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An American Revolution

Humanity’s most important era is coming; Bioneers founder Kenny Ausubel is making it happen

October 12, 2011, 12:00 am

 Fifteen minutes into what began as a relatively run-of-the-mill interview, Kenny Ausubel drops a bombshell.

“I don’t usually make predictions,” he says—the type of statement interviewees consider a cautionary disclaimer, but which reporters tend to gleefully exploit—“but I think probably the next six or so years are the six most important years in the history of human civilization.”


“I think we’re undergoing a fundamental civilizational shift, and this is pretty much the keyhole,” Ausubel continues. “Either we make it or we don’t, but this is the choice point.”

As the founder and co-CEO of Bioneers—a local nonprofit dedicated to finding solutions to the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems, and whose tagline is “Revolution from the Heart of Nature”—Ausubel has an undeniable stake in the revolution he predicts. In fact, he’s been trying to foment it for years.

So what has changed?

“The next six or so years are the six most important years in the history of human civilization.”

Ausubel meanders through a list—the Earth’s climate, the natural world, the American political system, the global economy. And perhaps most importantly, humanity’s perception of each of these shifting realities has changed, too.

“The Earth will be just fine,” Ausubel says. “The Earth has at least a billion years to go before the sun explodes, and the Earth has been through many changes, with—and mostly without—us.”

He pauses. His slight build almost seems to quiver with excitement. Since 1990, when he founded Bioneers, Ausubel has advocated immediate, sweeping change.

“It’s really about saving ourselves,” he concludes. “We’re entering an enormous period of creative destruction. What we have been doing is simply not working and not going to work, and the contradictions are too severe—and so it’s now up to us to make those changes.”

Overhauling human civilization may sound daunting, but Ausubel—who despite his upbeat personality is a self-described pessimist—isn’t scared. Revolution is exactly what he’s been waiting for.

As part of a panel at a recent conference of mayors, Ausubel says, five Chinese mayors “were literally trying to out-compete each other for who’s greener. My jaw was on the floor.”

Ausubel was born and raised in New York, the son of a Columbia University professor and a mother who worked at Variety, the entertainment magazine. (The magazine announced his 1949 birth—“my first credit!” Ausubel jokes.)

The family spent summers at Martha’s Vineyard “before it was cool,” he says; Ausubel and his brother “lived outdoors,” exploring the island with bicycles and fishing poles.

“I didn’t realize until many, many years later the profound impact or influence that had on me, but I’ve always been very connected to being outside,” Ausubel says.

The events of the 1960s—the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests—would further influence him. (In 1968, Columbia became a focal point of both movements when student protesters took over portions of the campus.)

Kenny Ausubel has spent two decades trying
to effect the kind of change now emerging
in the US and abroad.

But Ausubel’s life took a dramatic turn when he was in college: He suffered a “real medical crisis,” resembling a stroke. Though the origin of the illness has never been fully confirmed, Ausubel says doctors concluded it was the result of “some kind of huge chemical exposure” through his environment.

Ultimately, Ausubel realized he had to leave New York, and in 1974, he migrated with his first wife to Santa Fe.

“The minute I hit the ground here, it was home,” Ausubel says. “I just loved this place.”

At first, he worked odd jobs—including a stint as a writer for the Reporter—but soon moved to a small farm in Chimayó.

“I really kind of felt like an idiot because I’d grown up in the city—my parents literally never even had a houseplant, and we never even had a garden or anything like that,” Ausubel recalls.

Still, he muddled through, learning to farm New Mexico soil from local families and “back-to-the-landers” in the neighborhood. Gradually, his health improved, in part due to a growing interest in natural medicine—“not out of any philosophical bias, but because conventional medicine was simply unable to help me,” Ausubel says.

The 1970s also heralded the beginning of the country’s first truly national environmental movement. Ausubel, having experienced firsthand the potentially harmful effects of environmental contamination, got on board.

“I wanted to know, given what’s going on with this looming environmental crisis, what could we do about it? That’s the basic question,” Ausubel says. “And so I just began—partly as a citizen, really, and partly as a journalist—to poke around and see who was out there that might have some real solutions.”

