Bioneers are Coming to Berkeley

Photograph Source: Scott Bauer – Public Domain

If you haven’t been to a Bioneers conference ( you’re missing a spectacular spectacle and ought to go if you can afford the price of a ticket. It’s expensive. A ticket for all three days costs $449.  The people who might benefit the most from the Bioneers by and large can’t afford to attend. That’s the contradiction at the heart of the Bioneers, which bills itself as a “revolution from the heart of nature.”

Real revolutionaries probably won’t be found at the Bioneers, which has been a going concern since the 1980s, when the organization called itself “Seeds of Change,” and the slogan was “Practical Solutions for Restoring the Environment.” Early conferences took place in Sante Fe, New Mexico, a lovely place to live and to visit, but off the beaten track.

“Bioneers was born in the water. Specifically in a hot tub at Ten Thousand Waves in the mountains above my home of Santa Fe, New Mexico.” So wrote Kenny Ausubel, the Adam and the co-founder of the organization, along with Nina Simons, the Eve of the organization, in a piece called “Bioneers Creation Story.”

Simons has called Bioneers “a whole body experience.”

She and Ausubel take themselves seriously. Perhaps too seriously, but if you’re going to launch and sustain a revolution from the heart of nature you’d better be serious. Subsequent conferences were staged in Marin County and San Francisco. This year’s conference, the 34th, takes place in Berkeley, a natural home for the Bioneers if ever there was one. Too bad the organizers didn’t settle on Berkeley decades ago. If they had done so they would now have deeper roots in a community of activists and organizers than they do have.

If pioneers have gone about the world unsettling and disrupting landscapes and peoples, the Bioneers are about working with nature to restore and rebuild.

The Bioneers have always been optimists who have embraced hope and who have rallied the faithful. “The unprecedented movements of the past decade for liberation, justice and multicultural democracy are swelling to challenge the right-wing populist and neo-fascist forces underwritten by cynical plutocratic elites.” That’s from this year’s website. “The choice is clear: nihilism or regeneration. Shattering or wholeness.”

I don’t see the word “socialism” anywhere on the website. Maybe it doesn’t go along with hot tubs. If I sound snide it’s because I wonder what the long term good of Bioneers has been, though I do genuinely appreciate the heartfelt efforts. I have attended several times and have often found myself surrounded by the kind of enthusiastic young people who take Greta Thunberg as their hero. She’s also my hero. She doesn’t want people to just hope. She wants them to act.

Bioneers is the place where you hear the voices of indigenous people, learn about indigeneity and have your solar batteries recharged. It’s where you hear inspiring keynote speakers such as: Amara Ifeji, director of policy Maine Environmental Education Association; Shane Gero, National Geographic Explorer and Founder The Dominica Sperm Whale Project; Laura Flanders, host and executive producer the Laura Flanders Show; Jade Begay, Director of Policy and Advocacy DND Collective; and Saru  Jayaraman, One Fair Wage.

Jayaraman is the real deal. The other speakers are probably also the real deal, though I don’t know them or their work. I know Jayaraman and what she has accomplished. The author of Behind the Restaurant Door, which boasts an introduction by Eric Schlosser, she’s a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner, who has targeted what she calls the “low-wage restaurant industrial complex.” When I interviewed not long ago, she said that “we have twenty-first century restaurants and Sixties-era labor practices.” If you eat and drink in a Berkeley café or restaurant during the Bioneers Conference and you want to honor the work that Jayaraman has done for years, you’d better show your appreciation. “Wage and tip theft is outrageous,” Jayaraman told me. They are outrageous in Berkeley.

She urges people to “Picket with your wallet” and use the power of spending and purchasing to express solidarity with restaurant workers at the back and the front of the house. Previous speakers have included Amy Goodman, Arlie Russell Hochschild, and Jeremy Narby. Bioneers is where the present meets the past and the future. A Burning Man for activists and intellectuals, Bioneers 2023 in Berkeley (April 6-8  2023) will warm your soul and rekindle the fire in the belly.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.