.

Aware of the horrible harms that have resulted from a very toxic system, we all laugh when we hear DuPont’s old pitch of “better living through chemistry.” But the truth is that there are now viable substitutes and alternative processes that don’t poison the planet or ourselves. Critically important from the point of view of business and industry, green chemistry eliminates a huge amount of waste and liability. So large companies like 3M and DuPont are really getting on board.

McNally: Janine Benyus (author of Bio-Mimicry and a former plenary speaker at Bioneers) points out that so many of humans’ chemical and industrial processes depend on “beating, heating or treating.” To accelerate chemical processes, we expose things either to enormous pressure, extreme heat or cold, or to powerful solvents. Nature does all of these same things — for instance an abalone forming ceramics or a spider forming webs of enormous tensile strength — without resorting to those extremes. Nature does it at room temperature, under natural pressure and in real time. To a great extent, it’s the beating, heating and treating that produces pollution. If, by imitating nature, you can learn to minimize those, then the pollution goes way down.

Over the last few years you’ve featured a growing grass-roots political movement in the country to take back power from the corporations. Is that continued this year?

Ausubel: Well, here we’re spinning the dial a bit. This year we highlight local living economies — in many ways the antidote to the corporate system that essentially flows resources out of communities and concentrates profits in fewer and fewer hands. Locally based small and midrange companies can create a local economy with local jobs that actually retain and spread the wealth and prosperity.

We have tremendous strength in that area this year at the conference. Judy Wicks, for one, started a great restaurant in Philadelphia, the White Dog Café, which sources all of its food from local farmers. More than that, it’s a tremendous hub of community and has created sister relationships with other groups not just around the country, but around the world. They have regular meetings of their customers to do things like visit local prisons and understand how they can help improve conditions or keep people out of prison in the first place.

Judy is a co-founder of a wonderful group called the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. I think there’s something like 450 chapters now across the country. Their website is, and it’s a fantastic network of great businesses who are doing the right thing.

Sometimes people get the impression that at Bioneers we’re against business. Not at all, quite the opposite. Whenever people say “free market,” my only question is, “Is free a verb?” I would love there to be a free market, rather than corporate concentration and a giant game of Monopoly.

McNally: In his new book, Deep Economy, Bill McKibben points out that even though material goods are up in America over the last few decades, happiness is down. He cites a lot of research that basically says that the increase in iPods, flat screens and bottled water has not made up for our loss of community. The movement towards localism not only can get folks the food and goods they need, but it can revive community in the process.

Ausubel: Exactly — and also build prosperity. A wonderful economist and author, Michael Shuman, has written a couple of books, From WalMart to Small Mart, and Localize It. Michael recently did a study to look at what would happen if people started purchasing 25 percent of their food locally. He found that in just the five-county area around Detroit, it would create 136,000 jobs, $1.5 billion in new revenues and $150 million in taxes. This is what happens when you start to localize your economy.

McNally: There’s also a big component of indigenous people at this year’s conference, isn’t there?

Ausubel: They have always been a very strong presence at Bioneers. I live in New Mexico, and was profoundly influenced by indigenous culture in my work with Seeds of Change. Among many indigenous leaders speaking this year are the 13 grandmothers who came together about two years ago, when they all had independent visions that they needed to turn prayer into action on behalf of Mother Earth. A film of a satellite space bridge that we did from the Bioneers conference last year during the grandmothers’ visit to the Dalai Lama will be shown on LinkTV in October. All 13 of the grandmas will be at this year’s conference.

It’s a very strong year for women overall at Bioneers. Eve Ensler, creator of the Vagina Monologues, will be speaking about an initiative for the women of New Orleans for a big event in 2008 that we’re going to support as well.

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