Bioneers 2017 Day 1 — Communicating With Nature and Building an Economy That Honors All

Deb Lane and Afia Walking Tree

At the end of the first day of our 2017 Bioneers Conference, we’re feeling invigorated. Many of us have already made new, dear friends and learned lessons we’ll take home with us and share. We’ve heard stories that have moved us, and shared some of our own, too.

Here are some of the highlights from Day 1.

Morning Session — Keynotes

As in conferences past, the morning keynote portion of our day began with a drumming performance by Deb Lane and Afia Walking Tree. The audience was encouraged to stand up and dance, focus on their breath, and release stress and negativity. We welcomed this day with open arms and hearts.

Dr. Teresa Ryan, a fisheries scientist, took the stage next to tell the fascinating story of what she and many others refer to as “tree people”: a name that honors trees as participants in a community — people rather than simply things. Ryan revealed a little-known underground world of mycelium: elements of fungi that connect neighboring trees to one another. This complex network allows trees, even those of differing species, to nurture each other in times of hardship. Communicating this information to the masses, says Ryan, will create an important argument for protecting and restoring delicate plant ecosystems, in which individual plants are integral parts of a whole.

Following Ryan’s keynote was another by Thomas Van Dyck, noted and outspoken voice in the world of ESG (environmental, social, governance) investing. Van Dyck called us not only to divest from funds or investments that harm the planet, but also to have faith in the progress of the renewable-energy sector. He pointed to the rapid decline of once-popular technologies — think Blackberries — as evidence that the rate of disruption for new technologies is often even quicker than experts predict. Renewables are already taking over in terms of market performance, Van Dyck said. So, if your portfolio still includes fossil fuels, “What’s inspiring you to underperform?

Dr. Victor Pineda

Dr. Victor Pineda, Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, reminded us that at least 1 billion people throughout the world live with a disability. In his keynote, he pushed for “radical inclusion”: a world made comfortable and welcoming for all. After all, “What does it mean to be human? It isn’t just about being part of the same species,” Pineda said. “It’s about weakness and understanding we each have vulnerabilities. It’s those vulnerabilities that also unlock strength.”

An audience favorite in the morning session was Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Her moving, impassioned presentation reminded us that about half of all adults in the U.S. have worked in the restaurant industry, yet it is our lowest-paying industry. By 2025, she said, half of America will not be able to afford to be consumers — meaning the people who work in the restaurant industry won’t be able to afford the food they make and serve. Speaking about the history of underpaying restaurant workers, dating back to the emancipation of slaves, and the ramifications of a corrupt modern-day restaurant industry (sexual harassment being a big one), Jayaraman brought the Bioneers audience to its feet upon calling them to act on this important issue.

Carl Safina — prolific author and animal researcher — presented on animal consciousness. He asked us to stop thinking about animals in relation to ourselves. Rather than asking “Does my dog really love me?” we should be asking “Who are you?” When we start getting to know animals on their terms, not ours, we start to perceive incredible qualities within them: anxiety in crayfish, language differentiation in elephants, and empathy in countless species. Safina ended his keynote, and Day 1’s morning session, by asking “Are human minds capable of loving animals enough to simply allow them to continue to exist with us on earth?”


The second half of the day was packed with presentations, panels, and workshops on diverse topics.

We enjoyed revisiting Carl Safina, this time on a panel with forest ecologist Suzanne Simard and Dr. Teresa Ryan. The trio discussed the intersectionality of their viewpoints on the natural world, all three agreeing that the human lens through which we view plants and animals is often simplistic and flawed.

In a particularly great indigenous forum on fighting racism in schools, four Native American youth recounted their own stories of encounters with blatant and thinly-veiled racism. “A lot of people say I’m too sensitive,” said Jayden Lim, one of the panel’s young speakers, who has experienced racist dialogue most regularly from the adults in her school. “They say, ‘It was just a joke, it was just a costume.’ But it needs to be talked about and it needs to be looked at.”

Sunny Dooley blew us away with her quiet and powerful storytelling, which made us feel like she was family. Her presentation was humorous, touching, self-deprecating and empowering.

We revisited Saru Jayaraman when she spoke on a panel about how to organize successfully to transform institutions and systems. She was joined by Sonali Sangeeta Balajee, a former governmental senior policy advisor on equity, and Jeremy Haile, co-author of the Indivisible Guide. Jayaraman was critical of previous “progressive” movements that weren’t fully inclusive. “If we’re not winning for all of us, are we really winning?” The panel agreed that intersectionality and inclusion within our dialogue leave fewer potential openings for toxic leadership to take advantage of.

These were, of course, only some of the myriad incredible stories and ideas being shared on Day 1 of the 2017 Bioneers Conference. We look forward to the days ahead, knowing they will bring even more excitement and empowerment for creating a better tomorrow.

We hope to see you there.

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