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.
Ausubel was born and raised in New York, the son of a Columbia University professor and a mother who worked at
. (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
when student protesters took over portions of the campus.)
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
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.
“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.
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
“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?
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,
—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.
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.
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.