Bioneers: Help and Hope for the Planet

Kenny Ausubel, an award-winning journalist, filmmaker and environmental entrepreneur, is founder and president of Bioneers, an organization that "unites nature, culture, and spirit in service of the restoration of Earth and our relationship to the web of life." Ausubel also founded the nonprofit Collective Heritage Institute and cofounded Seeds of Change, an organic seed company that promotes biodiversity.

Ausubel is the author of three books: "Seeds of Change: The Living Treasure;" "The BIONEERS: Visionary Solutions for Restoring the Earth," a book profiling the Bioneers culture; and "When Healing Becomes a Crime: The Amazing Story of the Hoxsey Cancer Clinics and the Return of Alternative Therapies."

We interviewed Ausubel at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

How did you come to be interested in alternative medicine and issues of ecology?

When I was about 19, I experienced some fairly serious health problems that were not able to be addressed by allopathic doctors. As a consequence, I fell through the rabbit hole into the world of alternative medicine, not because of any philosophical inclination, but out of desperation. I realized I had to get out of New York City, and I landed on a small farm in northern New Mexico where I began to learn about alternative therapies, nutrition and growing organic food.

In the midst of my own drama, I got a very chilling phone call one night from my mom, who told me that my father had cancer. Six months later he was dead at the age of 55. It was a very traumatic experience for me. Then, two weeks later, I got a newsletter in the mail claiming cures for terminal cancer patients using a metabolic and nutritional regimen. Like most people at that time, I believed what the doctors told me -- that cancer was largely incurable and the only effective methods were surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. But with my father freshly buried, I decided if there were anything to the alternative claims at all, I needed to know about them.

So I embarked on a journey of discovery. I was also a working journalist, and in the course of this process, I came across the story of the Hoxsey cancer treatment. In its time, from the 1920s through the 1950s, the main Hoxsey Cancer Clinic in Dallas was the largest private cancer center in the world, and it had gained tremendous support. The treatment primarily employed herbs, which today are all well documented as strong anticancer plants. But during Harry Hoxsey's era, the medical establishment vilified and suppressed the treatment, along with many other "unorthodox" approaches. I realized that, like everything else, medicine is political and, to some degree, a fashion victim embedded in the temper of the times.

The real story of the Hoxsey treatment was that it had been politically railroaded instead of medically tested. In fact, a 2001 federal report found "noteworthy cases of survival" using the Hoxsey treatment among terminal cancer patients, and recommended further investigation. The Hoxsey treatment is certainly not a panacea, magic bullet, or cure-all, nor was it ever claimed to be. But clearly, it is a valuable therapy that many people have benefited from.

I made a feature documentary film about the story, which was released in 1987 and played on national TV and in movie theaters. It also had a special showing for members of Congress just at the moment when these kinds of policies were poised to change. This overall process led to the creation of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and the kind of mainstreaming of alternative therapies that we're seeing today. Hoxsey was considerably ahead of his time.

How did Seeds of Change start?

Because [the Hoxsey treatment uses herbals], part of the research involved botanical medicine. Through the research, I met Christopher Bird, author of The Secret Life of Plants. Several months later he called me at my home in Santa Fe and asked if I would make a film about a very unusual garden on an Indian Pueblo north of Santa Fe.

As you drive up the Rio Grande Valley, the pueblos, which are mainly set on the Rio, have a long tradition of agriculture. It is really a culture of farming where food and farming the land are the center of the celebration of human culture. San Juan Pueblo had hired Gabriel Howearth to create the garden. Gabriel had been all over Mexico and Latin America learning about indigenous agriculture, and as people began to trust him, they shared with him what for them was the most precious of gifts -- the gift of seeds. Native peoples often believe that through the seeds speak the voices of the ancestors. In turn, we become the ancestors for the generations to come in this sacred transmission. Consequently, Gabriel had amassed an extraordinary seed collection of rare traditional and heirloom varieties, mostly foods and herbs, which he then stuck in the ground at San Juan Pueblo.

