Networking for the Earth

Networks are the basic pattern of organization of all living systems,’ Austrian physicist Fritjof Capra, author of The Hidden Connections, once commented. ‘Life from its beginning more than three billion years ago did not take over the planet by combat, but by networking.’

When Kenny Ausubel founded the Bioneers conference in 1990, the New Mexico-based journalist and social entrepreneur took Capra’s observation to heart. If the environmental movement has a chance of growing, spreading, and ultimately changing our destructive habits of overconsumption, he reasoned, it has to mimic nature in its approach. Ausubel and his partner, Nina Simons, began bringing together a diverse mix of ‘biological pioneers,’ environmentalists from all manner of disciplines — artists, activists, scientists, farmers, architects, shamans, teachers, and others — to network and share ideas and strategies for bringing about ecological and social change. Fourteen years later, Bioneers has become one of the world’s most important annual environmental confabs, drawing over 3,000 people to San Rafael, California, each October to spend three days listening to ecoluminaries like Paul Hawken, Julia Butterfly Hill, and John Todd.

Two years ago, they began Beaming Bioneers, a project that beams the plenary speeches from California via live satellite video feed to locations across North America — from Anchorage to Houston to Washington, D.C. Activists gather at each location to watch and then hold local workshops and discussions.

While Ausubel planned to hold the official Beaming Bioneers sites to 15 this year (plans are pending to expand the network internationally),

Bioneers enthusiasts around the country have been expanding the organization’s network spontaneously. According to Bioneers deputy director Ginny McGinn, activists across the country — from Nevada City, California, to Traverse City, Michigan, to Norfolk, Virginia — have begun putting on miniconferences, film festivals, and monthly salons to watch Bioneers videos and discuss and strategize about local environmental and social justice battles.

The most impressive so far, says McGinn, is a group in Durango, Colorado. In April, organizers Kate Grace MacElveen and Will Hays drew more than 150 people (in a community of just 14,000) to a two-day conference that included screenings of Bioneers videos and an awards ceremony honoring local activists, farmers, and entrepreneurs, as well as workshops and strategy sessions on sustainable economies, permaculture, health and environment, sustainable design, and nonviolent communication. The conference stirred up local interest in sustainability, says MacElveen, which led to formation of the Sustainability Research and Development Policy Council, dedicated to looking at how sustainability can be considered in every local government policy decision. Most importantly, the event brought together people who normally don’t talk to each other. Hays notes that there is a lot of progressive activity in Durango, ‘but until now most people have been acting in isolation. I’d like to see us continue building a network that’s firm, solid in this region, helping to bridge the gap between groups, so we can better coordinate our activities.’

Rather than worry about proliferation of unofficial groups using the Bioneers banner, McGinn has reached out to their leaders to see how the organization can support their activities. ‘We want to share the Bioneers name and materials with local groups in a way that’s meaningful,’ she says. The spin-offs are now collectively dubbed Homing Bioneers, and in early 2005 McGinn hopes to unveil a toolkit to help local activists start their own groups or use Bioneers materials to support existing environmental and social justice work. The idea is to help heal the earth by both promoting the Bioneer vision and letting it promote itself.

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