Bioneers 2010: Dispatch from an Earth Community Movement

Once again, the 3-day Bioneers mother-ship has landed and departed, and a thousand pods of social and environmental change have dispersed across the globe, refreshed and re-energized.  Or to use the less technological metaphor by Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute,

“This is kind of a seasonal migration ceremony, Bioneers.  If we were migrating birds, this would be our staging ground, where we come and talk about what we have hatched this year and what breeding was like.”

The Bioneers Conference, hosted in San Rafael, CA on what is the ancestral lands of the Coast Miwok, is a leading-edge forum presenting breakthrough solutions for people and planet.  Over its twenty-one years Bioneers has become a global community of some of the most dedicated, passionate, and creative thinkers and leaders facilitating a wiser way forward for the earth community.

Farmers, students, social justice workers, scientists, artists, musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, indigenous leaders, environmental activists, peacemakers, and a motley assortment of engaged citizens come together to learn, network, and re-energize their efforts in creating a just and resilient world.  The topics discussed range from organic farming, green chemistry, and women in the media to cross-cultural education, traditional indigenous knowledge, and local democracy.

The experience is as intellectually stimulating as it is personally transformational. Over the next few days I will be discussing some of the most visionary and exciting projects, ideas, and people at Bioneers, including the Million Kid March, the new shift in environmental and community protection using a rights-of-nature framework that is taking root across the world, the Dreaming New Mexico local foodshed & fair trade work, the One World Youth Project that is creating a new paradigm for cross-cultural education, new models of clean energy, the transformation of urban landscapes and the work of Andy Lipkus and the TreePeople, Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots programs in 120 countries, the heroic ethnographic work of Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey, the first female fellow of the National Geographic Society, and the move to amend the constitution to limit corporate person-hood and restore free speech for people alone.

Here I want to highlight what I take to be some of its core themes and messages and hopefully in the process capture some of the spirit of Bioneers.

1) Urgency of Action: All the signals from the biosphere and indicators from our body and economy are in: the time is past due for massive shifts in how we do things.

“This moment beckons us all to think big,” said Bioneers co-founder Nina Simons. “To match all we are each capable of with the needs of a planet” in peril.

Another panelist, Ami Marcus from Mt. Shasta, whose community is fighting corporate raiding of their water and manipulation of their weather, said, “It is not enough to feel it here,” she said, pointing to her heart, “we must codify it in our structures on the ground.”

And that takes the hard work of speaking out, organizing, speaking face to face with our neighbors about the issues, of challenging the status quo, saying yes to things not yet born but are in our imaginations, not accepting no, and of not waiting on leaders to come.  It means scaling up the work we are doing already. It means moving beyond bumper sticker activism and clicktivism.

Bioneers co-founder Kenny Ausubel invoked Winston Churchill: “It’s no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

The Four Years. Go campaign was presented, a global effort to awaken the best of our collective awareness and action.  It is based on the premise that what we do or don’t do in the very short term will effect generations to come and that we have the solutions at hand, but we need all hands on deck.  The mission is to empower “individuals and organizations to set and reach goals that will cause a positive global tipping point by 2014, setting humanity on a new path toward a socially just, environmentally sustainable, and spiritually fulfilling future.”  As the video suggests, it is not a new organization, it represents goals for every organization.

Connect with Four Years. Go on Facebook and on Twitter.

We are urged to plug-in, co-create, and act with fierce determination. We are the leaders. As one speaker urged, “Whatever you do, wherever you are, find a way to be ever more involved.”

2) Crisis as Opportunity: There’s no doubt–the challenges are daunting, scary, often overwhelming.  The enormity of the problems we face are enough to make the strongest of us buckle under from time to time, but as Jess Rimington of the One World Youth Project proclaimed to a student who was overcome by depression in the face of these challenges, “We have the amazing opportunity to reinvent just about everything about how humans currently do things.”

Throughout some of the Bioneers talks, the scale of documented destruction was enough to almost put out any fire of enthusiasm.  Drs. James Hansen and Jane Goodall chronicled the devastation they have witnessed around the globe such as the melting ice sheets and glaciers, the deterioration of coral reefs, the gap between rich and poor growing wider, the deforestation of Tanzania hillsides & South American and Indonesian rain forests, and the daily disappearance of species.

Yet both ended on notes of hope, optimism, and practical solutions. Two examples are the reforesting of the hillsides around Tanzania’s chimp habitat and the Roots & Shoots program, that started as 12 students in Tanzania and has grown to 120 different countries.  Goodall shared four reasons she is hopeful: 1) the energy of youth, 2) our intellect when linked to the heart, 3) the resilience of nature, and 4) the indomitable human spirit to overcome obstacles.

We are rethinking how we design cities, how we farm and eat, how we package things, how we get and use our water, how we teach students, how we travel, how we construct buildings, how we produce and consume energy, and so on, impacting every sphere of our lives.

Lynne Twist said of the task, “It is an unparalleled opportunity to work on everything.”

3) New Stories/New Dreams: We are dreaming new dreams and telling new stories, then enacting them. At the same time we must dismantle old myths that we tell ourselves about who we are, what our relationship is with nature, and what is possible.