As a journalist, he explored tensions between the conventional medical community and alternative therapy clinics in books and films; his writings on the environment, social justice and alternative medicine would later make it into the pages of Tikkun, Utne Reader and the Huffington Post.

In the late 1980s, Ausubel’s path shifted again. Working on a film near Ohkay Owingeh, he met master organic gardener Gabriel Howearth.

Despite six years of farming in Chimayó, Ausubel says, “I had never seen biodiversity in the garden, and it totally blew my mind. It was extraordinary.”

In Howearth’s garden, Ausubel learned for the first time about quinoa and amaranth; he saw more varieties of tomatoes than he could have imagined.

“I wanted to know, given what’s going on with this looming environmental crisis, what could we do about it? That’s the basic question.”

“What I learned was that variety’s not the spice of life; diversity’s actually the fabric of life,” Ausubel says. “It’s the way things are meant to be. It’s a failsafe mechanism against extinction; it’s the deck of options you have when things change—which is the only constant in nature, is change.”

In 1989, when Ausubel finished the film, he and Howearth cofounded Seeds of Change, an organic food and seed company that rapidly acquired a devoted following.

Through his journalistic forays into alternative therapy and Seeds of Change’s focus on diversity and the environmental crisis, Ausubel began to form a nature-centric worldview.

“Historically, our society and our civilization have looked at nature as an object and as a physical resource,” Ausubel explains. “The shift that’s happening now is instead to look at nature as a mentor and a model and a teacher.”

But even the mentor needs help—which was where Ausubel’s enthusiasm for nature-based healing came in.

“That really became the underlying epiphany for me around Bioneers: Just like our bodies, the Earth has a profound capacity for healing, for self-repair, that we barely understand,” Ausubel explains. “Our role, in a way, is to work with nature to heal nature—to help Nature heal itself. And that became the most fundamental premise.”

As is the way in Santa Fe, though, “the true story” of Bioneers begins at a spa.

Bioneers has two primary goals: “Connect people with solutions by popularizing breakthrough ideas and practices” and “Grow social capital by catalyzing, connecting and strengthening strategic networks, including bioregional and community-based alliances.”

“I was sitting around with [philanthropist Joshua Mailman] up at Ten Thousand Waves, and I was, I guess, ranting and raving about all these amazing people who had these incredible solutions to major environmental problems that nobody’s ever heard of,” Ausubel says. “He kind of looks at me and says, ‘Why don’t you have a conference?’”

At first, Ausubel says, the idea didn’t take.

“I’d literally never been to a conference in my life and thought it sounded intensely boring,” he says, laughing.

But Mailman convinced him—and funded the first conference with a $10,000 grant. Together with his second wife, Nina Simons, who has a background in theater and production, Ausubel began planning the first Bioneers conference.

That first conference, held in 1990 in Santa Fe, attracted approximately 250 people from fields pertaining to biodiversity, ecology, alternative medicine and progressive politics.

“It was an experiment; I mean, we really didn’t know what would happen,” Ausubel says. “I just knew that there were these amazing people with great work…and within a couple of hours, it was just electrifying.”

Nina Simons, who co-founded Bioneeers with
her husband, Kenny Ausubel, now heads the
Cultivating Women’s Leadership campaign.

By 1993, the conference had outgrown its Santa Fe origins, and Ausubel and Simons opted to move it to California. Though their main focus was still Seeds of Change, Ausubel says the energy and excitement he saw in Bioneers began to demand their full attention.

In 1994, Ausubel and Simons left Seeds of Change—three years before the company would be acquired by food giant Mars Inc.—to devote their undivided attention to Bioneers.

“Bioneers,” according to the organization’s website, are “social and scientific innovators from all walks of life and disciplines who have peered deep into the heart of living systems to understand how nature operates, and to mimic ‘nature’s operating instructions’ to serve human ends without harming the web of life.”

