Bioneers Integrate Technology and Ecology To Re-Create a Sustainable World

The Bioneers are inspirational role models demonstrating that individuals can make a positive difference toward creating a sustainable future -- on the ground, in communities, in corporate boardrooms, and in the corridors of government.

Note: Shel Horowitz's book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, contains a great deal of other information about the interplay of marketing and social change, and ways to move a business toward both environmental and economic sustainablity.

[Editor's Note: This is the preface to Bioneers, an excellent book on sustainability from Chelsea Green; they have many wonderful books on sustainability, alternative energy, and organic agriculture. They also published my book, Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World. Their website is http://www.chelseagreen.com/]

Preface to the Second Edition

Lately, I’ve been living with a weird sense of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, storming around us is the destruction of life and disruption of the basic biological systems on which all life depends. It’s frightening, depressing, and unspeakably painful. A masterful public relations juggernaut casts nets of disinformation, ensnaring masses of people in delusions of complacency, as though the war against the earth is perfectly natural, inevitable, and even necessary to maintain our “standard of living.”

Yet at the same time, a vibrant culture of innovative solutions is being born out of this cataclysm and it is spreading rapidly around the world. Extraordinary human creativity focused on problem solving is exploding the mythology of despair. Over and over, it’s the story of how an individual can make a difference. The answers percolate up from the profound wisdom of the natural world. This is where the Bioneers live. Being steeped in this fertile brew of remedies, I feel as much cause for hope as for horror.

When millions of computers worldwide rolled over into year 2000, the brittle global grid of accidents waiting to happen didn’t. Hundreds of billions of dollars and swarms of feverish digital plumbers averted the predicted apocalypse shadowing the centralized technocratic plundering of the world. The pre-millennium was a yawner. Industrial society rolled on inexorably. Prophecies dropped like flies. Techno-utopian civilization triumphed. Unless, of course, you turned away from the media spectacle and actually looked around.

Just weeks earlier, tens of thousands of activists gathering in Seattle had conjured up a tsunami. Waves of resistance washed over the carefully crafted globalization agenda and exposed its abuses of the environment and human rights. Seattle cleaned the World Trade Organization’s clock, setting back its timetable by years. Cornerstones of the design to commodify the world crumbled. Deep fissures among member nations split wide open the most basic assumptions about who’s in charge and just what kind of future the world’s people want. Teamsters and Turtles joined hands to reboot democracy, unexpectedly scrambling the circuits of what had seemed an immutable program.

Meanwhile, reports surfaced among farmers in Iowa that cows breaking into fields of genetically modified corn held up their noses and turned tail for more familiar pastures. Sometimes there is a place for animal testing! People in Europe and Japan seemed to agree with the cows, and before long Frankenfoods were stuck in the craw of global trade. When major markets like Europe and Japan fall out, the globalization business plan craters. What had seemed a done deal was now up for grabs.

And on New Year’s Eve 2000 in France, half the trees went down in a freak tempest, yet another of those 500-year storms that have lined up since the 1990s with the compressed frequency of overbooked jet planes. Among the places hardest hit were the grandfather groves at the Palace of Versailles. A French national treasure, many of these trees were planted during the reign of Louis XIV. Best remembered for his remark “L’état, c’est moi”--“I am the state”--the Sun King lacked the foresight also to claim domain over the weather, whose shifting patterns are by now unequivocally linked with the bonfire of fossil fuels stoking up the planetary heat. People tuning in to the Weather Channel have watched it turn into an action-adventure movie.

But the alarmists were wrong about climate change: They underestimated it. Scientific consensus now indicates that we can expect climate change to progress from two to ten times faster this century than in the last. At the same time, the impending biodiversity crash threatens to extinguish a fifth to two-thirds of the world’s species in this next hundred years. The consequences are unimaginable, from shredding the very fabric of evolutionary resilience just when it is needed most, to making this planet a mightily lonely and impoverished place. Public health is already showing serious strains from the 80,000 or so synthetic chemicals now suffusing the most intimate tissues of the world, leaving mother’s breast milk so toxic that it could not legally be sold on store shelves in many countries.