I had been a gardener and farmer for a few years, but this was my introduction to biodiversity in the garden. I had never seen anything like it. It was the first time I'd seen quinoa and amaranth, the sacred grains of the Incas and Aztecs, along with entire societies of tomatoes -- every shape, size, and color imaginable. The scents were intoxicating, the tastes astounding. It was nothing like the dead produce you find at most grocery stores.

In any case, I then learned that all these seeds were under threat because of patents in the seed industry, and that most of the seed companies were now being acquired by the chemical and pharmaceutical companies that also produce the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. It was ironic because these were the same drug companies that had opposed the Hoxsey remedy.

The experience was a wake-up call for me about the danger to the agricultural biodiversity of the planet. I came to understand that biodiversity is the very fabric of life from which life is made. It's the reservoir of all the adaptations that life has made over 4 billion years, and when there is a crisis or a challenge you go to that reservoir because it is the source of resilience for evolution itself. Yet here it was under escalating threat. We're in the midst of the Earth's sixth great spasm of extinctions, but the first bearing the fingerprint of the human hand. The Earth will regenerate, but it takes 10 million years to reach the kind of level we have now -- not a human time frame.

Gabriel approached me a couple of years after I had finished the movie and asked if I would help him raise money to start a health center and an organic farming project. As an independent filmmaker, you're not independent at all, you're totally dependent on funding, so I had become a fundraiser by necessity. As I talked with him, the thing that struck me was that the important aspect of the work was the preservation of these seeds. We ended up putting our heads together and starting a company called Seeds of Change, whose strategy was to start a market partnership with backyard gardeners, who prize and cherish diversity.

Gardeners are always leaning over the fence and saying to their neighbors, "What's that you've got there? Could I trade you some of this?" We thought it might be a valuable strategy to help actually bring diversity back into the food system and, in turn, preserve these varieties in a very practical way.

And the Bioneers? How did that organization start?

During this period, I'd become concerned about environmental issues, and I started making a focused effort to find out what other solutions might be out there. Clearly Hoxsey represented part of a solution toward treating cancer. Saving seeds seemed part of a solution to restoring biodiversity. I figured there must be other solutions out there, and other people doing interesting things. Sure enough, one by one by one, I began to meet some extraordinary people. The common thread was that they had peered deep into the heart of ecological systems to understand how nature does it, to learn what nature's operating instructions are, and to glean from that how we can live better in this world. One of the most striking people I met, who remains an elder in the Bioneers movement, was a fellow named John Todd.

John is a limnologist, a pond man. He lives on Cape Cod and founded the New Alchemy Institute, which did a lot with solar energy in the late 1960s and with food production and fish farming in large, solar greenhouses.

Everything in nature is somebody's lunch or source of energy. Waste equals food. This principle became John's guiding light. Similarly, biodiversity is a fundamental principle in the natural world as the source of resilience. John Todd sees his work as farming because when you create greenhouses to treat toxic waste water, you can also grow things. For instance, you can produce cut flowers as a business. Not something people would eat but certainly something ornamental. You can take what was previously viewed as a cost and turn it into a benefit and a revenue stream. The economics are one of abundance.

I fell upon more and more folks creating innovative approaches founded in basic principles of biology. One afternoon I was with a friend of mine, who is an investor and philanthropist, raving about all these amazing projects and how no one knew anything about them and how the people involved didn't even know each other. My friend said, "Why don't you have a conference?" I said, "That's an interesting idea."

And he said, "I'll fund it."

So that's the genesis. About a year after Gabriel and I started Seeds of Change, I began the Bioneers in 1990.

What is the main thrust of the Bioneers?

The idea was to look into the heart of nature and to understand what nature's solutions are and how we can learn from that to live more lightly on the planet.

