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From Indifference to Ridicule

Bioneers Sparks Drive-by Shots from New York Times

by SHEPHERD BLISS

"First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Finally they integrate (or co-opt) what you have been saying all along," a wise person said decades ago.

After seventeen years of ignoring the growing Bioneers, the New York Times finally evolved to the second stage of ridicule. The Bioneers drew over 3000 people to its annual conference in San Rafael, California, Oct. 20-22. It was beamed by satellite to another 10,000 people at eighteen communities around the United States from Honolulu to Anchorage to Houston to Massachusetts. Then those some 13,000 people went home around the country and beyond to talk to their friends about what they learned.

The Times’ Oct. 24 article cynically describes the event as a "pep rally," a "megachurch for the Prius set" and "true believers" and "a monoculture, a love-fest between graying activists and youthful idealists." As one of those "graying activists," now 62, I appreciate the Times’ growth into adolescence by covering this newsworthy event and await its maturing to understand at least some of the ideas advanced by the scientists and others at Bioneers. Perhaps better to be ridiculed than ignored.

The corporate media was skewered by "Democracy Now" host Amy Goodman, both at Bioneers and in her best-selling new book "Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back," which is climbing up even the NY Times best-selling list. Though the Times article does not mention Goodman or her book–still trying to ignore the journalist whose radio and TV program appears on over 500 stations, making it the largest public media collaboration in the country–one wonders if there might be some childish payback going on here.

As a professional journalist who has also taught journalism in college, I try to be more neutral and objective than the Times when I write about the recent weekend. But let me admit to my bias toward the intention of the Bioneers to draw biological and other pioneers together to work to restore the Earth. Some still dismiss us with phrases like "tree huggers," but with fewer trees each year to clean our air, draw water to the ground, provide beauty and food and do all the other wonderful things that trees naturally do, I must admit that I have indeed been hugging the redwoods, oaks, cedars, apples and other trees on my small Northern California farm.

My attempt at a more balanced-though sympathetic rather than cynical- report on last weekend’s Bioneers follows:

According to founder Kenny Ausubel, Bioneers seeks "to bring biological pioneers together to restore the Earth." Co-producer Nina Simons described its intention to "co-create a living social system. This is not a spectator sport." Among this year’s keynote speakers were New York Times writer Michael Pollan and businessman Paul Hawken.

These and other morning speakers were beamed to 18 communities. In the afternoon and evening different local presentations were made at each site. The aim of the Honolulu gathering, for example, was "to create community stories of practical environmental solutions and innovative social strategies for restoration of harmony between humanity and the earth."

The Logan, Utah, site featured a presentation by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson at the Mormon Tabernacle. The Anchorage site included a Native Elder Wisdom Circle. Images of the gatherings around the country were projected on a giant screen at the California base event.

"Democracy Now" radio and TV host Amy Goodman reported on her 80-city tour with her new book. "The media are the most powerful institution in the world," Goodman asserted. "The Pentagon has employed the media and we need to take it back. We need a media that covers power, not one that covers up for power."

Goodman told "stories in a time of war." She talked about Cindy Sheehan camping outside "the Presidential Estate, which is not a ranch," noting, "Beware of mothers who have nothing else to lose." Sheehan lost her son Casey in Iraq and dogs Bush with a single question, "For what noble cause did my son die?" He has yet to answer. "When the media covers Cindy Sheehan," Goodman added, "it is about her as an individual, not about the movement of which she is a part." Goodman seeks "to report from the victim’s perspectives" and give voice to those who are silent.

"The level of resistance by soldiers is a huge story," Goodman contended. "Soldiers in Iraq are overwhelmingly against the war." Ann Wright, a former Army colonel who resigned her diplomatic post to protest the Iraq War, added in an interview, "The Pentagon admits that some 40,000 soldiers have gone AWOL since the Iraq War began."

"This year Bioneers has a large number of workshops focusing on stories," commented Ilyse Hogue of Moveon.org. Workshops were offered on themes such as "When Stories Change, the World Changes," "Women Telling Our Stories and Promoting Justice," and "Change the Story: New Strategies for Shifting Culture."

