by Shepherd Bliss

For nearly two decades now the Bioneers Conference has been gaining momentum. Bioneers is a term used by its founders Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons to describe innovative social and scientific visionaries who ground their work in practice and are solution-oriented. 

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Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons, co-founders of Bioneers

The annual gatherings have historically focused on environmental concerns such as food and agriculture, green businesses, eco-building, restoration, water and forests. This year’s conference widened its scope to include more on related issues, such as war, urban poverty, violence against women, and human rights in Burma and elsewhere.

The 18th Annual Bioneers Conference drew some 3000 people to the  sprawling Marin Center in the San Francisco Bay Area over the Oct. 19-21 weekend. Over 10,000 attended satellite conferences around the United States in Alaska, Montana, Iowa, Texas, Massachusetts, Michigan and elsewhere. The morning plenary sessions were beamed to 18 places and afternoon workshops were produced locally.

The Bioneers tent is growing and becoming more inclusive. Among the various tracks this year were the following: food and farming, youth leadership, the arts, restoring ecosystems, social activism, independent media, and women’s leadership.

Pulitzer prize-winning author Alice Walker, the founder of “green chemistry” Yale professor Paul Anastas, Pacifica radio stations host Caroline Casey, and “Whole Earth Catalogue” founder Stewart Brand presented.  Political activists such as Global Exchange’s Medea Benjamin and Kevin Danaher and Moveon.org’s Ilyse Hogue, and Native American Winona LaDuke also spoke.

The International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers opened and closed the conference. They came from throughout the Americas, the Himalayan region, and Africa. They offered wisdom from the Earth’s first peoples regarding peace and healing. One of the Grandmothers’ key messages was about the element of water. Indigenous peoples globally are observing that the world’s oceans, aquifers and watersheds are in acute distress and that this water is our life-blood.

On the gathering’s second morning Evon Peter was scheduled to talk. The large stage quietly filled with almost three dozen native persons of all ages.  They sat down together on the floor. One by one–in their distinct languages–each indigenous person briefly introduced themselves, their tribe and their home, sometimes with an English translation. This simple coming-together created a powerful context. Within that collectivity and after his wife and young daughter in her lap had spoken, the former chief welcomed the audience as guests to “our homeland.”

“Some of my husband’s words may seem harsh,” Peter’s wife warned, “but he is not a harsh man.” In a calm, clear, and determined voice, he did indeed remind those gathered of the occupation of this land by European people.

“We indigenous people are still here,” he added. “I’m happy to be sitting with you. Our songs, prayers, and words are our practice of who we are in our homeland of California.  We welcome you.” Peter spoke of the “imbalances in the world,” noting, “There is an awakening and an opening up in the world today.”

“Vagina Monologues” playwright Eve Ensler spoke next on the heart-opening Oct. 20 morning. “Are there any vaginas in the house?” she began, which received a roaring affirmative answer. “Are there any vagina-friendly men here?” produced a loud echo. Ensler mixed humor with a strong condemnation of the continuing violence against women that she has witnessed in travels to some of the 119 countries where her play, translated into 45 languages, has been performed in the last decade.

“We have to be bolder now, if we are going to save humanity on this planet,” Ensler told a small group the day before her public talk. She was speaking primarily to teenage girls from New York City. When one explained that she was from the Congo, Ensler replied that she had recently returned from that “heart of Africa.” She described the most horrible violence against women that she has ever experienced, which brought tears to the girls’ eyes, who leaned on each other for support. “We must turn pain into power,” Ensler asserted.  This reporter later saw those same girls striding together with strength and power. A fierce public speaker, Ensler listened and interacted sensitively with these young females.

This year’s conference had more emphasis on the pain and suffering in the world than previous gatherings.  One reason the Bioneers is evolving is because the Earth itself seems to be having greater problems.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking more lives and being more destructive, with the U.S. escalating its threats against Iran. The global climate is getting more chaotic.  Studies reveal that the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. Various people at Bioneers indicated that the planet seems to be at a “tipping point” that typically preceeds great change.

The founder of Sustainable South Bronx, Majora Carter, spoke of their work to restore the Bronx River in an impoverished community. “Environmental justice is a civil rights issue in the 21st century,” Carter asserted.  “We must green the ghetto.”

Another African American, Van Jones, talked about the need for “green collar jobs” for the urban poor. Though the topics were usually serious, they were often presented with a sense of humor and play that evoked frequent laughter. Jones, for example, poked fun at the Prius-driving audience while he advocated the needs of the urban poor. “As this movement now moves from the margin to the center,” Jones asked, “Who are we going to take with us and who are we going to leave behind?”

