Published on Monday, October 23, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
'Declaration Of Interdependence' As 2,000 Eco-Visionaries Gather
by Leslie Guttman
MARIN, CALIFORNIA -- Environmental waste has put the life support system of
the planet on Red Alert, and ``human rights'' in the 21st century
means the right to be born free of toxins, experts said over the
weekend at a conference for environmental solutions.
``If Thomas Jefferson were here today, he'd be calling for a Bill of Responsibilities,'' said environmental architect and designer William McDonough, who called for a new Industrial Revolution in which ecology, accountability and profit are siblings on equal footing in the global economy. ``When the Exxon Valdez spills, the (gross domestic product) of Alaska goes way up because everyone's at work on the cleanup. Our activity is not our legacy.''
The speeches were given at the 10th annual Bioneers conference, held in San Rafael. The word bioneers means ``biological pioneers,'' and the yearly conference featured an eclectic group of speakers from around the country -- scientists, doctors, businesspeople, authors, academics and artists -- who subscribe to a ``Declaration of Interdependence'' that says humans and nature are inextricably linked. Over 2,000 attendees came to the Marin Center meeting.
McDonough, who won a presidential award for sustainable development, discussed projects such as developing ``infinitely recyclable'' polyester for Nike's running shoes and his current work on redesigning the Ford Motor Co. facility in Michigan. The Virginia resident also designed the Gap office complex in San Bruno, which is 30 percent more energy efficient than California law requires.
Author Alice Walker said one of the nation's most critical restoration projects is creating a culture that respects elders and connects them with youth -- most likely through cyberspace. She told the audience it was time to grow up -- and that she didn't even hit her stride till her 50s.
``By not growing up, we miss out on ever becoming adults,'' she said. ``Elders are a government soon to be in exile.''
The conference was founded by Santa Fe resident Kenny Ausubel in 1990. ``One of the problems for the public with the environmental movement is the gloom and doom scenario,'' said Ausubel, who now runs Bioneers with his wife, Nina Simons. ``The conversation changes radically when people realize there are solutions.'' Many of those solutions were offered by presenters from the Bay Area, such as Dr. Michael Lerner of Bolinas' Commonweal, a health and environmental institute that has attracted attention for its innovative programs for cancer patients. Lerner spoke on his newest campaign, Health Care Without Harm, an organization working with hospitals to stop the incineration of medical waste containing dioxin and mercury. In four years, it has grown from 30 people to 300 member organizations in 30 countries.
``We're living in an epidemic of chronic health problems (such as) cancer and learning disorders due to chemical exposure,'' said Lerner, who equated the right of a fetus to be born free of toxins to labor rights, civil rights and women's rights.
Although Bioneers began in Santa Fe, it outgrew the city in its third year, and Ausubel and Simons moved the meeting to the Bay Area because of its progressive environmental community. Bioneers has evolved into a national public radio series, and Simon and Ausubel are also exploring the possibility of a TV show.
Bioneers was born out of Ausubel's work in the 1980s producing a documentary on Harry Hoxsey, a former coal miner who in the 1950s created the world's largest privately owned cancer clinic using herbal therapy, and his co-founding of Seeds of Change, the organic seed firm dedicated to ``backyard biodiversity.'' (Ausubel has since parted ways with the company.)
Ausubel and Simon both say they see the conference not just as a forum for eco-visionaries, but as a way for them to cross-pollinate. British biologist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, for example, is collaborating with Chicago cancer prevention expert Dr. Samuel Epstein on a book on genetic engineering, after meeting at a previous Bioneers conference.
``Part of the solution is in these ecological technologies,'' says Ausubel, ``But another part is a change of heart.'' In the hard drive of humanity, there is a fundamental systems error, says Ausubel, and that is ``thinking we're apart from -- rather than a part of -- nature.''
Among the most popular speakers were mycologist Paul Stamets of Washington state, who has done scientifically documented work breaking down hazardous waste with fungi, and the Body Shop's Anita Roddick, whose projects include sending employees of her cosmetics company to postwar Kosovo to help with rebuilding efforts.
About 60 percent of the people who came to Bioneers this year were from California, the rest from other parts of the United States and from around the globe. The crowd was diverse -- moms with babies and toddlers in tow; architects, activists, doctors and dot-commers; aging hippies clad in hemp. Law student Glen Banfield of Oregon came because he wanted to get ideas for an environmental justice conference he's organizing himself.
``It makes no sense to blame anyone about the environment at this point,'' said Banfield. ``It's better to be proactive and do something about it.''
Jeanne Besanceney, a 34-year-old San Franciscan attending the conference Saturday, recently quit a lucrative job at a Silicon Valley dot-com to volunteer for Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign. She came to Bioneers, she said, because ``I think the lifestyle of the boom economy is alienating us from nature. Endless amounts of hours in front of the computers . . . the emphasis on the machine world. It's a false sense of community.
``To come here and to stay in touch with the people I meet afterward -- it's the best natural antidepressant there is.''
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle