The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature
Subarashii sho wo arigato gozaimasu. (Thank you for the wonderful award.)
I accept this great honor on behalf of the Bioneers community. That’s what Bioneers is about: a community of leadership in a time when we are all called upon to be leaders.
Today’s “wicked problems” are far too big and complex for any one person to solve. In this time, leadership arises in and from community. As it is in nature, there may be dazzling soloists, but in the end, it’s all about the symphony.
But Bioneers did not begin as a community. I will share our creation story.
Bioneers originated in 1990 in a Japanese-style hot tub facility called Ten Thousand Wave high in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico, near where I live. I was visiting with a friend and investor in Seeds of Change, the organic seed company I had just started. The company’s mission was to help revive agricultural biodiversity because diversity is the very fabric of nature. It’s nature’s fail-safe mechanism against extinctions, its source of innovation and regeneration.
I was enthusing to my friend about all these amazing people I’d been finding who had devised authentic solutions to many of the world’s most major crises. It had long been clear the world was on a collision course with nature – and with each other. I wanted to do something about it. So as a citizen and a journalist, I had been looking around to learn who might be out in the world developing real solutions.
One by one, I began finding breakthrough social and scientific innovators with both visionary and practical solutions. I started to see common threads. First, they were all systems thinkers. They recognized the interconnection of disparate issues and they developed “solve-the-whole problem” approaches.
Second, they looked to nature – not as physical resource, but as model, mentor and metric. The solutions in nature surpass our conception of what’s even possible. There’s nothing like having 3.8 billion years of research and development at your back.
So I was in the hot tub celebrating these visionary innovators – “Bioneers” I called them – and I was complaining about how nobody had ever heard of them. If only the world knew, it would leverage the pressure for change.
My friend said, “Why don’t you have a conference?” I had never been to a conference and it sounded really boring. I just kept talking about these bioneers until he stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “Kenny, I’m giving you $10,000 – have a conference.” That’s how Bioneers began.
I quickly shared the idea with Nina Simons, who by then was serving as Marketing Director for the Seeds of Change company. Nina and I had connected in early 1987 when a mutual friend invited us both to dinner. We quickly fell in love and began working together immediately on the movie I was then completing. Nina had a background in film and theater, and she was a natural communicator. She loved the idea of a conference and offered to produce it with me.
As communicators, we knew from the beginning that we had to get these voices of the Bioneers out into the world. But what it took us years to understand was that connecting people with each other and connecting otherwise isolated work across diverse issues was equally important.
Out of that grew the Bioneers community – a diverse networks of networks. The annual conference grew from 250 people to over 3,000 every year, along with a lot of media we produce.
Fast-forward 28 years. Many of these ideas and practices are now entering the mainstream, or beginning to influence mainstream thinking.
As Bioneers has shown since 1990, the solutions are largely present, or we know what directions to head in. As the state of the world has plunged from urgency to emergency, we can move from breakdown to breakthrough.
We can shift our course to re-imagine how to live on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations. The coming years will be the most important in the history of human civilization. This is the decisive window to make the shift, and it’s happening.
Around the world in diverse fields of endeavor, social and scientific innovators such as the bioneers have been developing and demonstrating far better technological, economic, social, and political models. Human creativity focused on problem solving is eclipsing the mythology of despair.
This shift also inspires a change of heart that honors the intrinsic value of all life and of our human diversity.
This Age of Nature calls for a new social contract of interdependence. Taking care of nature means taking care of people — and taking care of people means taking care of nature. It’s a revolution from the heart of nature and the human heart.
Fortunately nature has a profound capacity for healing, and we are learning how to work with nature to heal nature and our human communities. Resilience is the grail — enhancing our ability to adapt to dramatic change and design our ways of living for the long haul.