The work of the Bioneers that we highlight has always been highly practical. While philosophy and vision are interesting and compelling, at the end of the day, we are interested in what we can actually do. We knew in 1990 that the natural world was already well on its way toward an environmental crisis, and certainly things have only intensified since then.

The real issue for me was that I don't want to sit around being depressed -- I would like to know what we can do to make progressive change and improve the state of the environment. What we did was to bring together the visionaries who have both feet on the ground and who can put their ideas into practice, and to look at models that can be replicated widely and spread around the world. Our initial focus was on biodiversity and food and farming issues, as well as bioremediation and natural treatment systems for decontaminating the environment. Since then it's expanded. These days the conference has more than 100 speakers who are involved in a diverse spectrum of projects uniting nature, culture, and spirit. You would weep over what ends up on the cutting room floor because we can't fit it in. The growth and expansion of this work is very inspiring. Some of it is grassroots activity, which is important work, but much of it operates on a very large scale today. One example is an architect and designer named William McDonough, who just wrote the book "Cradle to Cradle."

Bill was contacted by an upholstery and furniture company in Switzerland that had massive problems with its production process. In Switzerland, of course, industrial-quality water is actually drinking quality. They have some of the most rigorous standards in the world, yet there were heavy metals and nasty chemicals and toxins coming out in the factory water. It was a real problem. After Bill designed the new system, the inspectors came back and thought that their measuring equipment was broken because the waste water coming out of the plant was cleaner than the water going into it.

Who are some of the other people you've brought into the loop?

Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins, who wrote the book "Natural Capitalism," have looked at a whole range of industrial applications of green technologies. Oftentimes, green technologies are rejected because capital costs are too expensive. But they found that green practice actually cuts costs in half, quadruples profits, and creates jobs. It's worth remembering that the industrial system at large is 94 percent waste. That represents a huge business opportunity.

A few years ago, Massachusetts created a Toxics Reduction Act and 800 out of 1,000 companies signed on for it. They found that it improved their production and cut their costs. Insurance analysts have said that climate change alone will bankrupt the economy by 2065. Not dealing with these issues is a sure route to bankruptcy and environmental destruction and all sorts of other painful experiences. In fact, going green in these very intelligent ways is good for the economy, creates jobs, and is helping to restore the planet.

I like to call these the true biotechnologies. When you look at what some people are doing in the name of biotechnology, it is more like biocide. Genetic engineering is a misnomer: it is genetic roulette. It is unpredictable, and it is the equivalent of splitting the atom on the molecular level, and we all know what harm nuclear technologies have wrought.

A good example of a true biotechnology is the work of Paul Stamets, a mycologist from Washington State. Paul is a brilliant fellow who has written several classic texts in this field. He is not only a mushroom collector but also a first-rate scientist.

The medicinal and nutritional properties of many of these fungi are well known already, particularly in Asia. There's a maitake fraction moving through the FDA now that has strong anticancer properties. The antiviral remedies from fungi that are going to come out in the [next few] years are also remarkable. But Paul is also an ecologist and spends a lot of time in the rainforest in the Pacific Northwest saving these species, cloning them in his laboratory, and keeping an extraordinary gene bank. He asked the question: If these fungi are medicines for people, then might they not also be medicines for the earth? What are they actually doing in the ecological balance?

Paul is now convinced that the mycelial mass that underlies most land masses in the world is a vast communications network. There's one mycelium that is as large as half the landmass of the state of Michigan.

What is a mycelium?

It's all the little filamentary threads. What you see above the surface is the fruit [of the mushroom]. The actual roots and threads are a whole network that grows as much as an inch a day depending on what area it is in. Paul has made a strong case that it is actually the earth's original Internet. This is where the concept came from, this huge moving grid. What he found, however, was that these things also have bioremediation properties.

