FREE SPEECH ZONE | O Bioneers: A Conference Highlighting Innovations at the Psychological Frontier of the Next Human Era


Bioneers Founder Kenny Ausubel coined the word bioneers in 1990 to describe an emerging culture of social and scientific innovators who are mimicking nature¹s operating instructions to serve human ends while enriching the web of life. Bioneers take a “solve-the-whole-problem” approach: taking care of nature means taking care of people – and taking care of people means taking care of nature. This year the national Bioneers Conference was held in San Rafael, California from October 15-17.

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One week later, Northland Bioneers featured recorded speakers from the national conference at their regional conference. Environmentally-concerned citizens from Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota gathered at the University of Minnesota during the fourth weekend of October to connect, learn, focus and shift living on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations. The pre-recorded national plenary speakers were bookended with local live workshops, breakout sessions and keynotes. All were related to innovations for reversing climate change, environmental degradation and our uncertain human future.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself at my first Northland Bioneers conference this year. Finally, at the prodding of friends and Eureka Recycling I gave up at autumn weekend. And, I was pleasantly surprised, inspired, awed and recharged. [1]

By our actions, each of us is writing the story of the next era. In his Northland Bioneer keynote, Dr. Jonathan Foley reminded us that the demands on our earth systems are largely caused by our hugely successful human story; the industrial age led to an exponential expansion of humans on earth. As a result, our consumption of food, fossil fuels, minerals and forests could lead to the Great Unraveling, which would likely include mass extinction, loss of biodiversity and billions of people living in slums. Many national and Northland Bioneers presented options to move us toward an alternative scenario in which humans respond and change collectively causing the Great Turning.

Highlights of some Bioneers featured in this year’s conference–


Chief Almir Narayomoga Surui described his people’s struggles to survive by protecting their culture and rainforest since they made first contact with the Western World in 1969. The Surui people are partnering with Google Earth to tell their story and protect their forests and culture.

Corporate Rights & Community Sovereignty

Mari Margil assisted small communities in the U.S. with stopping long wall coal mining. These communities passed ordinances after her organization, CELDF, conducted Democracy School in these communities. They effectively stopped corporate “rights” from asserting dominance over the rights of communities. CELDF is helping us learn that we can effectively recognize the “rights of nature” in our laws.

Conservation Psychology

Professors Christie Manning, Elise Amel & Britain Scott described how conservation and eco-psychology have much to teach us about framing environmental concerns so that we will be motivated to engage in sustainable behaviors. We learned how energy companies make hidden information visible and the effect of technology on human behavior that makes real time energy consumption visible. We learned about studies showing how engagement with nature helps build an ecological identity and promotes “biophilia” or love of nature. Because modern life creates “nature deficit disorder” we must consciously reconnect and participate in nature by learning basic earth living skills that were commonly known by humans in previous eras.

Green Hip Hop

Kari Fulton is a dynamic young leader in the Youth Climate Movement. She is connecting the story of hip hop with the story of environmental justice through her “Green the Block” program. These efforts create a more unified and inclusive environmental movement for the 21st century.

The Inner Landscape

JoAnna Macy warmly reminds us that “we live in a time of radical uncertainty: the darkness of our age.” Among the gifts of uncertainty are (1) the present moment; (2) a fresh recognition of the power of intention; (3) an understanding of the immensity of time and our true age; (4) the courage to feel grief, outrage, raw fear and a resistance to pathologization of those feelings and (5) solidarity.

Food, Agriculture & Health

Michael Pollan summed up our food problems: “We are eating [petroleum] oil and spewing greenhouse gases. … Our health care crisis is a euphemism for the broken agricultural system. … Can we feed the world sustainably? … we need to try.” Michael Pollan reminded us of Gandhi’s hard learned wisdom: First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.

Making Green Technology Affordable

Jack Hidary provided sobering numbers showing that the greening of technology is not ramping up fast enough. There are only 108 megawatts of solar power for every 371,000 megawatts of power produced. Less than 1% of the 800 million cars in the world are electric or hybrid. One solution is a financing program.  Municipalities provide low cost loans, payable over 20 years, to help people ramp up their purchase of green technology. Will the PACE program come to your city, county or state?

Living Buildings

Jason McLennan helped establish a third part green building rating system that is more stringent than LEED. Through the Living Building Challenge designers are encouraged to design beautiful buildings that mimic nature.  Find more information about his talk here.

Stuff, The Life Cycle of Consumerism

Annie Leonard cited the Happy Planet Index to describe how consumerism and stuff do not make us happy in the U.S. The U.S. ranks 114 out of 140 countries for happiness. Her 20-minute film, “The Story of Stuff” has been viewed by 3 million people and shows how our unhappiness is directly linked to our struggle with stuff. The unwanted attention of Fox News and Glenn Beck has taught her to view their attacks like those of the caterpillar’s immune response against the imaginal cells of the developing butterfly.

Stuff, Zero Waste and Incineration

Susan Hubbard, co-president of conference sponsor Eureka Recycling reminded us that stuff is not the problem, rather it is our relationship to the stuff and our belief that it makes us happy. The truth, she says, is we feel safer and more comfortable when we have more than we can fit in our closets and cupboards. Until we deal with our emotional attachment to our stuff we can’t really address our environmental problems with garbage. She also illuminated the burning issue for the Twin Cities: the HERC incinerator expansion. Incinerators cause asthma in downwind neighborhoods and communities. HERC is the garbage burner next to the new outdoor baseball stadium that is to be expanded from burning 1,000 tons to 1,212 tons of garbage per day. Get more information here.

Water, Water, Everywhere?

Brock Dolman exclaims that on this climate changing earth, the watershed is our lifeboat! As we anticipate climate change, we must prepare for rain coming less often in larger weather events. We must learn to slow it, spread it, and sink it.

The Elephant in the Room: World Population Growth

Panelist Karen I. Shragg, Ph.D. would love to be wrong about the earth’s carrying capacity. On framing the population problem as a sustainability issue she said, “The Road to unsustainability is paved with good intentions.” Ed Barry, designer of the Sustainable Living Planner and an advisor to the Population Institute, surmises that “the current scale of human activity is unsustainable and admits that “the human population factor must be addressed in order to sustain a more ecologically sustainable future.” David Paxson reminded us that 9,000 people are added to the planet every hour. In helping us face the population problem he quoted Aldous Huxley, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored,” and James Arthur Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”


Andrew Weil exclaimed to wild applause that “we need to debate health care, not health insurance” and “we don’t have a health care system, we have a disease management system.” He gave practical advice, suggesting consuming each day 3 grams of fish oil (EPA & DHA) and 2,000 mg of Vitamin D3 with a fat containing meal.

Women’s Voices Amplified

Jensine Larsen overcame the painful shyness of her childhood in rural Wisconsin and went global with Pulse Wire, a global citizen media source covering world issues through women’s eyes. As her team builds World Pulse, women all over the world become empowered. On how women are the answer to our global crises, she says, “When women are freed from rape, they will be freed up to prevent the rape of the earth.”

Northland Bioneers Inspires!

Consider attending the Northland Bioneers Conference next year. You won’t regret it!


[1] I have only one criticism. The attendees were mostly of European descent and some questions and comments hinted at covert unintentional racism. In the future we will benefit ourselves and our efforts by including anti-racist learning opportunities in the Bioneers weekend, such as this [] OR this.