A Pep Rally for Change

At Bioneers, scientists, environmentalists, and forward thinkers tend the grass roots


| September-October 2006


Somewhere in the middle of last year’s Bioneers conference, wiped out from a packed schedule of sessions designed to, among other things, expand the organic food movement, revitalize urban centers, and attack global warming, I donned a swimsuit and padded barefoot through the hushed midnight corridors of our hotel in San Rafael, California, heading for the hot tub and relaxation.

In spite of the hour, I found five or six other conferees already assembled. “You don’t know what you’re getting into,” one of them warned me as I slipped into the water. Another let me in on the rules: “If you’re coming in,” she said, “you have to tell us your name, your age, where you’re from, the state of your love life, and what cause you’re fighting for.”

Over the next several hours, I learned all about the trials and triumphs of editing a newspaper, making a documentary film, working with troubled kids, and, yes, the love lives of young activists. (What happens in the hot tub, stays in the hot tub!)

For the rest of the weekend, this after-hours story swap stood out as an embodiment of what makes Bioneers so inviting and inspiring. The annual conference, which now draws more than 3,000 activists of all stripes to Marin County every October, is an information exchange, an opportunity to network, and a chance to meet like-minded souls who dream of a better world and do their best to have fun along the way.

Kenny Ausubel started Bioneers (the organization’s official name is the Collective Heritage Institute) back in 1990 as an incubator for projects and organizations that conserve and restore the environment. The group’s annual conference has since mushroomed into one of the largest consistently edifying gatherings of grassroots organizers in the nation.

“This aspect of bringing people together is almost as important as our central mission to restore the earth,” says Ausubel, a journalist and documentary filmmaker who, before he started Bioneers, founded Seeds of Change, an organic seed company and research farm that specializes in diverse species and heirloom varieties. “The connections and cross-pollination that take place at the conference help build a long-term movement. It’s a central part of what we’re doing.”