Bioneering Into the Future

For the next five days, Marin County in the San Francisco Bay Area will be overrun by leading lights in environmental activism and progressive politics. The 13th annual Bioneers Conference will once again showcase inspiring solutions to the world's pressing problems.

Where else but at Bioneers could you meet a man who uses mushrooms to clean up hazardous waste; hear a 24-year-old supermodel and a tree-sitter turned environmental spokeswoman discuss youth activism; and learn how urban areas are turning abandoned city blocks into abundant garden plots?

Founded in 1990 by Kenny Ausubel, Bioneers is an organization that can hold many such ideas under its umbrella. And because the group is focused primarily on solutions, Bioneers conferences are inspiring, joy-filled occasions to learn about progress on social and environmental issues, as well as meet other forward-thinkers who are making change happen in their communities.

Brahm Ahmadi, a co-founder of the People's Grocery in West Oakland, Calif., has been attending the Bioneers conference for several years. This year, he will be part of a panel discussing how urban agriculture can revitalize urban areas economically and ecologically. "The main benefits we get from Bioneers are continued contact with and inspiration from the work of others," Ahmadi said.

Those contacts have played a key role in furthering Ahmadi's work. Thanks to people and ideas encountered at Bioneers, the People's Grocery has begun work on bioremediation for polluted areas of West Oakland.

The idea of bioremediation is simple: Use nature's various tools to clean up humanity's messes. Some of this year's Bioneers presenters have spent their lives developing bioremediation techniques. John Todd, president of Ocean Arks International, has created methods of using contained ecosystems like fish and coral to purify sewage and wastewater. John Stamets has pioneered the field of mycoremediation, using mushrooms to break down industrial and chemical spills.

While bioremediation is still in its infancy, the Bioneers conference allowed residents of West Oakland to access information that would otherwise not be available to them. The primary methods for bioremediation involve going through the EPA, which requires large-scale and capital intensive projects unavailable to low-income areas and nonprofit groups.

"Bioneers has the potential for democratizing this sort of information," Ahmadi says. Thanks to the conference, his organization is able to learn about low- and no-cost methods to expand their work. With each new year of growth, Bioneers is able to reach more communities and stimulate more change.

Bioneers founder Kenny Ausubel anticipates even faster growth in coming years. "The prospects for growth are limitless and global," Ausubel says. "Bioneers is an elegant model because what it does is tie into and support local organizing efforts."

One key aspect of Bioneers' expansion is the Beaming Bioneers program, now in its second year. The first Beaming Bioneers program reached four locations around the U.S. and one in Toronto. This year's conference will be broadcast to 12 locations.

These satellite conferences promoted local organizing and allowed groups that couldn't travel to Marin to interact with conference attendees. Already, three countries have asked to participate in future conferences, and more sites in North America will surely come online.

Among the many highlights of this year's sold-out conference include "What is Socially Responsible Business" with Paul Hawken, Ben Cohen and Susan Davis; "Mitigating Global Warming" with Jared Blumenfeld and Elisa Lynch; "Genetic Engineering: Giving Biology the Business" with Lawrence Bohlen, Percy Schmeiser, Andrew Kimbrell and Ronnie Cummins; and "Reining In the Power of Giant Corporations" with Kevin Danaher, Jeff Milchen, and Ilyse Hogue.

Matt Wheeland is a former AlterNet editor and freelance journalist based in Berkeley, Calif.

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