by Shepherd Bliss
HopeDance contributor Shepherd Bliss went to the 17th annual Bioneers Conference in late October, and this is his report.

The Bioneers drew 3200 people to its 17th Annual Conference in San Rafael, California, Oct. 20-22. The gathering was beamed by satellite to another 10,000 at 18 communities from Honolulu to Anchorage to Houston.

Bioneers, according to founder Kenny Ausubel, seeks “to bring biological pioneers together to restore the Earth.” Co-producer Nina Simons describes its intention as being to “co-create a living social system. This is not a spectator sport.” Among this year’s keynote speakers were New York Times writer Michael Pollan, “Democracy Now” radio and TV host Amy Goodman, and businessman Paul Hawken.

The morning sessions were beamed to the distant sites and supplemented by local afternoon and evening programming. The aim of the beamed Honolulu Bioneers, for example, was “to create community stories of practical environmental solutions and innovative social strategies for restoration of harmony between humanity and the earth.”

The Logan, Utah, site featured a presentation by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson at the Mormon Tabernacle. The Anchorage site included a Native Elder Wisdom Circle. Images of the gatherings around the country were projected on a giant screen at the California base event.

“Democracy Now” host Amy Goodman skewered the corporate media, both at Bioneers and in her best-selling new book Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back. “The media are the most powerful institution in the world,” Goodman asserted. “The Pentagon has employed the media and we need to take it back. We need a media that covers power, not one that covers up for power.”

Goodman told “stories in a time of war.” She talked about Cindy Sheehan camping outside “the Presidential Estate, which is not a ranch,” noting, “Beware of mothers who have nothing else to lose.” Sheehan lost her son Casey in Iraq, and she dogs Bush with a single question, “For what noble cause did my son die?” He has yet to answer. “When the media covers Cindy Sheehan,” Goodman added, “it is about her as an individual, not about the movement of which she is a part.” Goodman seeks “to report from the victim’s perspectives” and give voice to those who are silent.

“The level of resistance by soldiers is a huge story,” Goodman contended. “Soldiers in Iraq are overwhelmingly against the war.” Ann Wright, a former Army colonel who resigned her diplomatic post to protest the Iraq War, added in an interview, “The Pentagon admits that some 40,000 soldiers have gone AWOL since the Iraq War began.”

“This year Bioneers has a large number of workshops focusing on stories,” commented Ilyse Hogue of Moveon.org. Workshops were offered on themes such as “When Stories Change, the World Changes,” “Women Telling Our Stories and Promoting Justice,” and “Change the Story: New Strategies for Shifting Culture.”

“We are made of stories. Stories contain power,” asserted James Ball, who worked formerly for Fox TV and ABC and now with smartMemes. “People don’t just tell stories. Stories tell us who we are and how to live.”

“Indigenous Knowledge” was one of the main tracks of the gathering. The youngest-ever Chief of the Neetsail Gwich in Alaska, Evon Peter, spoke about Youth Leadership. A film about Sioux John Trudell was shown.

Bioneers gives ample attention to emerging leaders. Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Cree Nation in Canada has been the Native Energy organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and was recognized by Utne Reader as one of the top 30 under-30 activists in North America.

“Indigenous people are the original bioneers,” Thomas-Mueller began his presentation. “The IEN is composed of 250 indigenous groups around North America. Our lands and people are being sacrificed for irresponsible energy policies. Oil, natural gas, and mining industries violate our humans rights and territories.”

“America’s burgeoning natural gas industry” threatens the indigenous people and their land in Canada, according to Thomas-Muller. He described a natural gas pipeline of 1700 miles that is being built to get oil from the tar sands in North Alberta, noting, “Tar sands are the second largest oil reserves in the world, next to Saudia Arabia. Industry’s goal is to make Canada the number one producer of oil for the U.S. Energy companies from China and India are also now arriving for this lucrative and destructive energy. They want to get natural gas down to the tar sands to rip off the upper boreal forest surface. The tar sands are underneath the homes of a First Nation people just north of our Cree people.”

Michael Pollan is the bestselling author of various books on the relationship of humans to nature. He currently teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. His most recent book is The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

“The path to my current book was born in this room,” Pollan began. He referred to meeting Joel Salatin, the farmer who figures prominently in his book, at a Bioneers Conference. “Joel calls himself ‘a grass farmer.’ So rather than talk to me on the phone, he insisted that I come to his farm, get on the ground, and meet his grass. If we go really local, we go to the grass.”
“Local food is one of the most important movements going on today,” according to Pollan. Even organic food “is on the path of industrialization — including strawberries from China and blueberries from Canada. We are in the age of organic factory farming.” To counter this, Pollan described “a revolt of small producers and consumers that is on the rise today.” The growth of farmers markets are part of the solution. “Much more goes on in farmers markets than the exchange of money for food.”

“Our centralized food system is vulnerable to deliberate and accidental contamination,” Pollan declared. “We need to de-centralize our food supply and develop food independence. Lets put our faith not in technology and regulation, but in relationships.”

“We need a way to eat when the cheap oil is gone,” Pollan contended. “The industrial food system will break down. We need to have more food choices and think in terms of economic diversity. We need to cultivate multiple gardens and not seek a single source.”

A panel on “The Globalocal Food Movement: Act Globally, Eat Locally” occurred in the afternoon. Brian Halweil, author of Eat Here, told stories of food activism in Long Island and in Japan, contending that “eating local is a political decision.”

Paul Hawken was the gathering’s final conference-wide speaker. He has written various books, including Natural Capitalism, and is currently writing Blessed Unrest. Hawken advocated “liberation ecology,” “bottom-up power,” and “independence movements.”

“The social justice, environmental and indigenous movements are fast-growing and becoming the biggest movement in the world,” Hawken asserted. He favors linking them more. “The house is burning down, literally,” Hawken contended. “We are witnessing the breakdown of the world. We will either come together as a globalized people or we will disappear as a civilization. We need to arrest our descent into chaos.”

“Bioneers is an inspiration for the whole year for me,” Catherine Allport of Santa Fe, N.M., explained. “It takes me that long to integrate what happens here.

“Bioneers gives us a taste of what could be,” noted Noli Hoye of Massachusetts. “I especially appreciated Paul Hawken’s closing message that we need to bridge various movements. Staying home was the central message that I heard. So I think I’ll go to the beaming Bioneers in Massachusetts next year.”

“This year there was more attention to creating a culture,” Puerto Rican Mara Nieves noted. “There were many different cultures present and we were able to create a multi-cultural community. Living in colonized Puerto Rico with all the hatred of the US globally, Bioneers is like medicine. It is healing to come and not be so negative and see all the good things that are happening.”

After ignoring the Bioneers during its previous 16 years, the New York Times finally covered it in an Oct. 24 article. Patricia Leigh Brown snidely describes the event as a “pep rally,” a “megachurch for the Prius set” and “true believers” and “a monoculture, a love-fest between graying activists and youthful idealists.” The article asserts that people were encouraged “to connect with their inner Al Gore.” It seeks to diminish the event by describing it being in “a universe unto its own.”

The Times article reminded this reporter of something Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

A City Councilmember in my hometown of Sebastopol, Larry Robinson, found merit in the Times article: “Any publicity is good publicity, because it builds name recognition.” Just getting the word Bioneers out there is cause enough to thank the Times.

Dr. Shepherd Bliss, [email protected] , is a retired college teacher who now runs Kokopelli Farm in Sebastopol.