Bioneers gathers and cross-pollinates a unique network of networks to engage people to implement these large-scale shifts. We connect diverse issues, movements, cultures, and people from many backgrounds and walks of life. We’re cultivating a global wisdom culture with an expanded sense of kinship that embraces our human diversity and celebrates the oneness of life’s diversity.
We’re working to rapidly spread, adapt and scale the abundant models and solutions that already exist. It’s bottom up and top down — all hands on deck to generate the biggest and fastest economic, industrial, political and cultural transformation in history.
It comes down to growing the national and global movement of movements that are working for 100% clean energy, ecological agriculture, green design, biomimicry, watershed restoration, social and economic justice, racial and gender justice, and democratic governance.
I’d like to share a few stories.
Paul Stamets is the quintessential bioneer who has looked to the natural world for guidance. His work developing fungi-based “mycotechnology” has shown the astonishing breakthroughs contained in nature’s operating instructions.
Fungi are some of the fundamental decomposers, digesters, and recyclers of the food web that regenerate life. We also know that mushrooms can be powerful medicines for human health. Paul long wondered as an ecologist if his beloved fungi could also perhaps be medicines for restoring the land.
In a succession of experiments and demonstrations, he has shown that mushrooms can purify soil contaminated with diesel oil. They digest and transform the oil, leaving virtually no trace in the soil or the flesh of the mushrooms. This bioremediation of soil occurs rapidly in a matter of weeks and months – not years.
But after they do their job, Stamets’ mushrooms then showed how nature heals and restores itself. As the mushrooms decayed, worms and maggots appeared and ate them. Birds came to eat the insects and worms. The birds carried seeds on their feathers and plants grew. Within a matter of weeks, the formerly contaminated dead dirt turned into a thriving oasis of life.
Just imagine if we applied this mycotechnology to decontaminating chemically farmed farmlands on large scales. Or to brownfields and toxic sites. And instead of hazmat teams and engineers, you need gardeners.
As word spread about Stamets’s magical mushrooms, he received a call from the Department of Defense. The US government has the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, and they’re decaying. The military had no good way to get dispose of them without dispersing them into the environment. Could his mushrooms help remediate them?
Sure enough, two varieties of mushrooms completely metabolized and transformed Sarin nerve gas, among the most lethal and durable toxins on the planet. As the mycologist told the military, one of the active strains is native to the Pacific Northwest old-growth forest that’s threatened by logging. Protecting our national forests, he said, is a matter of national security.
Paul has made other breakthroughs now, including an apparent solution to the bee colony collapse disorder that threatens agriculture.
There are hundreds and thousands of such examples today among the Bioneers community.
For all the chatter about the Age of Information, what we’re really entering is the Age of Nature. After all, we didn’t invent nature. Nature invented us. Nature bats last, the saying goes. Even more importantly, it’s her playing field. We would be wise to learn the ground rules and how to play by them.
In the words of Janine Benyus, “What life does is create conditions conducive to life.” That’s quite a mission statement. Of course, for millennia, indigenous peoples, the world’s original bioneers, have held exactly this Gaian view. It’s all alive. It’s all connected. It’s all intelligent. It’s all relatives.
Biomimicry is the design revolution that naturalist, author and bioneer Janine Benyus calls “innovation inspired by nature.” It starts with the understanding that as human beings, we are nature. It’s the illusion of separation that is our civilization’s fundamental systems error.
Benyus describes “Life’s Principles” in this way.
Nature runs on current sunlight. Nature banks on diversity. Nature rewards cooperation. Nature builds from the bottom up. Nature recycles everything. Life creates conditions conducive to life.
Today the design science of biomimicry is spreading rapidly even among big companies as we learn how to mimic nature’s genius in our technologies, industries, economies, and even our social systems. From spiral designs that mimic nature and reduce energy consumption by 60%, to spider webs that show how to make glass that deters birds from crashing into windows, to Namibian beetles that show how to collect moisture from the air to collect water in arid regions, to flocks of geese who take turns as the lead goose to share the stress of leadership – it’s a genuine revolution in our thinking.
