Over 3000 people attended the 17th Annual Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California, Oct. 20-23. The gathering was beamed by satellite to another 10,000 at 18 remote sites from Honolulu to Anchorage to Houston to Massachusetts.
According to founder Kenny Ausubel, Bioneers seeks “to bring biological pioneers together to restore the Earth.” Co-producer Nina Simons described its intention 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.
These and other morning speakers were beamed to 18 remote sites. In the afternoon and evening different local presentations were made at each site. The aim of the Honolulu gathering, 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.
“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.
In addition to prominent mid-life and elder speakers in the prime of their life or looking back over decades, 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 communities are being disproportionately poisoned by toxins. 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 US. Energy companies from China and India are also now arriving for this lucrative and destructive energy.”
“Industry wants to get natural gas down to the tar sands to rip off the upper boreal forest surface. To separate that oil from the sand they need to use four barrels of pristine drinking water to get one barrel of oil. 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 books on the relationship of humans to nature. He writes for the New York Times and 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 at a Bioneers Conference, the farmer who figures prominently in his book, “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 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 a big 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.”
“Democracy Now” radio and TV host Amy Goodman reported on her 80-city tour with her new book “Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back.” Her program is now the largest public media collaboration in the US, broadcasting on over 500 stations.
“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 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. That movement is happening everywhere.” 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.” Honolulu resident 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,” commented James Ball, who formerly worked with Fox TV and ABC and now works with smartMemes. “People don’t just tell stories. Stories tell us who we are and how to live.”
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. He maintained that it is necessary now to “act courageously.”
“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 a medicine. It is healing to come and not be so negative and see all the good things that are happening.”
(Dr. Shepherd Bliss, [email protected], is a retired college teacher who now runs Kokopelli Farm in Northern California.)