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October 2003
How Would Nature Do It? Finding Solutions with Bioneers

The Satya Interview with Kenny Ausubel



Kenny Ausubel

Kenny Ausubel. Photo courtesy of Bioneers

Bioneers or “biological pioneers” is where innovative things happen and from whom ideas emerge. It’s an annual conference that brings together environmentalists, scientists and specialists, activists, academics, and regular folk to discuss the state of the planet and how to reduce our impact on it. Co-produced by Kenny Ausubel and his partner Nina Simons, Bioneers has grown into a highly-anticipated event, drawing hundreds of participants to San Rafael, CA; and experienced by many more via satellite around the country.

Kenny Ausubel is a journalist, filmmaker, author and thinker. In 1989 he co-founded the company Seeds of Change, which produces organic seeds and food products. In 1990, he founded the first Bioneers conference inspired by all the visionary environmentalists—bioneers—he encountered. On the eve of the 2003 conference, Kenny Ausubel took a moment to talk with Catherine Clyne.

What inspired the idea of “bioneers” and the founding of the conference?
I’d been through several experiences while making a film called Hoxsey: When Healing Becomes a Crime, the story of a notorious herbal, alternative cancer therapy that was very popular in this country from about 1920 to 1960. Its philosophy was that your body has its own intelligence and the capacity to heal is beyond our conception; and if you support the body’s own self-defense mechanisms, your body will heal itself. That’s a very different model from what conventional medicine espouses. And this Hoxsey treatment, although it’s not a magic bullet or panacea, was clearly one part of a solution, many people apparently got well from it when they weren’t supposed to.

I sort of fell through the rabbit hole and began to understand that biological diversity is essential to our survival, it’s one of the basic principles of the natural world—nature’s failsafe mechanism against extinction. And it occurred to me, “Well gee, here are two interesting solutions. I wonder what else is out there.” I began to root around and one by one came across these amazing people whom I came to call “bioneers”—biological pioneers—who had peered deep into the heart of living systems to understand nature’s operating instructions, the basic question being: “How would nature do it?” I was very excited about this and a friend suggested I hold a conference. So in 1990 I founded what became the first Bioneers conference, to bring these folks together and expose them to the public.

What or who else inspired you?
One of the great inspirations for me was John Todd. He had been working at the New Alchemy Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he was doing fish farming in solar greenhouses as an effort to get away from agribusiness—the destruction of lands and so forth. In the course of building them, the fish tanks kept filling up with poop, suffocating the fish and choking the life of the system. One Friday night he took a piece of a styrofoam planter and kind of mindlessly punched a hole in it and stuck some watercress in it, and floated it in this fish tank. When he came back on Monday morning, the water had clarified. He had discovered a profound principle, that in nature there is no waste—everything is somebody’s lunch. That set John on a journey of creating what he calls “living technologies,” essentially mimicking natural ecosystems within solar greenhouses to purify what we would call waste, everything from sewage and septage to very toxic chemicals and oil wastes and so on. And it works—it’s pretty astounding.

The irony of course is that it’s actually much less expensive than conventional technologies and obviously extremely beneficial for life and the environment. It’s kind of fascinating to watch the evolution of all this work since 1990—these brilliant innovators who have looked to nature’s four billion year-old evolutionary intelligence to understand how we can live lightly on the earth.

What are a few things you’ve seen come out of the conference?
A lot of people meet each other who otherwise probably would not have, and begin to collaborate across many different fields. So a lot of cross-pollination comes out of it.

A lot of our focus is on communications, getting the word out and helping to educate people, because it’s our belief that an informed public will more often than not make the right decisions. As Andrew Kimbrell, a technology expert, says, technology is legislation—we don’t get to choose or vote on those things. [If] you look at the history of the 20th century, the great technologies have been the great disasters: oil and gas, the greatest unintended weapons of mass destruction ever created, from global warming to the poisoning of the biosphere; nuclear energy, which is essentially technological terrorism for the next 250,000 years; and then of course genetic engineering whose danger is that once the genie is out of the bottle, it has a life of its own, it self-replicates. Each of these things has proven catastrophic. Through the work of Bioneers, we’ve discovered that when people learn that there are viable alternatives, it really heightens the pressure for change.

Apart from the conference, we have a national and global radio series—13 half-hour shows drawn from presentations at the conference—and we have a book series coming out next year. The first book is Ecological Medicine: Healing the Planet, Healing Ourselves and the second is Nature’s Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies. The medicine frame of reference is that human beings are a part of, not apart from, nature, and our health is totally dependent on the health of our ecosystems. In that sense the task of environmental restoration is a task of healing, it’s one and the same thing.