“Van Jones rocked the house,” someone blogged. “He’s an unequivocal juggernaut…‘I feel like I was listening to Martin Luther King,’ a woman said afterward…Jones has become the inner city conscience of the environmental movement.” He was one of superb storytellers to receive a standing ovation.

Among the words used in interviews to describe the Bioneers were the following: hopeful, exhilarating, passionate, overwhelming, graceful, magical, innovative, exciting, educational, life-changing, rejuvenating, exhausting, energizing, imaginative, multi-dimensional, diverse, transformative, insightful, respectful, catalytic, and regenerating.

In his talk on “Modern War’s Devastation” psychotherapist and author Edward Tick asked all the military veterans to stand and be welcomed home. His presentation was one of the most emotional and controversial, exposing the inner conflict that some members of the progressive community experience when asked to support work with damaged veterans even though they reject war.

Ensler and Tick were among the panelists at a workshop on “Healing the Trauma of Social Violence and War.” Tick asserted, “Our common wounds can bring us together.  The worse thing we can do is to cover up our wounds.” Ensler added, “Wounds are openings, like wombs. A wound can open the door and make you permeable. The more willing we are to go into the wound the more we can heal.”
In addition to the many scheduled speakers, other interesting people abounded. Col. Ann Wright (retired), a former Army officer and U.S. diplomat, resigned to protest the Afghanistan War. Her book “Dissent: Voices of Conscience” was scheduled to be published by the time of the conference, but has been held up by State Department censors. Its pre-publication cover describes its content as  “government insiders speak out against the war in Iraq.” Col. Wright spoke informally with people this year and at a previous Bioneers and at a reception hosted by the women’s group CODEPINK: Women’s Group for Peace. One of the gathering’s most important aspects is what happens around the sides, where new and old friends meet, network and create community.

Absent from this year’s gathering–as well as from previous conferences–was a workshop on the impact of the lessening supply of oil and the simultaneous increasing demands for it to fuel industrial societies. The only plenary speaker that this reporter heard who mentioned this crisis, often described as Peak Oil, was Native American Winona LaDuke. One participant described this as a “blind spot” to Bioneers.

“I experienced deep feelings of awe and gratitude for the amazing quality of the teachings, performances, music, art and countless personal interaction al this sublime event,” photographer Scott Hess of Petaluma, California commented online.  “My soul was stirred to the very core.”

“I experienced great joy in being at a gathering where all levels of transformation are recognized,” commented Zanette Johnso, who is finishing her doctoral studies at Stanford University.  “The transformation we are envisioning will take more than just the rebuilding of infrastructures for sustainability. To create a truly viable future, there must be inner transformation as well. I love the way that Bioneers includes the spiritual, emotional, and social elements in the conversation as well as the technical aspects of this essential visionary work.” The youth presence and clarity at Bioneers was one of its most inspiring elements.

Many people return from Bioneers all fired up.  Here is how one, Canadian Carolyne Stayton, responded a few days later, “It is a time for courage; a time to go beyond fear.  It is a scary time: Witnessing the death of a planet. Pull the emergency brake!   I am scared of sea level rise, of lack of drinking water, of toxic oceans and catastrophic storms, of drought and wildfires, cessation of ocean currents, a modern ice age, extinction of species.” 

Stayton added, “But most of all I am afraid of the political chill, My mouth is now open. I also have a pen in my hand.  My feet carry me through my fear.  I am going forward to what I fear most:  To the treasonous take-over of this land, to the fascist up-currents that place Blackwater mercenaries in Los Angeles, use torture, and keep lists of their critics to effectively disable them from crossing borders.”

One of the best-received speakers at last year’s gathering was Paul Hawken, who referred to “the largest movement in the world,” described in his recent book “Blessed Unrest.” This year his co-workers distributed postcards promoting a free international community directory at www.WiserEarth.org .  It is described as a “network forum of organizations and individuals addressing the central issues of our day: climate change, poverty, the environment, peace, water, hunger, social justice, conservation, human rights, and more.” Wiser Earth activist Camilla Burg added, “We hope to keep the conversation going long after the participants have gone home.”

More than just an annual conference, Bioneers publishes books and provides DVDs of its plenary speeches. It hosts a radio series and provides a variety of other services and tools.

Next year’s Bioneers is scheduled for the same time, same place—Oct. 18-20 at the Marin Center in San Rafael. This year was more international than before and founder Ausubel indicated that next year will be even more international.

Shepherd Bliss, [email protected] , currently teaches at Sonoma State University and has owned the organic Kokopelli Farm for the last 15 years.  He has contributed to over 20 books, most recently to “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” www.vowvop.org. Bioneers info at www.bioneers.org. Photos from the 2007 conference can be viewed at http://www.flickr.com/groups/bioneers2007/ .