Would Nature Do It? Finding Solutions with Bioneers
The Satya Interview with 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
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
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
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 www.bioneers.org
or call (877) BIONEER.