But the challenge we face today is not primarily technological. It’s a human crisis: the endgame of a civilization at war with the natural world and with ourselves.
We are all prisoners of war, and it is not a winnable war.
To succeed, we’re called upon to cooperate on a grand scale. It requires the equivalent of a wartime mobilization, yet its purpose is precisely the opposite: to create peace – with the land, each other, and ourselves.
How do we get through this alive? We are not the first to ask that question.
The late Seneca historian John Mohawk, who was a Bioneers Board member and my mentor, reminded us that the Iroquois Confederacy of Indian nations was forged out of cataclysmic war. He told the story this way.
There was an individual born among the Hurons in the Great Lakes region of North America who grew up in a society that was each against all. Blood feuds left not only villages fighting villages, but individual households fighting individual households. Violence ruled the day. Not unlike the twenty-first century, it was a time of absolute horror and degradation of the human soul.
A young man not yet twenty had an insight. He said violence is a really bad idea. He went to the people, and he stated, “You have to stop these cycles of violence.” The cycles of violence were embedded deep in the laws and customs of the Indian peoples. They were about revenge, for real and imagined injuries.
This young man, who became known as the Peacemaker, said that war makes people crazy. When people are at war, they’re not thinking clearly.
His argument was this: “We don’t need to live this way. We have the power in our collective minds to create a world in which people do not use violence, but rather use thinking.” He went from village to village and persuaded people that we must have a pact against violence.
Of course, when you walk into a village and say, “We have to put down our weapons of war and have peace,” they’re going to say, “Not till the other guys do.” To which you say, “Okay, let’s go talk to the other guys.” Until someone says, “Can’t talk to them. They’re all crazy.”
So the Peacemaker responded, “When you tell yourself your enemy can’t think, you destroy your own power to make peace with him. In order to use our minds to solve problems, we have to first acknowledge that the people on the other side of the negotiation probably want their people to live, and probably want a lot of the same things you do.”
So it starts by looking for common ground with the enemy.
People said, “We’re at war with these people because they’ve harmed us. They’ve done wrong to us.”
The Peacemaker replied that the pursuit of peace is not merely the pursuit of the absence of violence. Peace is never achieved until justice is achieved. Justice is not achieved until everyone’s interests are addressed.
So, he said, you will never actually finish addressing everyone’s issues. You can’t achieve peace unless it’s accompanied by constant striving to address justice. It means your job will never end.
The Peacemaker said we have to build an institution to represent this. He brought together the chiefs of the nations, and they formed the Iroquois Confederacy. Its highly sophisticated governance became one of the inspirations for the American Constitution and democracy.
The Peacemaker did not say we’d kill each other off with weapons. He said that in the end, unless we achieve peace among ourselves, the people of the planet will be eliminated.
To get through this keyhole of human evolution, we‘re going to have to face and heal the deep wounds in our societies and in ourselves. How?
Bioneer Ed Tick is a psychotherapist who began working in the 1970s with Vietnam veterans who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most of them were taking multiple drugs to suppress the personal hell haunting their lives.
Tick realized that PTSD was not about stress; it was about trauma. He learned that the Greek word travma actually meant a puncture, a hole, a wound. For the Greeks, it was also a spiritual wound: a hole in the soul.
Tick began taking vets back to the scene of their trauma, to face and embrace their former enemies – to seek redemption in forgiveness. They began to heal the wounds to their souls. Knowing the horror, now they try to talk people out of war. They became true warriors.
On one of these truth and reconciliation journeys to Vietnam, Ed Tick and the veterans visited My Lai. Today My Lai is a beautiful peace garden like Hiroshima where people from all over the world come to learn. Before that, it was the infamous scene of the slaughter of an unarmed village by US soldiers.