By the time the actual calendrical millennium punched in, it was living up to its promise of biblical times. If there is a single message in all this turmoil, it’s that the biological world is a permeable membrane, infinitely interconnected. We have made a basic systems error in believing that we are somehow separate from the natural world. As human beings, we are one with the Earth. It’s time to come home.

As physicist and author Fritjof Capra suggested at the 1999 Bioneers Conference, “Concern with the environment will no longer be one of many single issues. It will move to the center of the stage. It will become the context of our lives, our businesses, our politics.”

The good news is that for the most part the solutions are present. Where we don’t know exactly what to do, we have a pretty good idea what direction to head in. Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry, puts it eloquently: “The people learning about biology are reaching back to ancestors that are 3.8 billion years old. In that time, life has learned to do amazing things: fly, circumnavigate the globe, live at the top of mountains and bottom of the ocean, lasso solar energy, light up the night, make miracle materials like our skin, horns, hair, brains. Life has done everything that we want to do but without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet, mortgaging its future. What better models could there possibly be? We can decide as a culture to listen to life, to echo what we hear. We are surrounded by geniuses. Learning from them will take only stillness on our part, a quieting of the voices of our own cleverness. Into this quiet will come a cacophony of earthly sounds, a symphony of good sense. The real benefit of a life of biomimicry is that we begin to feel a part of, rather than apart from, this genius that surrounds us.”[i]

One of the great beauties of biology is that its facts are also our metaphors. In the coming pages you’ll read about the ant-fungus combination, a wonder of mutual aid so elegant that it has endured uninterrupted for tens of millions of years. As biologist E.O. Wilson relates, their cooperation is so complete that it’s impossible to tell if the ants captured the fungus to serve their needs, or the other way around. Recent research has revealed an even grander complexity of symbiosis than we previously imagined.

Biologists were puzzled about how the ants could keep their precious fungus safe from pathogens, an especially dire threat to such a monoculture. It turns out that their caverns are not free from pathogens. In fact, the fungus is very vulnerable to a devastating mold found only in ants’ nests. To keep the mold at bay, the ants long ago made a discovery that would send the stock of any pharmaceutical company soaring.

Scientists now know that the ants have domesticated at least four kinds of fungus, which are often cultivated nearby to one another. When one fungus is threatened by the mold, which happens within two years among 60 percent of colonies, the ants bring in another species that provides a bacterium lethal to the deadly mold, and is also a fertilizer for the fungus. That same bacterium is the source of over half the antibiotics used in human medicine. “Some Alexander Fleming of an ant discovered antibiotics millions of years before people did,” wrote Nicholas Wade.[ii]

Ants also invented agriculture before people did, by 50 million years, and they are finessing two challenges beyond the reach of present industrial society. They are continuously growing a monocultural crop without disaster, and they are dispensing antibiotics frugally so as to avoid provoking antibiotic resistance. Commented one of the biologists, “It may be one of the best studied symbioses in biology, but it is a sad reflection of how little we know in general.”

These are the true biotechnologies. They exemplify a kind of magical realism, a tantalizing glimpse into how solutions residing in nature vastly surpass our prior conceptions of what is possible.

Innovators around the world are tapping into this kind of ancient biological intelligence to devise practical solutions to many of our most pressing crises. The Bioneers are on the forefront of this movement to reweave the sacred web of life and our proper place within it.

The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature

The Bioneers you’ll read about in these pages are biological pioneers who have peered deep into the heart of living systems to see what we can learn from four billion years of evolution. What are nature’s operating instructions? How would nature do it? What they are unearthing is nothing less than a revolution from the heart of nature. In many cases, their knowledge is prefigured by ancient indigenous traditions, many being validated by modern research. The applications are spreading with encouraging speed.

