O Bioneers!

No longer just raging against the machine, these activists look to nature as the guide for solving environmental woes

| January/February 2001 Issue

Last fall I found myself in the most unlikely of circumstances—standing in the midst of a crowd that was wildly cheering slime mold and fungi research. They weren’t academics; very few of them, in fact, were scientists. These were bioneers, or biological pioneers, who come together annually in San Rafael, California, to share ideas about restorative solutions to environmental problems.

The picture painted by the bioneers is not pretty. Our life systems are in peril: Biodiversity is in a free fall; topsoil is poisoned and disappearing; few children breathe truly clean air; cancer is epidemic. But these visionary pragmatists—farmers, students, priests, lawyers, teachers, radio show hosts, ecologists, designers, writers, artists, political activists—are hopeful about the future. They believe that as the industrial age ends, we are about to enter an age of biology. "This isn’t airy-fairy New Age nonsense. This is grounded reality," said Kenny Aus-ubel, who founded the Bioneers Conference in 1990 and now produces it with his wife, Nina Simons.

Take the work of mycologist Paul Stamets, who runs Fungi Perfecti, a Washington-based company that cultivates medicinal mushrooms. Stamets and others discovered that a mushroom’s mycelium—the mat of threadlike filaments spreading in the soil beneath the visible cap and stem—can filter and decompose toxic substances. When Washington’s Department of Transportation invited 20 groups to participate in a trial of various biological cleanup approaches, Stamets put his "mycoremediation" process to the test. He placed fungal spores on a pile of dirt soaked in diesel oil, covered it with a tarp, and returned a month later to find the mushrooms thriving. The fungi had done a remarkable job breaking down the contamination in the dirt while remaining free of petroleum products themselves. Stamets has found that mycelial mats can also clean up potentially harmful E. colibacteria, among other substances. But Stamets, a quiet man who prefers the forest to the spotlight, doesn’t take credit for any new discoveries. "Mycelium is leading the way," he said. "I’m just following."

Or visit with Janine Benyus, who lives in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. Trained as a forester, she works with biomimicry, what she calls "the conscious emulation of life’s genius." Benyus suggests that when we are trying to solve a problem, we ask ourselves, "What would nature do here?" To improve the health of our society, for instance, we might study plant societies. Benyus says we are currently living like weedy annuals that invade disturbed soil and don’t intend to stay. If we want a healthy society, we ought to emulate the cooperative model of the mature forest.

William McDonough, an internationally renowned architect and designer, is one of the few bioneers—along with writer Alice Walker and Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop—noted by the mainstream media. Time magazine named McDonough a "Hero for the Planet" in 1999 for his radical approach to design. Imagine how different our world might be if everyone asked the design questions he considers essential: "How do we love all of the children of all species for all time?" and "When do we become native to this place?" McDonough, whose headquarters for the Gap Corporation in San Bruno, California, is a manual of energy conservation, is currently redesigning Ford’s famous Rouge River auto plant in Dearborn, Michigan, as an ecological industrial facility.

Everywhere I looked I discovered bioneers doing incredible work: Civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut was instrumental in the successful 1999 litigation on behalf of black farmers against institutional racism practiced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Environmental artist Jo Hanson created an artists-in-residence program at San Francisco’s waste disposal company. Rebecca Adamson, president of the First Nations Development Fund, advocates economic development strategies that support indigenous rights and culture. Joel Salatin, a biodynamic farmer, developed a system of rotational grazing that builds as much as an inch of topsoil a year on his farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

While many of these people work in relative isolation, the Bioneers network is turning into an intricately connected and growing web of visionaries who use nature as their model. They’re not just acti-vists and scientists. They’re spiritual and community leaders, alternative health care professionals, herb growers, database designers, and young people who want a better world. They recognize that by working together, they have the ability to restore the earth and improve society.

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