"We are made of stories. Stories contain power," asserted James Ball, who worked formerly for Fox TV and ABC and now with smartMemes. "People don’t just tell stories. Stories tell us who we are and how to live."

"Indigenous Knowledge" was one of the main tracks of the gathering. The youngest-ever Chief of the Neetsail Gwich in Alaska, Evon Peter, spoke about Youth Leadership. A film about Sioux John Trudell was shown.

Bioneers gives ample attention to emerging leaders. Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Cree Nation in Canada has been the Native Energy organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and was recognized by Utne Reader as one of the top 30 under 30 activists in North America.

"Indigenous people are the original bioneers," Thomas-Mueller began his presentation. "The IEN is composed of 250 indigenous groups around North America. Our lands and people are being sacrificed for irresponsible energy policies. Oil, natural gas, and mining industries violate our humans rights and territories."

"America’s burgeoning natural gas industry" threatens the indigenous people and their land in Canada, according to Thomas-Muller. He described a natural gas pipeline of 1700 miles that is being built to get oil from the tar sands in North Alberta, noting, "Tar sands are the second largest oil reserves in the world, next to Saudia Arabia. Industry’s goal is to make Canada the number one producer of oil for the US. Energy companies from China and India are also now arriving for this lucrative and destructive energy. They wants to get natural gas down to the tar sands to rip off the upper boreal forest surface. The tar sands are underneath the homes of a First Nation people just north of our Cree people."

Michael Pollan is the bestselling author of various books on the relationship of humans to nature. He currently teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. His most recent book is "The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals."

"The path to my current book was born in this room," Pollan began. He referred to meeting Joel Salatin at a Bioneers Conference, the farmer who figures prominently in his book, "Joel calls himself ‘a grass farmer.’ So rather than talk to me on the phone, he insisted that I come to his farm, get on the ground, and meet his grass. If we go really local, we go the grass."

"Local food is one of the most important movements going on today," according to Pollan. Even organic food "is on the path of industrialization- including strawberries from China and blueberries from Canada. We are in the age of organic factory farming." To counter this, Pollan described "a revolt of small producers and consumers that is on the rise today." The growth of farmers markets are part of the solution. "Much more goes on in farmers markets than the exchange of money for food."

"Our centralized food system is vulnerable to deliberate and accidental contamination," Pollan declared. "We need to de-centralize our food supply and develop food independence. Lets put our faith not in technology and regulation, but in relationships."

"We need a way to eat when the cheap oil is gone," Pollan contended. "The industrial food system will break down. We need to have more food choices and think in terms of economic diversity. We need to cultivate multiple gardens and not seek a single source."

A panel on "The Globalocal Food Movement: Act Globally, Eat Locally" occurred in the afternoon. Brian Halweil, author of "Eat Here," told stories of food activism in Long Island and in Japan, contending that "eating local is a political decision."

Paul Hawken was the gathering’s final conference-wide speaker. He has written various books, including "Natural Capitalism," and is currently writing "Blessed Unrest." Hawken advocated "liberation ecology," "bottom-up power," and "independence movements."

"The social justice, environmental and indigenous movements are fast-growing and becoming the biggest movement in the world," Hawken asserted. He favors linking them more. "The house is burning down, literally," Hawken contended. "We are witnessing the breakdown of the world. We will either come together as a globalized people or we will disappear as a civilization. We need to arrest our descent into chaos."

"Bioneers is an inspiration for the whole year for me," Catherine Allport of Santa Fe, N.M., explained. "It takes me that long to integrate what happens here."

"Bioneers gives us a taste of what could be," noted Noli Hoye of Massachusetts. "I especially appreciated Paul Hawken’s closing message that we need to bridge various movements. Staying home was the central message that I heard. So I think I’ll go to the beaming Bioneers in Massachusetts next year."

"This year there was more attention to creating a culture," Puerto Rican Mara Nieves noted. "There were many different cultures present and we were able to create a multi-cultural community. Living in colonized Puerto Rico with all the hatred of the US globally, Bioneers is like medicine. It is healing to come and not be so negative and see all the good things that are happening."

Dr. SHEPHERD BLISS is a retired college teacher who now runs Kokopelli Farm in Northern California. He can be reached at: sb3@pon.net.