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The GreenMoney Interview: Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons of the Bioneers

Editor's Note:
I was excited to interview two of the hardest working and heart centered people in the progressive community, Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons. As founders of the Bioneers Conference and network, Kenny and Nina have helped many important conversions from healthcare reform to sustainable agriculture happen. We have been friends since the beginning of GreenMoney in 1992 and I have attended almost every Bioneers conference since, always with great anticipation before and valuable inspiration after.

GMJ: For our readers who are not familiar with the Bioneers, can you outline the mission of and how to become a member of the Bioneers? Also can you explain interdependence versus independence?

Bioneers: In broad terms, our mission is "improving the environment by changing the world." Our most basic orientation is a Declaration of Interdependence, a celebration of the reality that all life is interconnected and interdependent. Our mission is to bring all the fractured pieces back together with a focus on practical solutions. In the context of interdependence, we also recognize that single issues are an illusion because all the issues are also interconnected - from environmental destruction to social and economic injustice. We believe that these kinds of changes require a change of heart flowing from the empathic connection with the web of life, which teaches us that, "It's all alive - it's all intelligent - it's all connected - it's all relative." These are actual biological truths, and they can also serve as metaphors to guide us in designing a truly restorative society. As Janine Benyus (author of the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature) puts it so beautifully, what life does is create conditions conducive to life. That's a pretty clear and wonderful mission statement. To become a member, folks can go to our web site ( or contact our office (1-877-Bioneers). There are lots of nice perks to membership, too.

GMJ: The Bioneers conference, which is attended by over 3,200 people each fall, started in 1990. Can you tell us some of the highlights of the event over the last 12 years?

Bioneers: In the first year in 1990, the highlight was the group experience of bringing together about 200 folks in what amounted to something like church in the best sense. We had all felt so isolated, and just the fact of getting together to share solutions and the wider vision of working with nature to heal nature was itself profoundly healing. Now fifteen years later, it's essentially still the same, just a lot bigger and a lot more of us! And the work is going mainstream and the movement is global.

One of the highlights over time has been to see the annual gathering attract more and more different kinds of people - from all walks of life, classes, races and cultures. And at least half the audience is women, which is quite rare in environmental or science gatherings. Over the last three years, we have also reached out to young people, and in 2003 we had over 400 youth, who had the time of their lives. It has become quite an electric scene for them, which to me is one of the highest compliments we could have.

There are countless practical outcomes that result from all these folks coming together - collaborations, influence on public policy, grass-roots initiatives that spawn great new projects, even several marriages. I view part of our function as creating and enhancing a cultural bed of fertility and providing inspiration as well as very pragmatic knowledge, models and networks. It's a bit like broadcasting seeds. You never know where they'll come up, but they do.

GMJ: This year's Bioneers conference is October 15-17 at the Marin Center in San Rafael, CA. Who are some of speakers and what are the themes?

Bioneers: Bioneers is a big tent, which means that we try to cover almost everything of consequence relating to the environment, but that has to include social issues and social inventions for problem solving. Although we shift the emphasis from year to year depending on what the zeitgeist is and also on what we feel is most important at a given moment, we really do cover the waterfront. This year one of the overriding themes is "breakthrough" because efforts that were regarded at best as fringe ten or fifteen years ago are now breaking through into the mainstream. There will be a presentation by Jay Harman on one of the most exciting applications of biomimicry that totally redesigns propellers and fans to mimic the physics of water, and thus saves vast quantities of energy, among many other virtues. This project is now in play with large companies who stand to save huge amounts of money and energy. Amory Lovins is going to look at national security as environmental security - a topic recently embraced by the Pentagon, no less - and he will describe the genuine sea change we're about to see globally in putting the environment first and demonstrating how in fact it makes for better economics.

Aqeela Sherrills, who brokered the peace between the Krips and the Bloods (two of the most violent and feared gangs in the country), will speak about how he is now taking that model developed in Watts out into the world as a model of making peace. Jim Hightower and Amy Goodman will be there, as well as Paul Hawken who has been using a new computer mapping software to map civil society worldwide as "the other superpower" with around 100,000 NGOs around the world that are operating today! Lawyer Tom Linzey will tell the story of how ten Pennsylvania Townships banned corporate factory farming altogether. Check out the web site for all the listings as they are posted.

GMJ: The new "Beaming Bioneers" satellite conferences have really taken off in local communities across the country. How many sites will there be this year?

