Bioneers: Dazzled by the Eco Star Constellation

Inspired Bioneers conference attendees© Jennifer Esperanza

With its back-to-the-future curves and swoops, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin, California Civic Center feels like the perfect venue for hosting the annual Bioneers conference. A sprawling complex of streamlined colonnades, perfectly round auditoriums and sky-blue roofs, Wright’s design manages to come off as at once strikingly futuristic and—now decades old—comfortably familiar. The center is a fine example of wild creativity meeting stolid pragmatism, which seems very much the point of the Bioneers” gathering of eco-visionaries from around the world.

On Sunday, I dropped in on the final day of the three-day assembly to catch some of the grassroots leaders who were scheduled to speak. It was an incredible California autumn day—temperatures in the 70s, clear skies—and I had a hard time understanding why a few thousand people would prefer spending their time inside listening to talking heads instead of outside enjoying the sunshine. The wide-open faces of those listening to the morning lectures gave me my answer: They came seeking hope.

To be sure, Bioneers is a conference just like any other. There are plenary lectures, all types of training sessions, a flurry of workshops, book signings. Yet the gathering feels more like a family reunion than a typical issues-oriented summit. At Bioneers, long hugs are exchanged more often than business cards.

The creation of that kind of intimate, mutually supportive space was one of the original intentions of Bioneers. “It’s like a revival meeting,” Bioneers co-founder Kenny Ausubel said during one of the Sunday sessions.

The Marin Center grounds, home to the Bioneers conference© Jennifer Esperanza

Bioneers is very much a sing-along for the progressive choir. The applause lines are predictable, the standing ovations obligatory
and what’s wrong with that? There’s no doubt that to effect lasting political change, progressive activists need to take their causes and concerns beyond the enclaves of Berkeley, Madison and Manhattan. But struggling for justice and sustainability is tiring work, so it’s important to reconnect with other like-minded people to build a fresh sense of purpose and commitment. If one believes, as the World Social Forum motto goes, “another world is possible,” Bioneers is a chance to recharge one’s internal battery.

“I think everybody comes to Bioneers with a lot of fatigue and a little bit of hope, and the gathering somehow turns that around,” Van Jones, the charismatic 38-year-old founder of the civil rights group Ella Baker Center, told me. Jones is a regular Bioneers attendee, and was a 2003 plenary speaker. “Bioneers really renewed my sense of hope and optimism about what the future can hold. It gave me a new framework to think about the future in terms of solutions, and has been a vital part of my journey and my political life.”

Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons, co-founders of the Bioneers© Jennifer Esperanza

Started 17 years ago in New Mexico by Ausubel and Nina Simons, Bioneers has distinguished itself by bringing together some of the most energetic and thought-provoking activists working for ecological sustainability, social justice and peace. The yearly conference brings the entire constellation of eco-stars from the environmental and social justice movements together under the same roof for a weekend. This year’s roster of speakers included radio host Amy Goodman, labor leader Maria Elena Durazo and food writer Michael Pollan. And even the non-famous had their messages heard, including Clayton Thomas-Müller, an indigenous environmental activist, and Soféa Quintero, a Brooklyn novelist.

Commentators often criticize the progressive left as being less a common front for action than a disparate—and sometimes divided—hodgepodge of single-issue interest groups. If so, then Bioneers is an antidote. The conference is a self-conscious effort to cross-pollinate the efforts of environmentalists and social justice activists, entrepreneurs and NGO-istas, elders and the up-and-coming. Bioneers is a kind of greenhouse for cultivating the alliances necessary to reverse the reactionary trend in American politics.

While serving as a venue for big-picture visioning, Bioneers is also a chance for people to develop the practical skills of the craft of social change. This year’s conference included workshops on non-violent direct action, getting one’s message out to the media, campus organizing and using art as a vehicle for political change. One popular session showed people how they can use readily accessible tools to test their homes and bodies for toxins such as lead and mercury—and how they can employ that knowledge to change the balance of power between local polluters and neighborhood groups.

Plenary presenters Paul Stamets (left) and Paul Hawken© Scott Hess

Taken as a whole, the ideas proffered at Bioneers are pretty common-sense stuff—follow the Golden Rule, treat the Earth as if you are only a guest passing through, approach each day with a sense of gratitude. But this common-sense wisdom has yet to become mainstream practice. Until it is, Bioneers will remain an important gathering for those trying to shift industrial society’s definition of what is “normal” and “ordinary.”

Entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken summed up the feelings of many Bioneers participants when he said, “The energy that comes from the spirit is just as important as wind turbines or solar power
I love coming here. I don’t realize how thirsty I’ve been until I get to the well.”

JASON MARK regularly writes about agriculture issues for E. He is the co-author, with Kevin Danaher, of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power (Routledge).