One of the most interesting questions being asked is How does nature heal? Part of it is through relationship; ecology really is the superb art of relationships, and when you restore the relationships, healing occurs.

In a perfect world, what do you want to see come out of this—or not in a perfect world, in this world?
We like to think of Bioneers as a declaration of interdependence, recognizing that all life is connected, there is no ‘away’—to throw things away—it all comes back into the land, the air, the water, and ultimately into our bodies.

There’s a bigger issue at stake, which is really democracy. People need to make the decisions that affect our lives.

Over and over, the stories of the bioneers are showing just how great a difference one individual can make and that the problems are not really technical—technologically, we could actually reduce the human footprint in the world by 90 percent and more, that’s already well demonstrated. So the question is, why hasn’t that happened more quickly? The main roadblocks are really political and economic.

You talked earlier about synergy and how the conference brings different people together. What are some of the connections that are made through Bioneers that you don’t see within or between other activist movements?
One of the biggest is the recognition that the environment is a human right, and in a world where literally three billion people—half the world’s people—live on $2 a day or less, poverty is a tremendous source of environmental destruction; and without having social equity and economic justice, we’re never going to repair the environment. I think there’s a profound coming together right now of the environmental movement and the social justice movement, worldwide really. At the end of the day, healing the earth is going to mean healing our human societies as well, and the gulf war to be focused on is the gulf between rich and poor.

Last year, there was some controversy over the underrepresentation of veganism and animal rights views of agriculture—in both the panels and the menus offered to participants. I see that John Robbins and Howard Lyman were added this year. What’s the importance of their inclusion?

Actually, John has been a part of Bioneers for a long time. And people like Leslie McEachern, of the Angelica Kitchen in New York, have been coming for many years, so we certainly reflect those points of view. But Bioneers is a forum; it’s kind of its own social ecology. We don’t per se advocate any one point of view. Obviously one of the great environmental harms is animal agriculture—factory farming and the brutal system it represents. John and Howard are two of the most eloquent and intelligent people in that field, and there are very deep issues involved. Our whole system of animal agriculture is really a nightmare, I don’t know what else you could possibly call it. And the health implications of that kind of a [meat-based] diet are profoundly harmful, and it’s something that many people care deeply about. That’s why we have them.

The real issue is one of choice because we don’t feel we can compel people to not eat meat. That’s really still a personal choice. We offer vegan and vegetarian options, and that’s what we feel we can and should do. But if we didn’t offer the other, many people would leave the site and be extremely unhappy and it would be kind of a riot, so it’s a complex problem.

So, what’s next?
What’s next? [Laughs.] For years people have been asking us to take the conference on the road. It’s just very impractical, and we don’t want to become the Grateful Dead or something like that [laughs]. Last year, what we call “Beaming Bioneers” satellite conferences emerged. We did it at five sites and it will be 12 this year. Each morning, there are plenary sessions that speak to the entire assembly, and we beam those by satellite, then they organize their own mini conference around that—afternoons and evenings with local speakers and local issues. It’s a really elegant way for people to localize this work. Next year we’re hoping to go global; it’s already in Canada, but we’d like to go to Europe and Latin America.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
Since the beginning in 1990, my wife and partner Nina Simons has co-produced Bioneers with me, we’re really equal partners in the whole game. And for many years Nina has been adamant about trying to find as many great women speakers as we can, particularly in the hard sciences. That was hard 10 or 15 years ago—the glass ceiling is especially real in the world of science. That has changed, we’ve witnessed the transformation over the years. Three or four years ago we also noticed that the audience was at least half women, which is quite unusual for science, the environment or those areas. Nina ended up holding a retreat a few years ago and out of that came Code Pink, the national group of women activists.

Survey after survey shows that anywhere from 2/3 to 3/4 of women around the world are ardently, irretrievably, in favor of environmental conservation. (It’s kind of weird when you think about it—the birth of feminism in this country has been historically disconnected from the environment.) There seems to be a real networking going on around the world of women now, which we’re very excited about. It’s our belief that women are going to be the leaders, or certainly many among the leaders, of environmental restoration. That’s something we’re also paying close attention to, and nurturing. So, yay for women! [Laughs.]

This year’s Bioneers conference takes place October 17 to 19 at the Marin Center in San Rafael, CA. Mini conferences will also beam around the country. In New York, the Open Center is hosting one (see or call 212-219-2527). To register, learn more, or find a mini conference near you, visit or call (877) BIONEER.


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