Bioneers: A lot of folks had been asking us to take the Bioneers conference on the road to different parts of the country, which is not practical, so instead we started the Beaming Bioneers program to beam up on satellite three half days consisting of the morning plenaries. Local communities then build their own conferences around that. We did twelve last year, and there will be about fifteen this year. Like politics, all ecology is local, and the real point is to support and enhance local efforts. So the satellite conferences self-organize around their own issues and speakers, and serve to strengthen local organizing, even as they spread the education and inspiration of the Bioneers' solutions. The program has been a huge success, and we have had over 60 requests from all over the U.S. and the world.

Also, the main conference has sold out for the past three years, so the Beaming Bioneers program is a good way to encourage folks to participate locally in ways that really matter, and for folks who can't afford or don't want to travel to California.

GMJ: Tell us about the award winning radio series, how do our readers become your listeners?

Bioneers: We started the radio series four years ago in collaboration with New Dimensions Radio, an elder in the field of alternative radio that has been producing great radio for 25 years. Part of the idea for doing it came from applying a basic permaculture principle of "nesting" - getting multiple uses from one function. We had all this great content going back years because we tape everything, and instead of it just sitting there, we converted it into radio programming. The series has now won several prestigious international awards. And we've continued to expand distribution steadily - it's on over 150 U.S. stations and hundreds more globally. This past year we brought the series in-house, and Kenny is now executive producing and co-writing it. It's put up on satellite or on CD sets, and it's free to public radio stations. People can look on the Bioneers web site to see where and when it's running, and of course we encourage folks to lobby their local public radio stations to request that they carry it! Some people like to buy the CD sets and donate them to local schools, libraries and community groups, and a number of people are using it as a focal point to gather discussion groups in their local communities to apply Bioneers solutions locally or in their companies or groups. The radio series is the next best thing to being at the conference because it's spoken word and you really get the visceral feeling of inspiration and intimacy and the brilliance and what all these amazing folks are figuring out. It provides a shot of hope, coupled with pragmatism - what we call 'grounded optimism.'

GMJ: I understand you have a brand new book out entitled Ecological Medicine. What will this book cover? And are there more books to come from Bioneers

Bioneers: Again because we have a lot of great content going back fourteen years, we decided to launch a book series as a set of themed collections from some of the best and the brightest in various fields of endeavor. The series is published by Sierra Club Books/University of California Press, and we chose the first title, Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves, because we believe that human health is one of the central issues that really have political traction. It seems like a big "duh" to say that our health is totally dependent on the health of our ecosystems, but that's not the way society has been operating. Mounting numbers of human health problems are directly associated with or caused by environmental degradation, and we are only going to heal ourselves when we also heal the environment, of which we are part. The book covers a wide range of approaches, with special focus on the Precautionary Principle - basically "better safe than sorry" and "an ounce of prevention" - which is being adopted worldwide now and which has profound implications for industry and all our production systems. In essence, companies will now have to prove that a product or technology is safe and effective before releasing it into the environment, and they bear the liability if they're wrong. Some people now call it the "Duh" principle. Ecological Medicine also marks a critical crossroads where the streams of the natural medicine movement and environmental movement are joining forces, which is a very powerful strategic alliance. Over 150 million Americans now use alternative medicine. Dr. Andrew Weil, who first spoke at Bioneers in 1990, wrote the book's foreword and contributed a wonderful piece about reconnecting medicine with nature. Basically the book is like a collection of short stories from some of the most inventive and compassionate folks in the Bioneers network.

GMJ: Recent stories about the U.S. food supply have included: GMOs, Mad Cow disease, and now the Asian chicken flu - what is going on? Is the Organic and Beyond Organic movement the answer?

Bioneers: Of course the centerpiece of Ecological Medicine is our systems of food and farming. Conventional agriculture is arguably the single most destructive human activity against the environment, and transforming it is paramount. One could hardly design a more perfect system worse to incubate and spread disease, damage the land and water, and harm human and environmental health. But the alternate reality is that organic farming is by far the highest-growth sector in agriculture, and it's spreading rapidly. Several countries in Europe are as high as 40 percent organic now in their production, and Germany has set a policy to "de-industrialize" farming. Organic really is just the beginning, and we'll see this whole field expand into many other environmental considerations including biodiversity conservation, "nutrition-per-acre" rather than yield-per-acre, and of course economic justice for farmers instead of the current corporate agribusiness game of monopoly that is antithetical both to biology and a free market. By the way, even the National Academy of Sciences by 1990 had concluded that organic farming is equally or more productive than conventional methods, so that scare tactic that we'll all starve to death if we go organic is a bunch of hooey. And the ongoing health issues emerging from conventional agribusiness practices, from Mad Cow to obesity, are going to accelerate the shift to Organic and Beyond.

