In a school of 1,300 students, an event with an attendance of more than 20 is a big deal. So what does that say about a weekend long conference, six hours away in which 65 students attend? It says Knox College students are passionate about something. That something happens to be the current global environmental movement.
This past weekend, 65 Knox College students, led by Environmental Studies Department Chair Peter Schwartzman, piled into buses and headed to Louisville, Kentucky for a conference called Bioneers. The Louisville location is a satellite base of the real conference, which takes place in San Manuel, California.
Prominent, energetic, emotional, and monumental leaders in the environmental movement are asked to speak at the Bioneers location in California, then beamed to 19 satellite locations throughout the US.
The conference we attended was held at the University of Louisville in its planetarium and other surrounding campus buildings. From 10 a.m. to noon each day we attended two small seminars lead by local leaders. Multiple seminars were offered at each time slot so that everyone could find a topic of interest.
Topics included local food systems, environmental justice, green journalism, organic agriculture and green architecture. Many had an emphasis on coal production and mountaintop removal, since as Kentucky deals with the direct results of this practice.
From noon to 4 p.m. we came back together to watch the “live” feed speakers from California. For many, this is the highlight of the conference.
There were 15 speakers in total, each bringing to the conference a different aspect of this one movement.
The most prominent speakers this year included Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff (a 20 minute video on “stuff”- check it out on YouTube).
Other speakers included Brock Dolman, who spoke about water, Andrew Weil, who discussed the connection between human and environmental health, Lily Yeh, who spoke about the transformative power of art in impoverished countries, and Chief Almir Surui of the Surui tribe in Brazil, whose community is fighting to protect their home, the Amazon rainforest.
Reactions of Knox students from the varying speakers reflect the powerful impacts of their words.
Junior Brett Daley said, “Every time a speaker spoke about our effect on the next generation of people, images of my nephew and niece popped into my head and I began to cry because we often forget about what is important in life.”
Senior Kevin Quirk said, “I was really impressed with Jerome Ringo. He was not afraid of facing and talking about the controversial issues. His understanding of the necessity of change resonated with me.”
Personally, Annie Leonard’s speech was the most powerful. She spoke practically and directly, not using soft, pretty words or skirting around the main issue. Leonard spoke about her passion, which is, literally, garbage, and our obsession with “stuff.”
She related it to statistics that show the US as the 114th happiest country out of 140 countries ranked. We’re below all of the South American countries, all the Asian countries, and almost all of the European countries.
These facts begged questions in my mind about what we’re doing wrong, how we got here, if it’s possible to change. But Annie also spoke about the statistic that shows 70 percent of Americans are now sympathetic to environmental issues.
“That’s enough,” she said, “There’s an understanding, an acknowledgement in seven out of 10 people that something is wrong and has to be changed.”
This powerful statement made me realize, when so often I feel hopeless, that now there is physical hope in the sense of having enough people to do everything we have been talking about.
This reemergence of hope is part of the powerful impact of Bioneers.
Junior Ben Boor commented, “Bioneers was beautiful. I saw a synthesis of art, science, social justice, and economics […] Bioneers was another affirmation of human potential for me, and a reminder to serve.”
Senior Abby Pardick said, “The conference really is a time to recharge [ . . .] Hearing about so many other organizations and what they are doing is really a great motivation to come back to Galesburg and campus to get things done.”
Many other students echoed these feelings of inspiration, new hope, and recharged energy. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the fact that Bioneers is also a draining experience and makes you reflect on what’s wrong or needs change in your life.
Sophomore Annika Paulsen said, “As inspiring as the weekend was, it was also frustrating. Bioneers made me realize how much further we have to go, especially at Knox […] Every area of the campus can be improved.”
While the seminars and speakers took up most of the time, some was still left for entertainment and leisure.
The conference hosted a blue grass band Friday night, followed by a light show in the planetarium to the tunes of Pink Floyd.
We also walked through some of the surrounding historical neighborhoods of Louisville, enjoying the exploration of a place outside Galesburg. Camping was also to be had, albeit wet camping, in one of Kentucky’s hilly fall-colored state parks.
The Bioneers weekend taught us practical environmental applications for our lives as well as presented new ideas and successful changes that people are making. It generated excitement, energy, and a new urgency for action. It also made us sing, dance, and cry together. Sixty-five Knox students became “Bioneers” this year. How many students will become “Bioneers” next year?