After a diesel fuel spill near his farm in Washington, the state set up a project to try to remediate it. They set it up as a competition and 19 companies participated. Each one was given a large cell of contaminated soil to try to cleanse. Paul managed to get involved in this task and he inoculated his cell with oyster mushroom spores. Well, everybody came back about a month later. The cells were covered with tarps and one by one, they started removing the tarps. In all the other companies' cells, there was no visible change. The stench of hydrocarbons was overwhelming. But when they got to Paul's cell and ripped the tarp off, it was blanketed with oyster mushrooms, some of them 12 inches in diameter. When they tested the fungi and the soil, it was more than 99 percent remediated. There were virtually no hydrocarbon residues.

The message here is, again, waste equals food. These mushrooms treated these hydrocarbons as food. If we're lucky, mushrooms will turn out to be like people and they will like junk food, because there are plenty of hydrocarbons to go around. Paul has gone even further and applied this theory to farmland where E coli H:0157 is a tremendous problem. He's discovered a species of fungi that will actually defeat and then digest E coli. The implications of this are gigantic.

When some of this work got out of the bag, Paul got a call from the Department of Defense. Forget Saddam Hussein, the United States government has the biggest stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons components in the world, and these are arguably some of the most deadly [items] around. What do you do? How do you get rid of them? This is a major problem. Paul ended up sending the Department of Defense 28 samples of fungi to try in a blinded experiment, not telling them what these things were, and about 6 or 8 months later he received a very excited call back from the Pentagon. Two of these mushrooms worked. They actually were able to digest these heavy-duty poisons, no residue, no nothing. One of them did it in 4 months.

It's incredible to think that plant life has the ability to help us like this.

Again, the importance here is to look beneath the surface at the guiding principles. The restoration of diversity is one of the keys not only to our survival but also to our prosperity in the future. Nature does not favor centralization or monocultures, yet this is exactly what we have designed. It's a giant bull's-eye for extinction. Or if we really understand the fact that waste equals food, there are no byproducts, only products. You look at every system through these kinds of lenses.

There are several other basic Bioneers principles. One is kinship. From the microbes to the mammals, we share far more in common at the molecular level than we have differences. It's about a half a percent of DNA that separates the human being from the chimpanzee. We share about 30% of our DNA with fungi, much more than we do with plants. There is a literal kinship to all life. This is not a metaphor or an abstraction. The overriding message is interdependence, that life is connected and you cannot throw things away. As my grandmother used to say, it's all relatives.

Mycelial mats answer the ancient Zen question: Is there a sound when a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it? You can bet that the fungi are the first to hear it, and they send messages almost instantaneously through these mycelial networks: food! The idea of connectivity is really a guiding principle for how we need to live in this world. Dr Lynn Margulis, who developed the Gaia hypothesis with James Lovelock and who is probably the premier biologist in the world, came up with the endosymbiotic theory of evolution. She said that bacteria originally were warring. They were cannibals trying to eat one another. When neither side could conquer the other, they decided to cooperate. That was when cellular evolution and multicellular organisms originated. It was out of rejecting cannibalism in favor of cooperation.

By the way, Dr Margulis also says that bacteria rule. Bacteria are 80 percent of the biomass of the world. It is much more their world than ours. We're latecomers. We're the tiny new tip on a branch of the tree of life.

Similarly, she says that the predator that extinguishes its prey will also perish. The wolf puts the lightning in the step of the deer, and this is coevolution. It's not a dominator model. So what you find in nature -- and nature is not all warm and fuzzy -- is that while there's plenty of competition, the overriding principle is cooperation, or mutual aid in human cultural terms. It is an entirely different way of looking at life.

Tell me about the people that have spoken at Bioneers conferences on ecological medicine. What did they talk about?

Michael Lerner was among the first to recognize that environmental health is destined to become the central human rights issue of this new century, and that this issue has tremendous political traction if all the people working in the field of environment and health can come together. Michael works very closely with a lot of health-affected communities through the Commonweal Institute he founded. He has also been seminal in the group Health Care Without Harm, which is working to reduce and eliminate toxins from the medical waste stream, which, ironically, is one of the worst. They have launched a global effort to get rid of mercury thermometers -- a single one can kill a 20-acre lake -- as well as dioxins.

