What I learned at the 2016 Bioneers Convention
I went to my first Bioneers conference after watching from afar and reading about the organization’s work for quite a few years. This past weekend marked the Bioneers’ 27th annual event, organized by founders Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simon. I attended on Saturday, the second of the three-day conference.
So … what are “bioneers”? From the organization’s website:
Bioneers are social and scientific innovators from all walks of life and disciplines who have peered deep into the heart of living systems to understand how nature operates, and to mimic “nature’s operating instructions” to serve human ends without harming the web of life. Nature’s principles — kinship, cooperation, diversity, symbiosis and cycles of continuous creation absent of waste — can also serve as metaphoric guideposts for organizing an equitable, compassionate and democratic society.
Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (1997) and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, was the speaker I most looked forward to seeing in-person as the convention approached (I read her book earlier this year, better late than never). Crystalizing the ethos and tone of the event on Saturday morning, she pumped up the audience in San Rafael’s Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium by urging:
Don’t ever ask small questions. It’s not time — yet — to adapt to climate change.
Then, after pointing out that 33% of the world’s population are “smallholder” farming families, and that 70% of all food eaten is produced by smallholders on farms of five or fewer acres, Benyus posited a key observation made by Bioneers who are looking to examples embodied in evolved systems for practical, achievable solutions to seemingly-intractable problems:
There’s too much carbon in the air, but not enough in the soil.
This is not a newsflash. But it points in some important directions. How so?
Well, later in the day, Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed spoke, at a panel called Carbon, Climate, Food and Fiber, about five pools of carbon on our planet, through which the element can and does transition through its many mutable forms: atmosphere, biosphere, fossil, ocean, and soil. Burgess told panel attendees that a net 136 gigatons of carbon has been lost from soils since the Rotherham plow was invented in 1750 (tillage of soil contributes significantly to the one-third of human greenhouse gas emissions produced by agriculture); but at the same time pointed out that rates of carbon drawdown from the atmosphere that is possible on grassland and farmland “already under human management” could ameliorate the climate-changing levels of carbon that human activity has shifted into the atmospheric pool within five years.
Achieving that drawdown would require that all grassland and farmland “under human management” be transitioned to permaculture practices, which is hard for this very junior bioneer to imagine … but doing the arithmetic to describe the possibility as one that we as a species could choose to realize pivots attention away from paralyzed, doom-and-gloom visions of Earth’s future — and shines a bright light on our responsibility as a species to choose well and consequentially at a crucial moment in our biosphere’s history.
Bren Smith, the founder of GreenWave spoke during the morning plenary session on Saturday, as well as on a panel that afternoon titled Reshaping Our Relationship to the Ocean. Smith speaks in a genially-calculated voice that puts his working class, Newfoundland fisherman origins front and center: “I’m not an environmentalist,” he said to an auditorium full of environmentalists. “Give me a gun and I’ll shoot moose from my kitchen … I grew up on seal hunts.” But the fact that he’s doing heroic environmentalist work became clear when he described his “vertical farms,” suspended from buoys off the Atlantic coast of North America. GreenWave’s farms produce kelp and other seaweeds (“It’s embarrassing to grow vegetables…,” Smith moaned with a wink) as well as bivalves including mussels, clams, and oysters with no inputs (fresh water, fertilizer, etc.).
GreenWave summarizes its accomplishments and mission on the organization’s website:
After 15 years of experimentation, we have developed a new method of ocean farming designed to restore ocean ecosystems, mitigate climate change, and create blue-green jobs for fishermen — while providing healthy, local food for communities.
Describing kelp as “the soy of the sea, except it’s not evil,” Smith spoke of shifting a major fraction of food production from soil-depleting land-farming to sustainable, job-producing ocean-farming that would put bivalves and sea-vegetables “at the center of the plate” and push wild fish to the edge. Would that be a problem for a world population increasingly ravenous for sushi and grilled salmon? “Wild harvesting is not a strategy for the future,” Smith asserted during the afternoon Reshaping… panel. To the point of dietary trends, Smith put his challenge simply:
If chefs can’t make what we grow delicious, they should quit their jobs … it’s what they’re here on earth to do.
As a former professional cook myself, I can get behind that sentiment.
Bill McKibben — acknowledging himself to be exhausted and depleted by weeks on the road battling to defeat the narcissistic bully and all-around horrorshow currently running as G.O.P. candidate for the presidency — rallied the conference’s attendees by recalling our attention to the successful battle to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline:
“when we started, nobody really thought we would win … victory is that now everything gets fought … fossil fuel resistance is everywhere.”
Not least, of course, in North Dakota at the Standing Rock protests against construction of the “Dakota Access Pipeline” (DAPL) ongoing today, which weighed heavily on this weekend’s conference crowd. Once again, the Bioneers’ signature insistence: that we can win this.
I was encouraged in that vein to find (in the conference’s Exhibit Hall ) a display put together by fifth graders from the Helios School in Sunnyvale that collected artifacts of environmental campaigns that the students studied in the course of considering work they would need to do as they grow into adult responsibility (that is, responsibility for the screw-ups we adults are bequeathing them). Raphael, one of the fifth graders, was happy to learn that I had participated in the No Coal in Oakland campaign, which was one of the subjects of his class’s research. He knew about Mayor Libby Schaaf’s role in opposing transport of coal through Oakland, and in the course of our conversation we realized that both of us participated in the rally earlier this year that preceded the Oakland City Council’s vote to ban coal transport through the city and port. What the world needs now is more ten year old environmentalists like Raphael and his classmates!
My nomination for Saturday’s best soundbyte came from Ariel Greenwood, a self-described “feral agrarian,” who participated with Rebecca Burgess and two others on the Carbon, Climate, Food and Fiber panel:
We’re all active agents in our environment.
That’s the core of what Bioneers are about. Active agency, the heart of what it’s going to take for humanity to dig its way out of the mess we’ve made of our biosphere.