It’s a wordy, amorphous definition—but one that has also accommodated the organization’s multidirectional, occasionally haphazard growth. (A better understanding can probably be gleaned from Bioneers’ tagline, “Revolution from the Heart of Nature.” If it’s revolutionary, and it has something to do with nature, then it fits, more or less.)

After the first few conferences, Bioneers grew into a full-fledged organization. Under its official name, the Collective Heritage Institute, Bioneers incorporated as a domestic nonprofit in June 1995. In general, Ausubel says, Bioneers has always played the role of networker: connecting innovators to one another through conferences and other programming.

Many Bioneers programs focus on “biomimicry,” the practice of emulating nature in order to solve human and societal problems.

“A lot of our job is to promote the work of other people, honestly, and it’s a privilege for us to get to do that,” Ausubel says.

Still, merely helping forge connections—such as introducing Michael Pollan to Joel Salatin, the organic farmer who served as a primary protagonist in Pollan’s food policy book The Omnivore’s Dilemma—wasn’t always enough.

In late 1997, Ausubel says, Bioneers nearly dissolved.

“We had a $10,000 shortfall, which, at that time, was enough to put us out of business,” he says, laughing at the memory. But an unsolicited donor came to the rescue with a five-year, $1 billion grant. The organization used the money as a springboard to start an award-winning radio series, “Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature,” and various media outreach programs including “Beaming Bioneers,” which disseminates webcasts from its conference to remote locations around the country.

Today, in addition to its annual conference, Bioneers also runs several programs dedicated to “making a difference” in a range of areas: education, food and farming, indigenous cultures, women’s leadership, youth unity and Dreaming New Mexico, a project aimed at rethinking the state’s food systems, culture and economy.

To Ausubel, these programs represent the organization’s evolution from networker to actor—a response, he says, to a growing sense of urgency about the state of nature and the world.

“Five or six years ago, it was very clear that things were going downhill fast, and so we started off in some new directions,” Ausubel says.

Dreaming New Mexico is among the most innovative of these new directions.

After interviewing stakeholders from a broad range of professions (farmers, public officials, teachers, businesspeople, etc.), the project’s coordinators crafted one comprehensive map of the state’s food system and another exploring its renewable energy resources [news, March 10, 2010: “Living the Dream”].

The project has won acclaim, placing respectively as runner-up and semifinalist in the 2009 and 2011 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, which awards $100,000 to a project or strategy with “significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.”

Bioneers’ women’s leadership campaign, under Simons’ direction, has also pursued creative solutions by sponsoring its own programming to involve women in global change (see Women in Charge at the end of the article).

In recent years, the organization has made a more concerted focus on education, Ausubel says, as more and more educators and students showed up at the annual conferences.

“The educational system at large is one of the big leverage points for change, not just because it’s where our future leaders come from, and a lot of good research, but because those institutions have a lot of clout in society,” Ausubel says.

In order to capitalize on both the resources and the influence inherent in the education system, Bioneers worked to develop a network whereby educators and other stakeholders collectively set goals and work together toward long-term change.

“Networks are nature’s primary form of organization, and so what we’re starting to do now, for the first time, is to proactively activate those networks,” Ausubel says. “Bioneers grew up to be a de facto network of networks, but I was sitting around thinking about all this last year, and I realized we’ve never done anything with that.”

The resulting Education for Action Network will debut at this year’s Bioneers conference, held Oct. 14-16 in San Rafael, Calif.

Still, for all its good intentions, Bioneers has come under occasional fire for what some consider an unrealistic approach to social change.

In a 2006 column for environmental website Grist, journalist Gregory Dicum described the Bioneers conference as “elitist” and “self-congratulatory (yet one more forum where people go on about change being in the air, a new world being born…in defiance of all evidence).”

Indeed: A one-day pass to the live auditorium at this year’s Bioneers conference costs $175; a one-day pass to closed-circuit TV screenings of the conference costs $95.

And despite Ausubel’s assertion that this year’s conference marks the beginning of revolutionary social change, he has made similar statements in the past.

“What’s going on in Occupy Wall Street right now is just the tip of the iceberg.”