Medical incineration is the single greatest source of airborne dioxin, and of course IV bags contain dioxins that leach out, creating great harm, especially to infants, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. This kind of work has evolved now into a much broader ecological medicine movement keyed less to an individual's health than to understanding that personal health depends on healthy ecosystems. The practitioners' first commitment is to create ecological conditions conducive to life.

One of the beauties of biology is that its facts are also our metaphors. Perhaps the single most troubling human health indicator today is that mother's milk is arguably the single most toxic human food, so toxic that it could not be legally be sold on store shelves in developed countries. The milk of human kindness is poisoned. What more do you need to know?

But restoration is not just about technological fixes. Bizarre as it may sound, for most of the environmental problems that we face today, we know what to do. We actually have the solutions, or certainly know what directions to head in. So why aren't they being implemented? What you find is that it is largely either political or economic roadblocks of one sort or another. To restore the environment, we need to look not just at technological solutions, but also at the social strategies that are going to achieve conditions whereby we can implement these solutions.

What are the resources for people who want to get involved and start doing something? Where can they go? What can they do?

I get asked this question a lot: What can I do as an individual? My life has had so many left turns and unexpected developments that I never pretend to give anybody advice. But what I think is clear is that there is no question that we are entering an ongoing environmental crisis -- serial crises -- and that all of us are going to be increasingly affected. The environment is going to move to the center of the stage and be the single most important issue in all of our lives. It's going to take a tremendous amount of imagination and a great deal of passion and the involvement of millions and millions of people.

The first step is just recognizing this reality and committing that you're going to do something. I also think it is important for people to follow their hearts. You are going to know what's right for you to do. You will know where you have particular skills or gifts or where you are moved by something. Oftentimes you get involved in a small way, but one thing leads to another, and who knows where you'll end up in that regard. I would certainly recommend in practical terms that people look at the Bioneers Web site. We have lots of resources and are very collaborative, so we work with many other groups that we respect and feel are effective.

In the medical field, in particular, I'm sure people know about Healthcare Without Harm, Pesticide Action Network, and other such organizations. In fact, we're helping to build a national network of people in this field, so if people want to get connected, these organizations are all on the Web site.

One important point that is often ignored is that the worst toxic dumping takes place in low-income communities comprised of people of color. It's not happening in their backyard; it's in their front yard. I've been reading about the computers that are shipped to China for disassembling. The Chinese people are taking apart these supertoxic tubes. The water is completely polluted in all of these villages and the people have horrible sores on their bodies. They are dropping dead.

So we've just exported the problem to other places. We haven't solved it at all; we've just sent it out of this country because companies couldn't get away with it here. The other reality is climate change. Ninety-five percent of the population growth -- another 3 billion people -- is going to occur in less-developed countries where there is no public health infrastructure. What will happen? There are 25 million ecological refugees in the world today and in 10 years that could be 250 million refugees. What will the Mexican border look like? Is it going to be an armed camp? But you can't stop the diseases from migrating. Two billion people in the world, a third of the world's population, live on a dollar or 2 a day, literally. This is just not viable.

We are never going to solve environmental problems without also solving social justice problems. People need to realize that when we say it is all connected, it means there is no escape. The wealth gap is greater then it's been since perhaps the time of the pharaohs. But it's in nobody's interest to have that kind of a disparity and to have that many people living in squalid conditions. The health implications alone should be enough to wake people up. That's another issue we deal with at Bioneers because the problem of the ecological health of the planet will never be solved without also solving social justice.

The Bioneers Conference takes place this weekend, from October 18-20 in Marin, Calif. This article first appeared in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, September 2002. Used with permission.


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