O Bioneers!

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.

The scant media attention focused on this collection of ecological innovators depicts the Bioneers organization as the first tendrils of an emerging movement. And in its forward- thinking orientation toward solutions, Bioneers might indeed appear to be something brand new. But, in fact, the organization might better be described as the coming of age of the environmental movement that began in the 1960s.

As the network gains momentum, Ausubel and Simons are more anxious than ever to spread bioneering ideas. They’ve created Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature, a radio series that now airs on 120 stations in the United States and 390 in Australia. They’re looking into forming a speakers’ bureau. And they’re using the Internet. The organization has a “solutions strategies database” (www.bioneers.org) so the curious can participate in an “orgy of linking.” The main speakers at the October 2000 gathering were broadcast live on the Web. It’s a natural medium for the Bioneers, said Paula Gunn Allen, a Native American educator and writer from the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico: “The Internet is the first bare hint in modern societies of a model of how the universe functions.”

With all this connectedness and integration, is there room in Bioneers for the voices of outrage and the politics of protest? Judging by the thunderous reception that greeted celebrity tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill, there’s still plenty of appreciation for principled dissent. “It is not only our right to be angry,” Hill told her fans, “it is our responsibility.” Indeed, the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle were a pivotal event for most of the people here. Environmental activist, writer, and teacher Starhawk, who was arrested in Seattle and spent five days in jail, said the event marked a wider social change as well. “The world itself was cracking open,” she said, “and something else was being born.”

That something appears to be collective action. Author David Korten said that the protests sparked the beginning of a “global movement for a living democracy” based on natural systems. Stony, a 16-year-old from Sonoma, California, told me he was unable to get to Seattle for the protests, so he and friends–a group called Planting Earth Activation–planted organic gardens in their community. “

We are shifting from a culture that values things to one that values relationships,” said Bioneers co-producer Nina Simons. If the Bioneers have one message, it’s that restorative solutions are grounded in connections: among people but also between humans, animals, plants, and the earth. Some strategies are complex, based on innovative technology and design, but others are simple. As Hunter Lovins, co-director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, said, “We need to learn the skills of community if we are going to avoid being squashed by huge forces of globalization.” She sent the bioneers off with an assignment: “Go next door, introduce yourself, and say howdy.”

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