At the 2005 Bioneers conference, for instance, Ausubel told the crowd that the environmental/social justice mission embodied by Bioneers was “the biggest movement in the history of the world,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

But even Dicum, in his 2006 article, went on to say that Bioneers nonetheless succeeded in being “inspirational and moving.” Further, the notion that change is afoot no longer defies all evidence.

On July 13, the nonprofit magazine Adbusters issued a call to occupy Wall Street.

“On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months,” the magazine exhorted readers in a blog post.

Two months later, the protests began. As of press time, they had spread across the country and beyond, including here in Santa Fe (news, October 12, 2011: "Pre-occupied"). After various unions gave their support to the protesters, their numbers swelled to tens of thousands of people.

To Ausubel, it’s evidence that the tide of consciousness is shifting.

“Today, the wealth inequality is even greater than in the gilded age of the robber barons, which is hard to even wrap your mind around,” Ausubel says. “I think that what’s going on in Occupy Wall Street right now is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Back in 1976, two years after Ausubel first moved to New Mexico, his brother took a job in Washington, DC, at the National Academy of Sciences. Through their conversations, Ausubel started learning about global warming—the existence of which was confirmed in NASA physicist James E Hansen’s 1988 testimony before Congress.

“We knew what was on the horizon,” Ausubel says. “When we started Bioneers, in 1990, it actually looked like the country was awakening.”

Global warming—and the need to halt its progress—was front-page news, Ausubel recalls, referencing Time magazine’s 1989 Person of the Year issue, which featured a polluted Earth on the cover.

Needless to say, the revolution didn’t happen.

“Hansen and company hoped to provoke a national reaction—and they did, but it came from Exxon Mobil and the oil and gas industry, who spent 20 years creating climate denial, sowing doubt,” Ausubel says. “We’ve lost these critical two decades; now, it’s too late to prevent all this stuff. We’re gonna be scrambling just to adapt.”
(“Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent,” Hansen told the National Press Club in 2008, two decades after his original testimony.

“The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb.”)

Ausubel points to the catastrophic summer of 2011 as evidence that the proverbial time bomb is ticking.

Wildfires raged across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado; floods plagued the Midwest; hurricanes migrated as far north as New York; no region of the country seemed immune.

Ausubel says that “physical reality” is slowly convincing people that it’s time to rethink the interplay between humanity and the natural world—which, in his view, should never have been separated.

But the real revolution, he says, will come down to something much more concrete: jobs.

“Both Europe and China have seen this next industrial revolution and the green economy,” Ausubel says. “Europe explicitly has said they want to capture 25 percent of the global green products market by 2020, and they’re on track to do that. China is seizing the high ground on clean energy, building giant research institutions that will rapidly outstrip anything going on here,” he continues. “What the US faces is actually, ultimately, a business competitiveness issue. If we don’t get with the program here, we’re never going to catch up. We’re just going to sink like a stone.”

Bob Dylan lyrics aside, the times are changing—and not just according to the Occupy Wall Street contingent.

“What the US faces is actually, ultimately, a business competitiveness issue. If we don’t get with the program here, we’re never going to catch up. We’re just going to sink like a stone.”

Ausubel points to US Marine Corps Col. Mark “Puck” Myckleby as an example of the broader awareness of global climate issues: Myckleby will present at this year’s Bioneers conference on “the relationship of climate change and energy use to national security,” according to the conference program.

The US military, Ausubel adds, has committed to a goal of using 50 percent renewable energy by 2020.

“The military’s going green,” Ausubel shrugs, grinning. What’s more, he says, its concept of national security relies upon less centralized—and therefore less vulnerable—food and energy systems.

In short, Ausubel says, “All the things we’ve been talking about for a couple decades are now being talked about in the highest levels of the military.”

That could be part of the reason a man whose job it is to point out the flaws in civilization’s current economic, political and environmental systems remains so uncannily upbeat: Incremental success is coming his way, and has been for a while.