At My Lai, Tick and the vets met a woman of seventy-five, the only member of her family to survive the dreadful massacre. She lost her husband, her parents, and all her children. These are Ed Tick’s words:
She expressed her terrible pain at living. I said to her, “Grandmother, we’re so sorry for you and your losses. How do you feel about us Americans coming to visit you and see this place when we took so much from you?”
She said: “My pain doesn’t matter. It is so important that you come.”
And I said, “Grandmother, I can understand that ‘thank you.’ But how do you feel about our veterans coming back? Maybe they were here. Maybe they took the lives of your family or other Vietnamese people.”
She said: “Oh no, no. You misunderstand. It is most important that your veterans come back here, so that I can take their hands and look into their eyes, and forgive them and help them heal.”
There is a place in Vietnam called Marble Mountain. It’s very sacred. There is an ancient Buddhist temple in it. The Viet Cong used it as a field hospital. The US bombed it twice. But the temple is still intact and it wears its scars. Outside that temple on Marble Mountain, there is a simple wooden sign that proclaims in both Vietnamese and English these words, a Buddhist precept:
Hatreds never cease by hatreds in this world.
By love they cease.
This is an ancient law.
The wounds we’re inflicting on the Earth and on each other are the same wound.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Healing at the Intersections: Environment and Social Justice Conjoin at Bioneers
First, I must express my deepest gratitude to the Goi Peace Foundation, for honoring both of us, and Bioneers, with this award. We accept this honor with humility, and on behalf of the large and extended community of those visionaries that Kenny, back in 1990, coined a term to describe: “Bioneers.” There’s something mysterious about a made-up word like Bioneers. Perhaps it’s like music or love, in that each of us may find our own ways of relating to it. What we mean now by Bioneers is scientific, political and social innovators, activists, cultural bridge-builders and leaders from many walks of life and fields of endeavor who are collaboratively contributing to the great global ecological and social and cultural transformation now underway. It is an enormous validation that you here at the Goi Peace Foundation, who have done so much to promote world peace, and are based halfway around the globe from the U.S., have heard of Bioneers and perceive value in our work. Thank you.
In accepting this honor, I wish to offer some reflections about what I think makes Bioneers a unique enterprise. On the physical plane, it’s a relatively small non-profit organization, but one that has developed into a key nexus point for many diverse but intersecting social movements.
We seek to go beyond the idea of sustainability as a goal. Merely sustaining ecosystems and communities, at their current rate of degradation, loss and suffering, we find too timid as an ultimate goal. We aim for a human footprint that is regenerative for all of life. We seek the restoration of health and vitality to natural systems and human communities by combining the best of ancient wisdom with the leading edge of contemporary “whole systems” approaches.
At the heart of this notion is the idea that we humans need to be humble, to become students of nature’s extraordinarily sophisticated design genius.
One of the foundations of our worldview is that, as in the natural world where the most diverse ecosystems are the most resilient and vital, the human enterprise also is healthiest when it is characterized by high degrees of diversity. In our work, therefore, we have always sought to highlight a broad array of innovative approaches to solving problems, presented from differing perspectives, disciplines, generations and cultures, including a very strong emphasis on honoring the wisdom of indigenous, “first peoples’ and of their long-lived traditional ecological wisdom. Here in Japan, you have been able to maintain far more of a connection to your ancestral wisdom about respecting and working with nature than we have in North America, so I think we have much to learn from you in that regard.
At a conference in 1994, the physicist, ecologist and activist Vandana Shiva from India offered some crucial distinctions between a “bioneer” and a pioneer. She warned that rapid scientific innovations intended to improve upon biology through agriculture posed tremendous risks. Aggressive scientists and corporations seeking to profit from poorly-conceived genetic manipulation will look very like the European pioneers. They thought that every land they conquered was empty of people, so they saw no need to respect any pre-existing rights.
Those who we have called bioneers, on the other hand, recognize that every step we take is on a full earth populated by a tremendous variety of species and many other people. The pioneer ‘empty land’ ethic,” Vandana noted “leads to violence against species and to genocide. The colonizing pioneer mind assumes there are no limits to be respected, no ecological limits, no ethical limits, no limits to greed or accumulation, no limits to inequality.”
