I recently attended the eighteenth annual Bioneers conference, which is hosted in San Rafael, California and broadcast live via satellite to nearly twenty cities in the U.S. The event's purpose is to discuss and elaborate ideas for creating an ecologically sustainable society. Presenters focus on practical strategies that environmentalists, social activists, and community leaders can use to affect positive change in the world.
The ceremonies of the satellite conference in Boulder, Colorado opened and closed with acoustic drumming, chanting, and music, and a ritual invocation of the four directions. We were reminded to think of the plants and animals as our relatives, who we bound with in an intimate ecological relationship, realizing that our future health is dependent on our ecology's health. Here are some highlights from the plenary speeches that I was present for.
Bronx-born African American social activist Majora Carter described her team's efforts to "green the ghetto" and make the South Bronx a more beautiful place to live. She began by presenting a startling statistic about the American prison system: the fact that our country has 5% of the world's population, yet is is responsible for incarcerating 25% of the prison population of the world. Carter then drew a link between the location of prisons and the environmental conditions of a community. She defined the South Bronx as a "regional sacrifice zone", a place which has been deemed of little value by city planners and therefore is designated to house a concentration of the more detestable by-products of our modern society: toxic chemical plants, industrial waste, landfills, etc. Carter urged the audience to not ignore the social costs of our current system of economic production. She suggested that we learn new ways to make equality profitable, by employing "green collar" workers on sustainability projects on a scale reminiscent of the Marshall Plan of the late 1940's. In her effort to make this happen in her own community she runs the Sustainable South Bronx non-profit organization which, according to their website, "addresses land-use, energy, transportation, water and waste policy, and education in order to advance the environmental and economic rebirth of the South Bronx, and to inspire solutions in areas like it across the nation and around the world." Probably one of the most provocative statements made in the plenary speeches was when she asserted that "environmental justice is civil rights for the 21st century."
Ocean scientist and animal rights activist Wallace J. Nichols reminded us that the ocean is experiencing a massive crisis. Nichols noted that 80% of Earth's animal habitat is in the oceans, and rampant pollution and destruction of undersea species is threatening this vital habitat. Some scientists have predicted that by 2048 all of the ocean fisheries could "collapse", meaning that more than 90% of their previous population has been destroyed. Nichols cites the mind-boggling fact that in some areas of the ocean there is six times the amount of plastic as there is plankton in the water. He urged for the development of an "ocean revolution" to protect this aqueous ecology.
On behalf of EarthRights International, Ka Hsaw and Katie Redford told their story about successfully suing the Unocal corporation for human rights abuses in Burma. Unocal worked hand in hand with the Burmese military dictatorship in order to build an oil pipeline from Thailand to Burma. Ka Hsaw, a Burmese native who witnessed gruesome injustices against the Burmese people including rape, murder, village relocations, and forced labor, decided to fight back against the Unocal corporation and enlisted the help of American law student Katie Redford. The two later became married, and after ten years of fighting Unocal in the courts they eventually won in 2004, making their case the first-ever successful lawsuit against a corporation for human rights abuses overseas. They stressed the importance of defending human rights, and discussed the potential efficacy of using the legal system to hold corporations accountable for their actions.
Native American activist and community leader Evon Peter gave us "an indigenous perspective on how to survive the next 100 years" (with the caveat that our survival is not certain unless we change our cultural values). Peter stressed the importance of healing emotional imbalance in ourselves and the world, particularly in regards to the brutal legacy of white imperialism that still affects indigenous relations. He suggested that we come together to form solutions, and that white intellectuals and policy makers should take advice from the wisdom of indigenous peoples. If we are to survive on this planet, we need to transform our relationship with the land and our plant and animal relatives who support our society at the most fundamental level. Part of this transformation involves engaging the world with a perspective that is broader than egocentric motivation, and working to create peace in the world.
Speaking on the issues of seed sovereignty and native rights, author, activist, and former running mate of Ralph Nader in the 1996 and 2000 elections Winona LaDuke told the story of the Ojibwe people of Minnesota and their fight to maintain the integrity of their native wild rice crops against the dangers of genetic engineering. Part of LaDuke's reason for engaging in activist projects to protect populations is her assertion that plants are our relatives, and an essential part of who we are. She urged for the re-localization of food economies, and the realization that plant foods are medicine and will heal us if we establish a proper relationship with them.
One of the most practical and thought-provoking presentations was made by Paul Anastas on the subject of "green chemistry." The focus of green chemistry is to create chemical products that are non-toxic, and are produced in environmentally sustainable ways. Anastas made the bold statement that the toxicity of modern chemicals should not be thought of as a natural by-product of the chemical, but rather a design flaw on the part of the chemists who made it. He also made the startling claim that newborns in the World War II world are now born with over 150 new chemicals in their bodies. He suggested that chemists learn to account for the environment when making their chemicals, and therefore to re-design their materials with the goal of sustainability in mind. Instead of spending millions of dollars cleaning up and disposing of hazardous materials, we should learn how to design them to be non-hazardous in the first place. Anastas noted that the idea that industrial progress must come at the cost of a toxic environment is a dangerous myth, and should be re-evaluated by the public.
When considering the efficacy of Bioneers, one must wonder if the conference could somehow be presented differently. The radical sense of urgency present in many social activist groups is somewhat lacking at the Bioneers conference. For example, when Wallace Nichols presented the possibility of all the world's ocean species pushed to the brink of extinction… this is not a trivial matter. The possibility of massive biological destruction is not an event that should be politely discussed as dinner table conversation followed by averted gazes and nervous laughter.
This scenario is not only a biological tragedy, but also a world-changing event. Its a fact that overlapping ecosystems are intimately linked. If the ocean fish are dead, the animals that depend on them for survival (including humans) may not be able to survive. The loss of these animals, in turn, will affect other animal populations. Understanding this, we can begin to see how drastic the consequences of our civilization's rampant destruction of our planetary habitat could actually become. It seems likely that if governments and world leaders do not pay attention to these warning signs of environmental catastrophe, when the time comes and the various breaking points are reached, chaos will ensue as our population will be woefully under-prepared for these environmental changes as they come. Even at an event full of eco-conscious people such as Bioneers, there still seems to be a blinding veil of disbelief about how massive and systemic these ecological problems actually are; these issues have broader implications than your favorite local seafood restaurant closing down.
This was my third year attending Bioneers, and as usual it was an emotional experience for me. I felt caught between two polarities of emotion: my fear and disgust at our society's callous destruction of our planetary home, and my inspired hope that some people actually do care about our world, and care about making it safe and healthy for us to live in. Regardless of whether or not the conference is fully efficacious, I admire and appreciate the Bioneers for their dedication to expressing these messages of concern, of compassion, of practical action, and hope for the future of our planet.
Tristan Gulliford is a writer, dreamer, and aspiring myth-keeper who makes electronic music under the name "Dreamcode". He is currently attending the University of Colorado at Boulder.