GMJ: Nina, 70 percent of GreenMoney readers are women. What has the "UnReasonable Women for the Earth" organization been up to and how can people get involved?

Bioneers: UnReasonable Women for the Earth is a network of people and ideas that grew out of Bioneers. Anyone who thinks she might be one probably is. The network grew from the recognition that, since women represent more than half of the U.S. population, we have a remarkable opportunity right now - if enough of us speak up and take a stand - to radically alter the direction of this nation, and our world. And the vast majority of women are in favor of environmental improvement. As women, I believe we have an innate affinity for protecting life. And we've often been raised to be too 'well behaved,' or 'reasonable,' training which inhibits us from taking a stand for what we believe in. UnReasonable Women for the Earth encourages women everywhere to stand together, at each other's backs, in defense of life. Its goal is to strengthen women's voices and encourage women's engagement. This group also spawned another great women's network, CodePink: Women for Peace, which inspires women to engage in direct action on behalf of peace and justice. Bioneers programming addresses these concerns, and there's a section on our web site that offers ideas, links and information.

GMJ: Who do you think has the most innovative solutions to the current social and environmental crises and to finding socially just economic alternatives to globalization?

Bioneers: There are a host of highly practical technological solutions that we already have or can readily develop. Technology is not the problem. The single biggest factor in restoring the environment is democracy, and the single biggest factor in destroying the environment is corporate rule. The work of people like Tom Linzey in working with communities to deconstruct the legal system that places corporations over people and to reclaim democratic decision-making holds much of the best hope. It's certainly not that business or commerce is bad. To the contrary, the free market can be a very positive force - we should try it. (There are notable exceptions, such as health care, which would be better served as a not-for-profit sector because tying human suffering to profit is a prescription for failure.) Today's system is a giant game of monopoly that stifles innovation, concentrates extreme wealth, abrogates human rights, and supports dictatorship, empire and endemic poverty. Even if these corporate goliaths were to adopt green practices, the ultimate issue is still one of power and democracy. Mussolini said that "fascism" should more accurately be called "corporatism" - the merger of corporations and the state. When we solve that one, we can solve the rest. It's especially crucial that the SRI community be at the forefront of addressing this issue.

GMJ: Where do you see the Bioneers in 10 years?

Bioneers: We see Bioneers as part of a global movement that since 1999 has blossomed into "the other global superpower." The issue going forward now is not just to resist what we know is wrong, but to step into the breach with real, practical solutions. For the most part, we already know what to do, or certainly what directions to head in. And restoration inherently is a massive jobs-creation program that uses "less stuff and more people," as Paul Hawken puts it. These problems can only be solved globally, and must embrace all people, including the half the world's people who live on $2 or less a day. Hopefully Bioneers will continue to play a part in highlighting and spreading solutions and creating fertility around the world. We envision being part of a global restoration program around the world within the next ten years that is operating both from the grass roots and at the highest levels of business, government and public policy. Looking back on today's archaic and destructive practices and misplaced values, people will be asking, "What were they thinking?!"

GMJ: One last question, in this year of major political decisions, it seems everything we do is political, from buying organic products and supporting indigenous people's rights to medical care and livable wages. What impact can this November's election have, good and bad?

Bioneers: Let's hope we have an election and that the votes are accurately recorded and counted. I believe we've been watching a coup d'etat in slow motion. If indeed we have fair elections, this worst administration in the history of the republic will be soundly thrown out for their massively failed policies as the wrecking crew that they are. But even bringing in a better bunch is by itself not enough. The fundamental issues of corporate power still remain, and while it may have a kinder, gentler face, the issue is still about reclaiming our democracy. However, with that said, the world cannot survive another four years of the current policies. As a French official said last year, "The choice is clear: It's between George Bush and our grandchildren."

Interview conducted by Cliff Feigenbaum, GreenMoney's Managing Editor in March & April of 2004. Subscribe to Green Money

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