by Shepherd Bliss
Bioneers transformed a sprawling suburban civic center north of San Francisco into an educational eco-village for a sell-out gathering of over 3000 people Oct. 14-16. Bioneers are "biological pioneers," according to its producers Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons. Another 8000 or so participated in 16 sites around the United States and one in Canada, where the morning plenaries were beamed in by satellite and local afternoon sessions added.
"Visionary and practical solutions for restoring the Earth and people" were offerred at this 16th Annual Bioneers Conference. Among more than 100 presenters were scientists, performers, indigenous people, teachers, young people, activists, artists, and spiritual teachers. They generated insight, laughter, anger, and some tears as they described the problematic state of the world and what to do about it.
The spirit of Bioneers was captured by its first plenary speaker, Janine Benyus, a vigorous scientist from the Rocky Mountains of Montana. She declared, " We need to have deep conversations with nature."
Bill McKibben--author of the ground-breaking book "The End of Nature"-followed by asserting that "people are finally paying attention to global warming. It is no longer a prospective problem; it is crashing down upon us now." He observed that "the SUV age came to an end when people saw on TV hundreds of gas-sucking SUVs run out of gas leaving Houston and become stranded in flight from the hurricanes."
"The Earth is telling us that it is sick," Ausubel added. "When we fight the Earth, we will lose. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are coming attractions of what we can expect in the future." McKibben and later environmental educator David Orr explained how global warming strengthened Katrina by heating up the Gulf waters.
The weekend built to a rousing crescendo provided by African American scholar, composer and singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who for 30 years led the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The civil rights activist began by speaking slowly, deeply, poetically, precisely, and powerfully. She noted that "the bones at the bottom of the ocean" provide the basis for her music, taking us down and back to the ships bringing slaves to America. She filled the large auditorium with dignity, elegance, beauty, and mystery, building to a musical highlight. Reagon spoke from a deep faith that moved people. She communicated with feeling about her friends and ancestors, living and departed.
"When I die you can cast me to the ocean wide," Reagon sang. She invited the audience to join her and we became her chorus in a stirring song with the line "Come and go with me to that land where I am bound." Can you imagine singing in a chorus of 3000 with such a great leader! Reagon effectively captured the conference's mixture of sorrow at the sorry state of the world and joyous determination to do something about it, rooting us into the depths of the Earth and the oceans.
One of the some 500 youth at the gathering, Sarah Sullivan of New York, commented, "I always love the sharing of specific information at Bioneers and the newness of the innovation and ideas. But what I will most remember is singing with hundreds of Bioneers, the presence of the youth and their dance and drum and spoken work, the circles of bodies connecting in the grass during the breaks, the food I shared with friends, the pictures I saw on the screen in the theatre, and the tea and literature offered in the exhibition center. Bioneers is getting more heart-centered and diverse each year; I look forward to watching it mature and deepen with time."
This year's Bioneers offered over a dozen films, often presented by their directors. Plenary speaker and shrimp fisherwoman Diane Wilson was featured in a film about her as an "unreasonable woman." She has stood up to chemical corporations polluting her south Texas bay and elsewhere for a decade and a half. Wilson has been arrested numerous time for her anti-corporate actions and explained that she is "currently on the lam. So if you see one of those guys with a big hat, let me know, since it may be a Texas Ranger."
The films included "Trudell," about the poet, musician, actor, and American Indian activist, who spoke about his work. Deborah Koons Garcia, the director of "The Future of Food"-- which recently opened at mainstream theaters around the US and received a positive review in the "New York Time"-spoke on a panel about "Food and Farming at the Movies."
Among the many speakers on food and agriculture was 25-year-old African American Will Bullock of Boston's Food Project. Urban farmer Michael Ableman read from and showed photographs from his new book "Fields of Plenty." A panel discussed "Food Security." Co-producer Simons noted that "almost one fourth of US shoppers now buy organic. The organic industry is growing by 20% a year. More than 700 school districts now have farm to cafeteria programs." A new book in the Bioneers series published by the Sierra Club, "Ecological Literacy," debuted at the conference. It was produced by the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, a pioneer in linking school gardens, cafeterias, and academic programs.
Many presentations were on communication and the media. "We all need stories," author and radio personality Thom Hartmann asserted. "When stories change, the world changes." He maintained that "changing even one word can make a difference. Corporations try to convince us that our real identity is as consumers. Before that we understood ourselves as citizens, part of a community, needing to defend the commons." Hartmann suggested an identity and word change back to understanding ourselves as citizens, rather than consumers. McKibben also pointed to the creation of the community as essential to working on the multiple problems that confront us at this time.
Other prominent speakers included physicist Fritjof Capra, activist politician Tom Hayden, moveon.org's Joan Blades, the Green Party's David Cobb, author Francis Moore Lappe', and architect Sim Van der Ryn. Among the speakers were a number of youth. Young people attended the main conference and special events at the Youth Tent. Bioneers is more multi-generational and cross-cultural than most environmental events.
Bioneers is an annual ritual for many people. After the first day photographer Scott Hess sent out an email including the following: "Bioneers rocked once again today with a rhythmic, deep-thinking, soul-stirring pulse.It was one of those heavenly days that lift one up to timeless places of deep love and gratitude experienced in the midst of one's spiritual tribe."
The networking that occurs around the sides at Bioneers is important. One of the interesting persons this reporter spoke to was Ann Wright of Honolulu. She served nearly 30 years in the US Army and Army Reserves, rising to the rank of Colonel, and 16 years as a diplomat, some of this time overlapping. Wright resigned in 2003 to protest the Iraq War, while she was Deputy US Ambassador to Mongolia.
Wright explained that many military members and their families oppose the Iraq War. Col. Wright spent August as the commandant of the anti-war protest Camp Casey outside Bush's ranch in Texas. Another woman impacted by the military, Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain American soldier, briefly attended Bioneers, where she signed books at a booth of Code Pink, a women's organization that has been at the forefront of the growing peace movement.
Ocean activist Richard Charter also dropped by. When he heard this reporter lives in Hawai'i, he noted that U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) "has become the servant of the oil industry. There has been a moratorium on offshore drilling for over 20 years. Congressman Abercrombie has introduced the Outer Continental Shelf Energy Relief Act to allow offshore drilling for oil and natural gas."
At a session on "Deep Water: Saving the Oceans" Michael Stocker of Seaflow noted that "We are all dependent upon the sea. Yet the oceans are in rough shape. We use the ocean as a cesspool to dump things and over-harvest it." Ocean scientist Wallace "J." Nichols added, "Most people live within 50 miles of the ocean. We're tied to the ocean. The water we drink, the air in our lungs, and the food we eat come from the ocean. Our survival depends on the ocean."
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