Andy Lipkis of the TreePeople identified some of our limiting mythology, such as: “Americans can’t/won’t change,” or “I don’t yet have the right skills, knowledge, fill in the blank,” or “individuals can’t make a difference,” etc.

That mentality has met its sunset.

“What if,” Lipkus continues, “we are earth-adapted to be its co-healers.  What if we tell a new story, that says instead of being helpless infants destined to corrupt the biosphere, we are brilliant, creative adult problem solvers and healers.”

The myth that individual action is ineffective is exposed by countless contemporary examples and from history. Jane Goodall is one example of one who has been making a difference everyday for 50 years.

“Every single one of us makes a difference every single day,” she says.

Again Lipkus used an example from nature, comparing the microscopic fungi that live symbiotically on the roots of the giant sequoia tree to the towering giant above it of which they are unaware. Yet without them the tree would die.

“Which is more important, the greater or the smaller?”

Lipkis then shared the phenomenal stories of communities and urban habitats being restored in Los Angeles, that icon of the concrete jungle.  A plan to green Martin Luther King, Jr. was met with resistance by some.  The city’s plan called for 10 years and $10 million.  TreePeople said, “What if we did it in a day?”

And they did.  After a couple months of organizing,  3000 people planted over 300 trees in one long afternoon, transforming MLK Blvd.

And if we sometimes fail? “Failure is compost for success,” Lipkis said.

How can we not get caught in the web of this intelligent and fierce optimism, this call to act on the opportunities our challenges present?

4) Biomimicry and renewing our relationship with nature: Central to telling that new story is telling the truth about our relationship to nature. We are nature, of nature, by nature. It is a recognition that resilience of the ecosystem is not separate from the resilience of community and the resilience of an economy.

In the recognition we learn to ask new questions.  How might we learn from the giant elm tree about water absorption and community?  How can we design cities that are better integrated with natural systems? What does the symbiotic relationship between coral reefs and the many species that depend upon it teach us about our relationships?  How might nature create self-cleaning surfaces?  What about a non-toxic water-proof adhesive?

Nature has already created the solution to every imaginable scenario, in a closed-loop system, and with great efficiency.

“Walk gently on the earth because it is the face of the future,” said Peter Warshall of the Dreaming New Mexico project.

5) Building Broad and Resilient Movements: In addition to the urgent need for individual action there is the necessity of building social movements. We know that enviros and racial justice leaders and social justice agents often have been segregated for decades, but that is changing. I remember Carl Anthony, the pioneering environmental justice leader, telling me how he was often the only black person in the room back in the 1970s.

Many of the panels at this year’s Bioneers focused on bringing various movements together.  As Mary Gonzales, the California director of the Gamaliel Foundation, put it, we need a “marriage of environmental, equity, and social justice” movements.  These coalitions and gestures of solidarity are becoming increasingly common.  Indigenous leaders and communities have long been a part of Bioneers and they were well-represented in both word, art, and ritual at the conference. We are seeing more conversations between food justice and environmental justice movements.  We are finding urban renewalists increasingly understanding that affordable housing, walkable and bikable neighborhoods, green jobs with living wages that are close to transit, sustainable buildings, and urban agriculture all need to be integrated.

As Taj James of the Movement Strategy Center and Marinne Manilov of the Engage Network put it in an important article on Huffington Post, “Whenever we talk about change, we are also talking about community. Large-scale change only happens when networked communities of people move together.”  They would no doubt see the 4 Years. Go campaign as having the best possible success when this happens.  They would see it as helping to facilitate the “blending of small circles with a clear over-arching purpose.”

6) Fierce Determination and Compassion: Finally, Bioneers presents a call for fierce love. This is not a sentimental love, but rather a strategic, determined, compassion-in-action, willing to confront power, communicate effectively, break down barriers and silos, take down or transform status quo structures, and do the hard work kind of love.

Co-founder Nina Simons suggests some of the the qualities of the new leaders: 1) they gather people together, 2) they are paradoxical, have masculine and feminine characteristics, and are fierce and empathetic simultaneously, and 3) they are holistic, glimpsing the big picture.

Mary Gonzales, Gamaliel Foundation’s CA director, Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey, the first female National Geographic fellow, and Andy Lipkis of the TreePeople embodied well the archetype of this fierce and loving leadership.

Gonzales reminds us that the price of alienation from nature and from each other is a loss of democracy, a loss of community.  She shared her story of being a young Catholic mother who played out a particular script informed by society and her parents, then slowly entering the world of organizing and becoming transformed into a fierce leader of on-the-line social struggles by speaking out, waking people up, building power, and identifying what draws people to the table.

Gonzales directs a leadership program for women called Ntosake, which means, “she who walks with lions and carries her own things.”

Lindsey urges us to”step into uncomfortableness, to close our eyes to see more clearly,” and to embrace these challenges as our “prelude to greatness.”

Lipkis suggested that just as we often have a fear of falling in love, with the simultaneous sense of vulnerability and excitement, we also fall into compassion. Finally, he says, “Let us be volcanoes of enthusiasm.”

Photo Credits: Spiral from Hoklife


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