Bioneers: A Movement of Many Movements

Bioneers: A Movement of Many Movements

November 2, 2014

“Instead of creating a strategic pathway - an analytical architecture that could launch our network - we arrived together at the understanding that relationship IS the strategy… and that a network is nothing more than relationships connected, activated and cultivated.” - Nina Simons, Co-Founder, Bioneers, Medium 

“The coming years are going make the ‘60s look like the ‘50s. Everything is up for reinvention and everything is going to change. In what ways hinges on what we do at this once-in-a-civilization moment.” - Kenny Ausubel, Co-Founder, Bioneers, Medium 

Last month was the 25th annual Bioneers Conference in beautiful San Rafael, California. It was my 3rd and favorite Bioneers so far. A vibrant combination of love, intelligence, and humility filled the gathering, with workshop tracks ranging from Food and Farming to Indigenous Knowledge to Youth Leadership to Ecological Medicine and more.

While the range of conference topics was extensive, the uniting force was the community’s deep love for nature. Bioneers recognize that we are co-creating a new story on Earth, and that we must collectively heal our relationship with the planet before it’s too late. Louie Schwartzberg’s on-stage unveiling of the UN Climate Sequel communicated the essence well:

The recent People’s Climate March in New York City also added a sense of hope and zeal to the Bioneers energy. With over 400,000 participants, along with solidarity events in 162 countries, the People’s Climate March showed the world that the environmental movement has reached a pivotal tipping point. From fringe to mainstream. From denial to action. From apathy to urgency. 

“We are still here”

One of the most notable aspects of Bioneers is its integration of Indigenous Peoples and culture. Respect was paid to native lands and ancestors at the beginning of each conference session. Stage art, morning drums, and spoken word poetry showcased aboriginal influence. Discussions conveyed a refreshing honesty when recounting the past, recognizing the severe injustices that indigenous communities have experienced for several generations.

We heard from speakers like Clayton Thomas-Muller, an Ottawa-based Indigenous rights activist, Robin Kimmerer, a professor and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa leader in the movement to stop oil drilling in the Ecuadorian rain forests. 

The Idle No More (#IdleNoMore) movement out of Canada is growing, with expressions of solidarity coming from hundreds of thousands of people globally. Indigenous communities are resisting the expansion of extractive industries through peaceful protests and legal action. Movements are particularly focused on water rights protection and indigenous women’s leadership.

A revolution led by women

The Bioneers community is very much led by women. Passionate, wise, and inspiring women.

Nina Simons, co-founder of Bioneers, delivered a heartfelt message about how social intelligence and loving relationships are the path for restoring harmony in our world.

Naomi Klein, famed author of This Changes Everything, described how our economic system is at war with the planet, and how we’re on a devastating pace to exceed Earth’s atmospheric carbon cap of 800 gigatons. Naomi also talked about the new “Blockadia” movement and noted how 50 corporations contribute over 70% of the world’s carbon emissions.

Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day and One Billion Rising for Justice, contributed to the “new mythos” with a poetic reframe of Adam and Eve, calling for lives of less shame, more joy, and service.

Severine Fleming, co-founder of Greenhorns, Farm Hack, and National Young Farmers Coalition, captivated the audience with her portrayal of the 400 million acres of U.S. farmland changing hands in the next two decades, calling for a “truce between generations.” Severine also described emerging movements to establish a land commons with permanent organic farming practices and stewardship.

Recognizing widespread inequality - something women are all-too-familiar with - the Bioneers speakers shined light on critical human rights issues, asking challenging questions like:

  • Why are we depriving most U.S. farm workers - the people who grow our food and of whom 70% are foreign born - basic living wages, hiding behind hypocritical justifications and ineffective immigration policies?
  • Why are we crippling our younger generations with an impossible-to-pay $1.2 trillion in student loan debt?
  • Why are the 7 billion U.S. school lunches served annually packed with GMO’s, sugars, artificial chemicals, hormone-laden meats, and some of the least healthy foods available?
  • Why in a place like Ferguson do African-Americans constitute over 60% of the population but less than 6% of the police force? 
  • Why are we still cutting down our rain forests, the “lungs of our planet” and among the last remaining bastions of biodiversity and carbon sequestration, while simultaneously forcing native populations off their ancestral lands?
  • Why are “smart phones” deliberately built for planned obsolescence and nearly impossible to repair, effectively trapping and destroying millions of tons of rare Earth minerals, and systematically supporting inhumane labor conditions while enabling the world’s largest companies to increase record profits

Despite the gravity of concerns surfaced, the Bioneers atmosphere was held together with joyful laughter, supportive cheering, and playful humor. The energy was anchored by an authentic love for humanity, allowing each perspective to be deeply felt.

“When I create the conditions for my own healing to occur, it also creates medicine for those around me.” - Nina Simons

A world of solutions

Getting real about our global challenges was only half the Bioneers story. The other half was a rigorous engagement in potential solutions and actions we can undertake. 

Rooted in paradigm shifts like biomimicry and permaculture, the opportunities for improving our relationship with nature seemed endless. 

Paul Stamets, a popular mycological researcher and inventor, shared perspectives on how mushrooms can be used to boost the biosphere’s immune system, including for things like restoring bee colonies

John Warner gave a terrific talk about how green chemistry puts molecules together that naturally want to combine - instead of modern chemistry’s approach of violently forcing molecules together, which is contributing to unintended consequences like cancer and ecological destruction. He also illuminated other shortcomings of modern chemistry, such as the fact that PhD students never have to take a single class in toxicology. John shared the latest findings about how green chemistry is on its way to transforming Alzheimer’s treatment, solar panel materials, asphalt recycling, and even hair coloring.

Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, led a session about a design-led revolution to realize Bucky’s dream of making “the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone.” The Buckminster Fuller Institute hosts an annual challenge that awards prizes to these kinds of groundbreaking ideas

Other conference sessions explored water management, localized food systems, and modeling the intelligence of nature. In nearly all cases, the solutions described felt both ancient and cutting-edge at the same time. And urgently needed.

While new science offered a lot of optimism, conversations about corporate power, money in politics, and our legal system often fell flat with a sense of hopelessness. Wounds run deep from many failed attempts at reform. Kenny Ausubel applauded California’s increased investments in clean energy, but it was a rare note of encouragement at the conference about government policy. For many, the only answer to our climate crisis seems to be a bottoms-up, widespread social change movement. As Naomi Klein put it, “The majority of people on this planet know the system is failing - with or without climate change.”

Or as another speaker put it, “Climate change is the civil rights issue of our time.”

Growing the movement

In a telling indication of its resonance and relevance, the Bioneers conference was filled with enthusiastic young people. Scholarships were provided to waive or heavily discount conference fees, enabling a record 350+ students to attend Bioneers this year.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an 14-year old indigenous environmental activist, along with his 11-year old brother Itzcuauhtli, impressed the audience with a brilliant spoken word performance and description of their youth-organizing efforts at Earth Guardians. The next day the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company from Oakland delivered an energizing theatrical hip-hop dance rendition about “plastic vampires,” ripe with educational messages about reducing plastic waste.

We also heard from Chloe Maxmin, founder of First Here Then Everywhere and Divest Harvard, who described the fast-growing “Divest Fossil Fuels” campaign. Divestment is the opposite of investment, and supporters everywhere are committing to sell their oil company stocks in an effort to bring more capital into clean energy. Over 70,000 people and 72% of students have signed up in favor of the Divest Harvard campaign alone.

“Some say youth are the future, but we’re here now!” - Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, @earthguardianz

Notably missing from the conference were members of the Silicon Valley tech community or many discussions about software’s role in catalyzing global change. In conversations about alternative economics, regenerative farming, and transition communities, I heard very little mention of crowd funding, digital currencies, agricultural analytics, open-source tools, community platforms, sharing economy, etc. Hardly anyone identified their organization as a “startup.” No Internet companies were sponsoring booths and no major tech philanthropists were featured as donors. 

While I appreciate the understanding that humanity’s challenges will not be solved with simply “more technology,” and that the economic forces driving tech corporations are also causing ecological harm, I do think there is untapped potential from a greater integration between the environmental movement and Silicon Valley. Software can help bring speed, scale, and decentralization to the transformative solutions our world needs. And there are a lot of incredibly talented people who are passionate about building such tools. 

Between the idyllic Marin Center setting, inspiring creative expressions, nourishing foods, and diverse gathering of engaged citizens, Bioneers 2014 offered an energizing glimpse into a brighter future. We’re excited to support the Bioneers organization and movement. Happy 25th anniversary Bioneers!

Make a donation to Bioneers (Collective Heritage Institute)

Various quotes heard at Bioneers:

  • “Sustainable luxury is founded on sustained inequality and violence.” - Kenny Ausubel
  • “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” - Kenny Ausubel
  • “Biodiversity is biosecurity.” - Paul Stamets
  • “Deforestation is the greatest threat to human survival.” - Paul Stamets
  • “Humility is the path to revolution, service is the only song.” - Eve Ensler
  • “Long memory is the most radical idea in America.” - Utah Phillips re-quote
  • “School is the biggest restaurant in every city and every town. Only nobody knows it.” - David Binkle re-quote
  • “Felt is the operative word.” - Emma Goldman re-quote
  • “Planned obsolescence is a business model problem.” - Dawn Danby
  • “From survival of the fittest to survival of the most compatible.” - John Warner
  • “Not just ‘not in my backyard.’ ‘Not here or anywhere!’”
  • “We shouldn’t be asking what kind of Earth we should be leaving for our children. We should be asking what kind of children are we going to raise to take care of our Earth.”
  • “Violence against the Earth begets violence against women.”
  • “Is land a source of belongings? Or a source of belonging?”
  • “The average American kid can recognize 100 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants.” 
  • “I know there are places where if you talk to a plant you’re crazy. Where I come from it’s just considered good manners.” - Robin Kimmerer
  • “Sustain the ones who sustain us and the Earth will last forever.”
  • “Take only that which is given.”
  • “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” - Theodore Parker / Martin Luther King Jr. re-quote
  • “From tune in and drop out, to tune in and engage more deeply than ever before.”
  • “A one-dimensional activist is not meant to lead a multi-dimensional movement.” - Chloe Maxmin / Tim Merry
  • “We have to remember we are ancestors. Those who come after us are depending on us to get our act together.”

Learn more about Bioneers:

Climbing PoeTree performances from Bioneers 2013:

10 Books A Home: Helping Preschoolers and Their Families

10 Books A Home: Helping Preschoolers and Their Families

Collaborative Decision-Making with Loomio

Collaborative Decision-Making with Loomio