Bioneers to the Rescue


The annual Bioneers conference has a reputation for creative and deep thinking about sustainability and the environment, but during all my years as an environmental activist, I never managed to attend. On October 19-21, I finally made it to the conference in San Rafael, California. It was an opportunity to feel the pulse of the environmental movement today and reflect on how it has grown and changed since Bioneers began in 1990, the same year that I became a full-time environmental activist.

In 1990, I was working as a signature-gathering coordinator for a California forestry initiative that would have ended clear-cutting in California forests. I organized volunteers to hit the streets with petitions throughout the East Bay, and not just the street corners in Berkeley where signatures were as easy to gather as apples on the ground. Looking toward the election in the fall, I recruited the two housewives in working-class Freemont who would staff a table at the mall on Saturday, and the lone environmentalist in conservative Concord. But one day, at my table in Oakland, I was approached by an elderly black man with anger in his eyes.

"What are you doing, worrying about trees," he said, "when black people are still dying on the streets." The civil rights movement wasn't finished, he told me, and he couldn't understand why liberal whites had given up and turned their attention to frivolous things like trees. I had no idea how to respond, but later, a middle-aged black woman came by my table and told me how important it was to save forests. She shared her memories of her Louisiana home and the forests she had known there. A few weeks later, on Earth Day, we were invited to bring our petition to a church in the refinery town of Richmond, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson would speak.

Jackson's beautiful sermon wove together concern for the Earth, civil rights and justice. Afterwards, young black children came up to my table, where I had a picture of the redwoods, and asked me where that was. "Is that in Africa? Are there monkeys? Can I go there?" These children had never seen a redwood, even though the nearest grove stood barely a dozen miles away, just over the bridge, in Marin County. I wanted to do something about that, but I never did.

At the Bioneers conference, I heard from courageous people who have moved mountains to make the connection between environmentalism and civil rights. Van Jones, of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, is spearheading what he calls "social uplift" environmentalism. His Green for All campaign promotes training of inner city workers for green collar environmental jobs. One program, based in that same low-income town wedged in around giant petroleum refinery tanks where I saw Jesse Jackson speak 17 years ago, is called Solar Richmond. Solar Richmond just graduated its first class of underprivileged youth trained to be solar electric installers.

Van Jones wants to connect "the people who most need saving with the jobs that most need doing." But when he testified about green jobs before Congress recently, he was told that because it can cost up to $10,000 to get an inner city youth "job ready," his ideas were not cost effective. Van Jones wants us to think about how much it costs to deal with the social disruption of unemployment that leads to violence, drugs and prison. Green jobs are the future, he says, and we can't afford to leave anyone behind. We can no longer accept "throwaway" species like the polar bear, "throwaway" people like poor blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, or "throwaway" communities like Richmond, California.

Speaker Majora Carter grew up in the South Bronx, another "throwaway" community. She described the difficulties of growing up in a community abandoned to garbage dumps, prisons and asphalt. But she did not abandon her community. She started Sustainable South Bronx, and has raised $30,000,000 to build the South Bronx Greenway and other green projects in her neighborhood. "My folks are from down South," she said; "they always used to talk about the crick -- that means the creek -- and how nice it was. That connection to nature is our birthright, but we have less access to green spaces than any other part of the city."

Carter is fighting plans for another prison in her neighborhood. She wonders why government can't invest in green jobs instead: "Why are we still building monuments to our failure when we could be building monuments to hope and possibility?"

While these two speakers were highlights, Bioneers had much more to offer. The Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers was present, along with many other indigenous speakers. And there were women. Alice Walker, Eve Ensler and Joanna Macy were high on my list of admired women. This was one of the few conferences I have attended where I did not leave thinking that women didn't get equal time at the podium. To the contrary, there was a strong acknowledgement everywhere that a revival of the feminine principle in politics and life is essential for building a new culture that can live with the earth without destroying it.

Bioneers makes connections between culture and environment. It also encourages a new approach to technology, using a concept called "biomimicry." Biomimicry is technical innovation inspired by nature's designs. One example is new tough materials that are created with a low-temperature process inspired by abalone shell. Another is identifying new medicines by observing what plants a sick chimp or monkey chooses to eat from the forest. Still another example of biomimicry is designing gardens that mimic natural ecosystems for improved productivity in a small space.

Inventor Jay Harman presented a family of designs for fans and impellers based on the natural spirals found in seashells and blossoms. My favorite was a mixer for giant municipal water tanks. When water is stored for long periods, it can stagnate and become unhealthy. Harman's mixer is tiny, barely bigger than my fist. Turning in the middle of the tank, nothing much happens at first, but over time it sets up a natural vortex in the tank that keeps the water circulating and fresh. Harman said even if you stop the mixer, the vortex will keep on spinning for days.

While ideas and inspiration abounded at Bioneers, the gathering could have used more attention to grassroots activism. I was disappointed that there was no visible information about the energy bill that Democrats are getting ready to bring to a vote. Both House and Senate versions have money designated for green job-training programs that could begin to move the Green for All vision to reality. Right now is a critical moment for this bill as Republicans are maneuvering hard to hold up a conference committee and block the bill. There should have been letter-writing tables scattered throughout the venue.

Another disconcerting fact about Bioneers is the cost of attending. While there were many scholarships for youth and some for activists, the $300 to $400 cost for registration and meals is too much for most working class people. Fortunately, you can hear many former Bioneers speakers at the network of Green Festivals that are staged in several major cities. A three-day pass to the San Francisco Green Festival on November 9-11 is only $25.

Still, it was a treat to hear all of the dedicated and inspirational eco-pioneers who shared the podium at Bioneers 2007. The final plenary was most outstanding. Burmese activist Ka Hsaw Wa, founder of EarthRights International, told the story of his tribal people tortured and abused by the military in the service of a US oil company, Unocal, which was building a gas pipeline through their territory. EarthRights International became the first group to successfully sue a US corporation for human rights abuses committed abroad. Today they are asking for public pressure on Chevron, Unocal's parent company, to use its influence with the Burmese junta to stop the violence in that country.

Ka Hsaw Wa called for a new view of globalization where "there is no 'mine' in this house." He said: "We know the companies and their military partners have lots of money, guns, power and influence. But they do not have what we have. We have truth, we have justice, we have courage, and most importantly, we have each other to protect this house where there is no 'mine.' We will win."

As I left this final, emotionally stirring session of the Bioneers conference, I found myself in a line for the women's room where a young woman grabbed my arm and said, "Can you believe all the love that is here?" She had tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. Her name was TBird Luv (she has a website, search it out) and she is an artist. "It's the oneness that I feel here, Mother Earth telling us we are all one."

I asked TBird Luv why she came to Bioneers and she told me that she had spent years working on her art and her spirituality but it was now time to "come out and do something for the earth." As a child of many races -- African, European and Native American -- she told me that she could feel the oneness integrating in her own body.

As the planetary environmental crisis grows more threatening and impacts more people, the environmental movement will continue to evolve. The idea that we are all one people on a small planet has, like Jay Harman's water tank mixer, been stirring the heart of humanity for some time. This, more than any particular technical innovation, is what will solve our ecological crisis.

If we feel a quickening now of this idea of oneness, it is no surprise. Perhaps, before we know it, individuals, families, companies, states and nations will align in a galaxy of highly functional networks and spin us into a green future.

One can always hope.

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