“I think we’ve been onto trends really early that are now really catching fire,” Ausubel says. “We’re now kind of moving into the next position, which is more of an action position of ‘How do you actually manifest all this stuff—not just educate and communicate, but actually put it in place?’ I think that’s the big shift.”

Though Bioneers has always been “solutions-focused,” Ausubel says, there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done.

“I’m less focused on our accomplishments than I am on what needs to be done still—and it’s definitely daunting,” he admits.

But that doesn’t diminish his expectations for the revolution—the one that will make the next six years the most important ones in human history.

“I think we’re about to see this giant explosion, where we’re going to see essentially the equivalent of a wartime mobilization—but this time to restore nature and people,” Ausubel says. “And it’s a matter of when, not if. In my opinion, it’s going to happen within the next three or four years.”

Are you ready?  SFR

Women in Charge

In addition to Bioneers’ conference, radio show and other media outreach, one of the organization’s primary purposes is to foment change in five different areas, or campaigns: education; food and farming; “indigeneity,” or indigenous rights and cultural values; Dreaming New Mexico; and women’s leadership.

Nina Simons—who co-founded Bioneers with husband Kenny Ausubel and now heads the women’s leadership campaign and coordinates its signature training program, Cultivating Women’s Leadership—says the campaign arose out of her own experience.

“I began being acknowledged for my leadership when I turned 40,” Simons says, “and found I had a very conflicted reaction to it.” Simons began “an inquiry to understand what that was about,” she says—and found that many other women in similar circumstances had similar reactions: They weren’t sure they were actually leaders or didn’t think they deserved recognition.

In part, Simons says, that grew out of a subconscious understanding of leadership as a primarily masculine value—the result of a competitive, hierarchical reckoning.

For instance, Simons says, despite co-founding Bioneers with Ausubel, she felt that she was “supporting my husband’s vision” rather than actively pursuing her own.

And it wasn’t just Simons.

“The same biases that I found within myself as an individual, I also saw in all of our institutions and societal structures, and I recognized them as an unconscious residual legacy of a culture that has been shaped by a bias towards those things seen to be ‘masculine’ and a bias that has tended to undervalue or diminish the contribution of those things or people seen as ‘feminine,’” Simons says.

Together with experienced leadership trainer Toby Herzlich, Simons developed a women’s leadership program that, over the past six years, has trained more than 200 female leaders, many of them from New Mexico.

Of approximately 230 women who have taken a Bioneers women’s leadership training program, 76 are from the Southwest, and 66 of those are from New Mexico.

Though women’s skills and interests vary, Simons says many share an enthusiasm for community service, the health of the Earth and a cooperative rather than competitive leadership style.

Fostering and expanding on those qualities, she says, not only encourages more women to be leaders, but also improves the way society functions.

“Almost any system or institution you could name would be improved by a rebalancing of the masculine and the feminine within its infrastructure and perspective,” Simons says. “I see it in education; I see it in economics; it’s been widely acknowledged within business; and certainly our governance would be tremendously improved if we could break the magic ratio and have more than 30 percent…women in the House and Senate.”

To that end, alumnae of Simons’ leadership training program will meet at the conference to “cross-pollinate and connect,” she says. They’ll also have the opportunity to hear acclaimed women’s liberation leader Gloria Steinem and Pam Rajput, the founder of a women’s “shadow parliament” in India.

But the conference’s overall message of social change and environmental recovery also pertains to women’s leadership, Simons notes.

“Given the urgency and opportunity of the environmental and social challenges we face, restoring balance to the masculine and feminine within us each, and within our larger institutions and structures, is one of the most essential shifts we could make,” she says.

Conference Season

The 2011 Bioneers conference is the organization’s 22nd, and though approximately 3,000 people attend it each year in San Rafael, Calif., the remote broadcasting program “Beaming Bioneers” last year reached another 9,000 people in 20 locations around the world.

This year, an impressive list of keynote speakers, including Rocky Mountain Institute Chairman Amory Lovins and renowned feminist Gloria Steinem, brings the revolution to Albuquerque Oct. 20-22 via the Open Space Alliance, and to Santa Fe Community College in January 2012.


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