Since I first wrote about architect William McDonough, his work has continued to define the Next Industrial Revolution. His firms are now working with the Ford Motor Company to redesign the famous River Rouge plant in Michigan where Henry Ford created the first vertically integrated automotive manufacturing facility. Bill is leading a $2 billion project intended to become what Ford’s Chairman, William Clay Ford, Jr., describes as “the icon of the Next Industrial Revolution.” Bill’s design includes restorative native landscapes as well as the largest habitat roof in the country–a 454,000-square-foot green invitation to birds. He’s advising on the manufacturing of automobiles, too. Bill has penetrated the highest circles of corporate design with comparable projects, from Nike and the Gap to Ciba-Geigy and Herman Miller. He was rightly named a “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine, and was awarded the nation’s highest environmental award, The Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, in 1996. He continues to promote putting the filters in designers’ heads, not on pipes or smokestacks.

The kinds of changes championed by Bill McDonough and other Bioneers are already visible in many sectors. New York State has taken the lead in making commercial and residential buildings more efficient and environmentally friendly by adopting “green building credits” against state income taxes. Spain has initiated the use of olive oil and olive biomass wastes to power major utilities. The number of giant power-generating windmills in that country has doubled every year since 1995, to 1,400, a number expected to reach 9,000 by 2010. Along with Germany and Denmark, Spain is providing state funds to offset the cost differential for consumers between renewable energy sources and the market price. Across the globe during the 1990s, wind power installations grew at a rate of 26 percent a year, solar photovoltaics at 17 percent annually. While these technologies still produce only one percent of the world’s energy, double-digit growth rates can change the picture quickly. The alternative energy industry may well mimic the birth of the oil industry 100 years ago in its vertiginous expansion.

As Paul Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins describe in their landmark book Natural Capitalism, many large companies, governments, and global institutions are finding that ecological practices can cut costs by half, quadruple profits, and create more new jobs in the process. The jobs are knowledge-intensive rather than labor-intensive. “Less stuff, more people” is the mantra, in keeping with the state of the world. Given the one billion unemployed and underemployed people living in dire poverty, economic justice is a precondition for environmental well-being.

Bioneer Jason Clay has continued to demonstrate the economic viability of converting the world’s major commodity crops to sustainable production. Working with shrimp aquaculture, he has shown large producers how they can simultaneously diminish environmental damage and improve profit margins. These Better Management Practices (BMPs) pay for themselves in two to three years. One of the lessons is that these practices have a social dimension. In Latin America, he has found that shrimp producers can have four times the yields and profits when workers are given bonuses and incentives to better manage feed use, which itself is a major source of pollution. Investors now see these BMP-based screens as a way to reduce financial risks. The marriage of ecology, economy, and economic justice pays off. Jason is now gearing up for model demonstration projects with oil palm, soy, cocoa, orange juice, and sugar.

John Todd’s unique work with “living machines” has also continued to blossom in entrepreneurial ventures. He has been working to convert the South Burlington, Vermont, living machine from sewage treatment to an agro-eco-industrial park. Using wastes from a brewery, it will act as a farm to grow vegetables, fish, and flowers, and to produce new crops for pet foods, thus serving as a model of bioenterprise. In Maryland, he is working with a large food producer to use his unique floating pond restorers to turn chicken wastes into beneficial food webs, instead of suffocating Chesapeake Bay.

John’s richly simulated solar ecosystems are now successfully treating “wastes”– i.e. cycling nutrients–from wineries and breweries in California. A dazzling living machine graces the new Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin College in Ohio, a state-of-the-art facility designed by McDonough in collaboration with the Lovins. Treating all the facility’s sewage, the system runs purified water outside to nourish the Midwestern prairie and woodlands. The Center serves as a focal point for educating people about what is already possible in ecological building. One of the elders of biomimicry, John currently teaches as a Distinguished Professor of Ecological Design at the University of Vermont, a singular program in the country, bringing these ideas to new generations of designers.

Agriculture is also on the cusp of transformation, marked by a steady transition to organic and sustainable practices. The organic food market is racing ahead at 20 percent growth a year in the U.S., highlighting the ardent public hunger for a safe and nutritious food supply. Over 40 percent of food production in Austria is currently organic. Pending legislation in Britain would push organic production to 30 percent by 2010; demand is so great there that 80 percent of organic foods must currently be imported. The city of Munich, Germany pays farmers in the watershed that supplies its drinking water to farm organically. The future is organic.

