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Bioneering the Future

Marin’s Bioneers conference celebrates 25 years

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Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons, Bioneers' pioneers.
  • Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons, Bioneers' pioneers.

“Back in 1990, when we held the first Bioneers conference, it was a very different world,” says Kenny Ausubel, co-founder, with Nina Simons, of the annual get-together that brings many of the worlds greatest thinkers, scientist, authors, and social activists to Marin County for a thought-jammed, envelope-pushing weekend of intellectual and sociological idea-swapping, networking and collective dreaming of the future.

An award-winning journalist, author and filmmaker, Ausubel is the co-founder of Seeds of Change—the online organic seed retailer—and has written four books, including the recent Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature. A quarter of a century ago, while organizing the first Bioneers conference, Ausubel and Simons sought out the key players in a variety of then still-developing fields—ecological design, biomimicry, green building, localized farming systems, and more.

“You could literally count the key players in a given field on one or two hands,” says Ausubel. “Now, fast-forwarding 25 years, I can’t even keep up with one field. It’s extraordinary, the growth that’s occurred, the huge depth of experience that has been built up, by a lot of people, over this time.”

That depth of experience will be on abundant display this weekend, as the 25th Annual Bioneers Conference returns to the San Rafael Civic Center for three days of lectures, workshops, performances, forums, and conversations, bringing in speakers and thinkers from around the world. In recognition of the worldwide significance and vast influence of the Bioneers effort, the Marin County Board of Supervisors recently passed a resolution commending Ausubel and Simon for, in the words of the proclamation, “25 years of transformative work in collaboration with the community and people of Marin.”

Immediately after the presentation of resolution, Ausubel and Simons took a break at the Civic Center, talking about the changes that have affected Bioneers, and the world, over the last two-and-a-half decades.

“It used to be hard to find enough great people and amazing thinkers to program the conference with,” says Simons, former president of Seeds of Change and the co-editor of Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading From the Heart, “and now, in preparation for this year, it’s painful how many people—how many thinkers, and innovators and lectures and programs—we just can’t fit in. For every Eve Ensler we include—and she will be here this year—there are many otherwise can’t find a way to include.”

In addition to Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day and the One Billion Rising for Justice events), this year’s conference features over 50 open-to-the-public events and presentations, including appearances by author Terry Tempest Williams (author of Refuge and Finding Beauty in a Broken World), scientist Wallace J. Nichols (founder of OceanRevolution.org), Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine), Caroline Casey (host of The Visionary Activist Show on Pacifica), and Rev. Sally Bingham (founder of the first faith-based organization to recognize climate change as a moral issue).

The scope of the conference, as always, is mind-bogglingly wide, encompassing everything from climate change, overpopulation and species extinction to feminist economics, DIY technology, and philanthropic activism.

“Some people have assumed that Bioneers is all about alarmism and danger,” says Ausubel, “but over the years we’ve shown that there is as much cause for hope as for horror. I’ve been thinking back. Climate change was our primary concern, and it largely still is. Our framing then was, we have the decade of the 90s to dodge the bullet, to avert climate catastrophe and environmental collapse—so it was actually a moment of great hope, but here we are, 25 years later, climate disruption is up close and personal, and potentially going to become cataclysmic if something isn’t done pretty soon here.”

Simon agrees, pointing out that one of the major changes that’s taken place, using the example of climate change, is that what was esoteric and highly technical science-speak 25 years ago has gone mainstream. Today, though there are those who still challenge the science for political reasons, most people are aware of what it is.

“I think it’s true that a much smaller percentage of the general public were really hip to environmental concerns back then,” she says. “I think there’s much greater public awareness, and I think there’s tremendous hopefulness, particularly in people under 40, who are not only knowledgeable, but are getting very actively involved. That was not as true 25 years ago, or even 15 years ago. I think that’s a tremendously positive evolution in the course of this time.”

One of the chief by-products of the Bioneers conferences, says Ausubel, is the connections made between leaders from different modes of thinking and working.

“And from those connections,” he says, “come solutions.”

“Yes! We are interested in much more than just presenting ideas,” says Simon. “We are looking for ways to move those ideas into action.”

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