Bioneering in Baltimore

By Adam Brock

Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons are the mixtape DJs of the sustainability movement: just below the radar of the mainstream, but with impeccable taste for what’s next. Since 1990 the pair have been responsible for running the Bioneers conference, an annual gathering of the verdiest thinkers in everything from ecodesign to indigenous wisdom, in San Rafael, California. I’ve long been a fan of their lecture archive and book series, and this weekend I get to participate in the real thing – if only slightly vicariously – from Cultivating Change, the satellite conference in Baltimore.

If the proceedings so far are any indication of what’s to come, it’s sure to be a weekend packed with fresh ideas, inspiring stories.. and pickled eggplant (wtf?) at the locally-sourced lunch table. To be sure, there’s a good deal of familiar, if well-presented, territory being covered here – the financial benefits of building green aren’t really a revelation at this point. But the presenters that have made the Chinatown bus ride from NYC worth it are the ones covering new ground, elaborating on concepts only just now getting the attention they deserve.

Like, for instance, local living economies: regional networks of locally-owned, triple-bottom-line businesses. A talk by Judy Wicks, owner of the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia and cofounder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, turned the Forest Green aversion to moneymaking on its head: with the right approach, Wicks asserted, entrepreneurship can be a medium for reconnecting communities to nature and each other. The amiable Massachusetts green contractor John Abrams concurred, relating the story of growing his one-man business, South Mountain Company, into a thriving employee-owned corporation.

Another hot concept this year is the emerging congruence of the sustainability and social justice movements under the banner of “green-collar jobs”. Van Jones, one of the most sought-after activists in the country at the moment, gave a keynote address from California that managed to be both electrifying and stand-up-comedian funny. Now that environmentalism is moving to the center of politics, Jones told us, we have the responsibility to make it a tide that lifts all boats. This will happen by “connecting the people who most need work with the work that most needs doing” – an idea that everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Thomas Friedman seem to be getting on board with.

Van’s talk was only the last of several jaw-dropping speeches during the day, and even though half of the presentations at Bioneers are telecasted, it’s been hard not to get riled up. Bioneers makes me feel like part of a culture-changing movement at its peak – and I’m only a third of the way through. I wonder if they’re putting something in that pickled eggplant.

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