Farmer, philosopher, and farm policy specialist Fred Kirschenmann, whom you will meet in these pages, has gone to seed. With good reason. Though few people realize it, organic foods are not grown from organic seeds. An arcane statute permits U.S. farmers to use nonorganic strains if a sufficient supply of organic seeds is not available. This Catch-22 has discouraged the growth of an organic seed sector.

Witnessing the stealth-food takeover of U.S. farming by genetically modified seeds, Fred helped launch a seminal counteroffensive through his Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society. With several other groups, they are working to ramp up organic seed production for farmers. Similar to the model used by Vandana Shiva and the Indian seed movement (described here as well), the plan is to generate a green necklace of loosely connected regional organic seed cooperatives. But because virtually all current agricultural seeds are hybrid varieties designed to grow with petrochemical inputs, Fred has also brought diversity into the equation, reviving traditional varieties and breeding new ones specifically adapted to organic cultivation and local ecologies.

The virtue of organic diversity is not merely aesthetic. A recent experiment in China found that planting two varieties of rice instead of a uniform monoculture doubled the yield and virtually eliminated its most devastating disease—without the use of any chemicals and without costing more. This was not backyard stuff—the experiment took place across 100,000 acres on tens of thousands of commercial farms. Similar practices are being tried with barley in Europe and coffee in Colombia.

Fred recently became director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa, where he can disseminate these kinds of models and ideas more widely (www.leopold.iastate.edu). The center’s mission is to promote on-the-ground research that will mitigate the damage of current agricultural practices and promote alternatives. Early efforts on stream restoration around farms were so effective that both the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture have become involved to create a national demonstration site. Fred also continues to manage his large biodynamic farm.

Vandana Shiva’s activities have also continued to bear fruit. Despite the ongoing onslaught of corporate agribusiness ravaging traditional Indian farmers, community seed cooperatives are thriving in ever-widening circles of grassroots diversity. Indian activists launched a successful challenge against the patent on the neem tree granted to a giant multinational corporation. An icon of Indian botanical culture, the neem is considered part of the people’s collective heritage dating back thousands of years. Vandana herself has stepped even more prominently onto the world stage to redress such critical issues of biopiracy and the theft of traditional knowledge. Following the Seattle uprising, she was invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where she had the ear of globalization advocates, who now are listening.

Steven King’s Shaman Pharmaceuticals found out the hard way that drug development is a jungle. A series of setbacks, including prohibitive costs and incessant regulatory delays, forced the enterprise to reconstitute itself as an herb company. Given fierce disagreement in the botanical community about the value of a single “active ingredient” adapted for a drug distinct from the complex chemical synergy of the whole plant, it may be for the best. Perhaps this is what the plants wanted all along.

Organic greenhouse master Anna Edey compiled her wealth of knowledge into a book, Solviva: How to Grow $500,000 on an Acre and Peace on Earth. Jennifer Greene, following her recuperation from a serious car accident, is back in the flow of water restoration. Don Hammer retired after thirty years as a Johnny Appleseed of constructed wetlands, leaving a glistening green legacy of purified water and habitat for critters. Josh Mailman is still seeding visionary enterprises with adventure capital funds. Kat Harrison has taken her teaching on the road, bringing enchanted stories of living ethnobotany to audiences from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy to the Boston Museum of Science.

Finally, John Perkins’s Dream Change Coalition has spread its vision of an earth-honoring dream beyond the Amazon and Andes with shamanic workshops in Africa, Europe, the Himalayas, Siberia, and Central America. Each year the group sponsors a “Gathering of Shamans” at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. John also put together a book of rare interviews with his Shuar allies, Spirit of the Shuar: Wisdom from the Last Unconquered People of the Amazon. He is now organizing to change the dream in schools across the U.S.

The Bioneers Conference has grown and prospered. The 800 attendees in 1997 swelled to over 2,600 in 2000. The voices of the Bioneers now reach millions of listeners through “Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature,” an international radio series, and through articles and conference excerpts distributed in the print media. The Bioneers Web site (www.bioneers.org) provides access to solutions and strategies for people working for restoration around the world.