Whereas authentic bioneers, she said, “know that limits are the first law of nature, encoded in the ecological processes that make life possible. Limits of the nutrient cycle in soil, limits of the water cycle. The limits set by the intrinsic right of diverse species to exist set limits on our actions, if we genuinely respect other beings. Ethical limits are what make us human. To be sustainable, a society must live within those limits.”
Vandana spoke of a Hindi word that means “We are one earth family,” or the “democracy of life.” She explained that “to bioneers, it means not just diverse human cultures, but all beings. The mountains and the rivers are beings too. We bioneers respect all the beings, large and small, without a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority, because everything has a part to play ecologically in the web of life, even if we do not fully understand how.”
Being a bioneer also means appreciating that, just as the web of life is interconnected and interdependent, so too are all the issues we face.
It became increasingly clear to me that there could no longer be any perceived separation between people and the “environment.” We are a part of nature, not apart from it. Our bodies are made of the same elements, the same DNA as plants, fungi and animals. We are all connected, both biologically and spiritually. Since the earth is a closed loop, the cup of tea you drink today may have once been Cleopatra’s bathwater.
What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. When we harm ourselves and other people, we damage the earth. Therefore, being a bioneer must include pursuing social justice and equity for all humans as well as protecting species and ecosystems.
For the first ten years or so, I used the term “bioneer” to describe the people on stage, the presenters we invited to speak, Innovators who offered brilliant new approaches and practical models of ecological or social restoration.
I was unaware of my own internalized hierarchy, but all that changed when the late J.L. Chestnut spoke in 2001. He was a renowned attorney and legendary Civil Rights activist since the brutal struggles in the U.S. South of the 1950s, and my definition of a bioneer expanded into something larger.
He was telling the story of winning the largest class action lawsuit in the history of America – against the US Government for institutional racism against black farmers in the Southeastern U.S. It was a powerful talk, and he did something I’d never heard before. He began to use the word ‘bioneer’ to address everyone in the room.
He noted that the progress that’s being made, slowly but surely, to bring our country toward racial and social justice and true democracy was due in part to the efforts of “You bioneers, dedicated progressive people like you.” He went on to say: “I raise these concerns to you because fighting on behalf of women, on behalf of minority people of color, fighting on behalf of the environment and the planet are all one big battle. We bioneers know (he said) that violence, greed, racism, unchecked materialism, and abuse of this planet and the nature in and on it is its own form of terrorism. And will eventually destroy us if we don’t first put an end to it.”
It was a revelatory moment for me. Suddenly, the word didn’t just describe the visionary speakers on stage, but applied to us all. Not only the presenters, but every man, woman and child present, Hearing our podcasts or seeing our videos, or anyone working toward healing our relationship with Earth in thousands of different ways.
All our contributions, all our collective creativity and imagination were needed to remake this world. We were all bioneers, if we chose to be. We each had a role to play.
As J.L. Chestnut said, the way that we have treated women, people of color, Indigenous people and the Earth are all just different octaves of the same legacy. We all – regardless of our many differences – bear scars from a culture that was founded on conquest, exploitation and oppression.
I began to see that we are all, in varying ways, responding to often-unconscious influences and implicit biases from a legacy of disrespect and violence that manifests on all levels of society – from the personal, emotional and physical to the economic, political and environmental.
Thankfully, we also know the power of community and connection, and we are gifted with a capacity for self-reflection and choice. Each time we relate caringly, meeting others where they are or on common ground, instead of reinforcing separation, we begin to help heal and restore our social landscape. Each time we renew ourselves in nature, sensing with our full bodies, hearts and intuitions the repair and guidance she so abundantly offers, we help the healing happen.
Over the years, Bioneers has evolved greatly, prompted in part by this understanding.
