Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 23, 2008

Learning from nature at Bioneers

Last weekend, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman and a 59-person group of enthusiastic environmentalists road-tripped down to Carbondale, Ill., to have their minds blown by the 19th annual Bioneers. The trip was sponsored by Deans Romano, Bailey, and Breitborde.

Nina Simon, president and co-founder of Bioneers, describes the event as a “network of networks.” Each year, leading innovators in diverse environmental fields such as biomimicry, indigenous peoples and farm workers’ rights, renewable energy, and green commerce gather in San Rafael, Calif. to present a weekend of speeches and workshops. The conference is broadcast by satellite to sites across the country: the Knox contingent drove six hours down to Carbondale, Ill., to watch it at Southern Illinois University.

The turnout made me appreciate Knox’s growing eco-culture: almost no students from SIU came to the speeches. One downside of SIU students’ lack of interest was that, in contrast to last year’s conference held at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, there were not many post-plenary events and discussions to speak of. However, their interfaith center graciously loaned us the use of their kitchen, so we cooked a meal together and took naps during our downtime.

Many students, particularly the ones who attended Bioneers last year, were somewhat disappointed by the speakers this year as well. Last year’s speakers included the fearless Winona LaDuke, indigenous seed sovereignty activist and Ralph Nader’s running mate in 1996 and 2000, the badass Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day, a foundation working to end violence against women and girls, and the inspiring Van Jones, a major trailblazer in creating green jobs for at-risk youths in California and my optimistic pick for 2009 graduation speaker. This year’s speakers had a bent towards business: Christine Loh, an expert on business and economics in China, talked about how China’s “development imperative” will affect the climate, Naomi Klein summarized her new book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, and a guy named Rick Reed whose speech about organizing businesses to be eco-friendly I couldn’t really follow, partially because I didn’t get it and partially because he brought the wrong PowerPoint presentation with him. What they had to say was interesting, to be sure, but I at least missed the grassroots feel of last year.

The weekend did have some highlights. Dubbed as the new Rachel Carson, Sandra Steingraber, who spoke last week at Knox, delivered a powerful speech about that dangerous chemicals, illegal in most of the western world but not in the United States, drastically affect our health. Steingraber, who suffered from bladder cancer in college, learned days before her presentation at Bioneers that a recent biopsy she got after receiving some abnormal test results had come back cancer-free. She spoke of how cancer runs strongly in her family, even though she’s adopted, and told us that her mining hometown has statistically elevated rates for the kind of cancers that result from chemicals in the environment. Studies have shown that an adopted child’s risk of getting cancer depends more on their adoptive family’s history than that of their biological family, a result of carcinogens in their shared environment.

The most amazing thing about Steingraber, in my mind, is her ability to be so Zen about her situation. She speaks with absolute calm about the lack of governmental regulation and foresight that gave her cancer when she was 20 years old, an injustice that would make me too angry to speak if it happened to me. Steingraber is currently trying to reach out to pro-life groups to get these chemicals banned in the United States: many of them cause not only cancer but miscarriages in pregnant women, which the medical community calls “spontaneous abortion,”

Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute, was another jaw-dropper. Her organization is making serious advances in the field of biomimicry, which looks at how nature is already solving problems humans are still working on. Her organization has developed a device shaped like giant kelp to harness energy from waves, paper-thin solar panels based on the way leaves absorb light, wind turbines shaped like whales, and an economic model shaped like the food web in a forest, where everyone’s runoff is someone else’s fuel and nothing is wasted or lost.

Benyus describes biomimicry as “a way of thinking.”

“Life’s most innovative design is that it creates conditions conducive to life,” Benyus said in her speech: basically, nature knows what it’s doing, and we humans could benefit a lot from slowing down and listening. Nina Simons aptly described it as “quieting human cleverness,” as “humbling ourselves to do as a leaf does,” and a woman with a guitar sang a song called “Ask the Planet” encouraging children to examine and appreciate nature’s intelligence. All of these presenters emphasized a need to create a culture of thankfulness for nature’s gifts: Benyus is in the process of founding Innovation for Conservation, an organization that will encourage companies that make products using biomimicry to donate a percentage of the profits to conserving the organisms that inspired them.

The Bioneers conference is a powerful experience because it takes its visitors on a weekend of extreme ups and downs. It confronts us with the harsh reality of what the human race has done to this planet and the precariousness of our position on it while illuminating the most brilliant and compassionate innovators stepping up to fix it. I look forward to next year’s conference: it will be their 20th anniversary and the first time the conference will be translated and beamed across the world.

Deana Rutherford


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