Bioneers is not a spectator sport. Virtually all who attend the conference are actively engaged in restoration. If the Bioneers community is any kind of indicator, we’re likely to see a resurgence of activism–people acting on their values–as problems intensify and solutions become more widely known. It’s up to all of us to help this earth-honoring dream come true.

A Declaration of Interdependence

Early in the 20th century, naturalist Aldo Leopold shared some of his greatest insights about nature and human culture: “All ethics so far evolved rest on a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him to cooperate. A land ethic then reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but don’t understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”[iii]

At this critical moment in the fate of the earth, we have an extraordinary opportunity to work with nature to heal nature, and ourselves with it. What we are learning above all is the intricate interconnectedness of living systems. Listening to nature is providing us with the antidotes, especially a deep capacity for self-repair. The overarching enterprise of restoration is one of healing.

James Lovelock, who developed the Gaia Hypothesis that the earth is an intelligent, self-organizing kind of superorganism, recently reflected on how he now sees this vision evolving. “Gaia theory sees the biota and the rocks, the air and the oceans as existing as a tightly coupled entity. Gaia’s evolution is a single process and not several processes studied in different buildings of universities. It has a profound significance for biology. It affects even Darwin’s great vision, for it may no longer be sufficient to say that organisms that leave the most progeny will succeed. It will be necessary to add the proviso that they can do so only so long as they do not adversely affect the environment.

“A geophysical system always begins with the action of a single organism. If this action happens to be locally beneficial to the environment, then it can spread until eventually a global altruism results. The reverse is also true, and any species that affects the environment unfavorably is doomed, but life goes on. Gaia works from an act of an individual organism that develops into global altruism.”[iv]

Gaia’s biological logic now appears to be playing out through the human species, and not a moment too soon. Mounting numbers of people are awakening to the reality that what is good for Gaia is good for us.

Coming Home to the Earth

After an aching divorce from a long-term marriage, I was sure I would never wed again. Then I met Nina. We fell madly in love. Four years later, we were still going strong. I reconsidered. Why let an old wound hobble the fullness of our love together?

We didn’t want an off-the-shelf ceremony, so we decided to create something more personal, to make it ours. Instead of exchanging traditional vows, we would trade “wows.” We agreed not to share them until the ceremony itself, in the intimate company of many of our dearest friends and relations. As the day grew near, I was seized by nameless, formless terror.

I spilled out my quaking fear to a close friend over lunch. He flashed a coyote grin and reared back with laughter. Any truly transformational experience is preceded by dread, he counseled me.

To work, the changes demanded of us today must be transformational. There are many deep wounds to heal, not least those of the human spirit, which is as capable of creation as of destruction. We know from restoring ecosystems that they rebound with vitality and strength when given encouragement. You get what you give.

A wedding of sorts beckons us today: the consecration of our renewed wows with the natural world. The Bioneers herald for this new century and millennium a Declaration of Interdependence, a celebration of the sacred recognition that we are the trees, the land, the water, the whales, the redwoods, the mushrooms, the microbes.

How very fortunate we are to get to come home at last.

 

The Bioneers

Declarations of Interdependence
by Kenny Ausubel
The Bioneers are inspirational role models demonstrating that individuals can make a positive difference toward creating a sustainable future -- on the ground, in communities, in corporate boardrooms, and in the corridors of government.

 

paper  :  6 x 9  :  288 pages
ISBN 1890132764  :  $16.95

 

website: http://www.chelseagreen.com/Nature/Bioneers.htm



[i] Janine Benyus, speech at the 1997 Bioneers conference.

[ii] Nicholas Wade, “For Leaf-Cutter Ants, Farm Life Isn’t So Simple,” New York Times, 3 August 1999.

[iii] From “The Land Ethic,” passim, in Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949).

[iv] James Lovelock, “Gaia as Seen through the Atmosophere: The Earth as a Living Organism,” in The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader, Paul R. Samson and David Pitt, eds. (London: Routledge, 1999), 119.

 

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