We hope to educate, inspire and ignite engaged action and leadership, while identifying and illuminating many of the most promising solutions and strategies. By juxtaposing seemingly disparate issue areas, and mingling them with arts and ceremony, we help reveal how all issues are part of one dynamic, inter-related living system, which embeds us within the context of the living world.
We all need each other to make the large-scale changes we face. Relationships of authentic cooperation, collaboration and community will become absolutely critical in the years ahead, because we are facing immense challenges. Bridging our differences respectfully will determine whether and how we may succeed at shifting human civilization from our current eco-cidal trajectory.
In the past several years, I have realized that for me to be able to help create effective change “out there” in the world, I must also work on seeing – and then changing – myself. There have been many ways in which I have internalized the unresolved wounds and blind spots of our U.S. culture, from gender bias to racial injustice. I am trying hard to reconcile them to make peace within myself.
As I’ve searched for insights to help me in this quest, I’ve come to feel that – while racial divides still rupture our societies (and I can’t imagine living through the discrimination and wounding so many minority people experience each day) – the biases that privilege the masculine over the feminine create at least as great an unconscious barrier to equity and peace among people around the world as faith, race or cultural differences. In recent years, studies have shown that globally, gender is the bias most deeply embedded in the human psyche.
Like most or many women, I’ve experienced thousands of moments of feeling diminished, threatened or intimidated because of my gender. Inwardly, I also see ways I’ve unconsciously acquired some learned beliefs about women, and limited my own options and pathways as a result.
I realize that gender and race are only two of the many ways we diminish each other and ourselves. Nearly all of us have experienced feeling slighted or disrespected somewhere – whether for our ethnicity, age, size, sexual preference, ability, class or appearance. While I am inspired to see that much progress has occurred in some of these areas, we have far more work to do to heal the wounds that separate us.
I believe that investing in the leadership of women – and restoring the ‘feminine’ to a place of equilibrium with the ‘masculine’ throughout all of our lived experience as individuals, as well as in our institutions and culture – are essential to the global transformation that we, as a species, are being called to make, in order to shift our course to a life-affirming future on Earth.
Around the globe, we see clearly that wherever the rights, opportunities and safety of women improve, benefits result for all areas of society. As women’s leadership and gender equity increase, so too do economic prosperity, public health, education, peace and the security of nations. As women’s education and reproductive rights improve globally, they will also have significant effects in curbing population growth, drawing down carbon and slowing climate change.
Since we’ve inherited some skewed stereotypes about what the masculine and feminine really mean, I’d suggest we seek to identify and reclaim healthy identities that can welcome a full array of our human capacities, regardless of what our physical gender identity might be.
And, because we all contain masculine and feminine within us, this is ultimately about restoring our human wholeness. About practicing listening and not-knowing, more often than asserting that we know the answers. About evolving from power over to power with and power to co-create change. It’s about trusting that leadership is often better shared, and that win-win solutions frequently exist, if we seek them out patiently, practicing mutual respect, patience and trust.
As indigenous peoples of Central America say, “the bird of humanity has been trying to fly for far too long with only one wing.”
May we have the humility to listen for guidance from the land,
from our ancestors, and from our bodies and hearts,
as well as our minds, dreams and intuition.
May we find the collective vision, courage and will
to decolonize our minds and hearts,
reclaiming a balance of feminine & masculine,
of receptive and active, of yin and yang in equal measure
that flow through us each and all.
May our partnership with mother Earth, Gaia,
and the sweet and salty waters that flow in her veins,
the winds and clouds that caress and bathe her,
and the fires that cleanse and restore her vitality,
and our kinship with all the creatures large and small
who share this magnificent home
become our devotional, long-term relationship practice.
May this lead us collectively toward a world
that’s re-infused with a sense of the sacred,
where the future children of all species live and flourish in peace,
and where restorative justice, peace, health and regeneration thrive.
May it be so. Thank you.