PEACE in Action

Bioneers: A Declaration of Interdependence

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Working for International Peace
Bioneers: A Declaration of Interdependence

As the naturalist John Muir once wrote, “In nature everything is hitched to everything else.” In other words, it’s all connected. It would be wise to learn the ground rules and how to play by them. Nature bats last, as the saying goes. But even more importantly, it’s her playing field.

Overcoming the illusion that people are separate from nature is perhaps the single fatal systems error on which our civilization will stand or fall.  But what Muir and his generation of European-American environmentalists failed to grasp is that people are also part of nature. We didn’t invent nature. Nature invented us. Human systems and natural systems are one system.

When we founded the Bioneers conference in 1990, we reframed “environment” on the premise that human and natural systems are one system, and we can solve the environmental crisis only by bringing all the parts together. It’s a puzzle that takes all the pieces to crack the code, both people and “issues.” You have to solve the whole problem all at once. It’s a Declaration of Interdependence.

For the past two decades, we’ve assembled a network of networks of leading social and scientific innovators with both practical and visionary solutions for restoring people and planet. The fields span virtually all fields of human endeavor, and the people come from many diverse cultures and walks of life. Since the outset, we’ve placed special emphasis on biomimicry, the game-changing emerging science founded in “innovation inspired by nature” that seeks to emulate nature’s operating instructions, as well as on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), the vast body of empirical knowledge held by First Peoples and traditional cultures, a rich collective heritage sometimes called “The Original Instructions.”

Over time, Bioneers has focused on rewiring key disconnections or systems errors. Ecological Medicine, for instance, exemplifies the recognition that human health is dependent on environmental health. Restoring public health means repairing the health of our ecosystems, as well as on detoxifying medical practice itself, a major health and environmental hazard. We’ve also highlighted the convergence of the environmental and social justice movements. Poverty and inequity are primary sources of environmental destruction, and a system that continues to concentrate wealth and distribute poverty is doomed to destroy the basic life-support systems on which we all depend.

A few years ago we launched a program called Dreaming New Mexico in our home base to take a systems approach to restoration at the state level. While the federal government’s inertia and inaction have largely failed to address our major environmental challenges, the most progressive environmental change today has been occurring at the local and regional levels where communities are rolling up their sleeves to actually solve problems. It’s happening primarily at the community, city, county and state levels, often led by mayors and governors, usually with vibrant involvement by civil society.

As Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” All ecology is also local – actually it’s “globalocal” - but it’s very particular to place and local culture. Our politics will increasingly be defined by watersheds, foodsheds and energysheds. From a systems perspective, a more decentralized system is far more resilient. Redesigning our society to be more locally self-reliant also can create much more prosperous local economies and jobs. At the heart of Dreaming New Mexico is the creation of a restoration economy that embraces the rights of people and nature and builds a reliable prosperity.

The premise: Dreaming the future can create the future. What would success look like? What are our dreams? These transformative questions have propelled a process of envisioning “do-able” dreams and mapping how to realize them. The project also provides a template and tools for other place-based initiatives worldwide.

We undertook rigorous strategic research on the state of the state, first on energy and then on a more local foodshed. We created a “shadow think tank” of key experts across disciplines, sectors and cultures, and sought to discover people’s dreams. We created “future maps” (a two-sided wall map and accompanying in-depth pamphlet). The year is 2020 and we’ve done everything right. What would the Age of Renewables look like? What would the Age of Local Foodsheds look like?

These tools serve as points of departure for action-oriented convenings of cross-sectoral networks around a shared vision of restoration, and as educational and organizing tools.

With local partners, we’ve convened two statewide gatherings respectively on energy and the food system. Both have led to important results that are affecting state policy and shifting the thinking of government, civil society, educational institutions and business to see the state as a system and see themselves as a system. As Brendan Miller, the Green Economy Manager appointed by Governor Bill Richardson in the Economic Development Department, stated,  “Dreaming New Mexico is a valuable asset for the State, and it is really what started the conversation on many of these issues.”

The jurors for the 2009 Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award, who chose Dreaming New Mexico as first runner-up (MIT Media Lab placed first), said this:

“Dreaming New Mexico brings together the tools of grassroots organizing and community leadership with scientific know-how and political savvy to both create a vision for the future and lay the groundwork for getting there. This is a fundamental leverage point for creating systemic change. The core concept of this work is the power of transformative visioning, of imagining the world we want to see and then putting the steps in place to get us there, a process which Bucky often called designing the ‘preferred state.’

“The solution tackles an issue often overlooked by problem-solvers – the political dynamic and the political barriers that often slow or stop large-scale change. In many ways, DNM is a process for creating a new political landscape that ties together Earth stewardship values with core community needs – from fresh water, to clean energy, to abundant and locally grown food.

“Imagining a better future is the first step towards creating that future, and DNM provides a rich community process that can be replicated across the globe to give voice to the grassroots and help us build strong local economies and sustainable, resilient communities.”

Successful place-based restoration initiatives using systems thinking are beginning to crystallize and show success around the country. Important examples include Re-Amp, which is on track to reduce GHG emissions by 80% in eight Midwestern states by 2030, and TreePeople’s remarkable achievement of creating a Department of the Watershed in Los Angeles, the first-ever coherent human approach to water management in a major city. Another leading initiative is David Orr’s efforts at Oberlin where the college is partnering with the city to go carbon-neutral by 2020.

So yes, it’s all connected. Now we all have to get connected. Networks are nature’s primary form of organization. Together we can learn from our successes and spread the most promising practices. Dreaming the future indeed can create the future, and it’s in our hands.

Kenny Ausubel, Co-CEO & Founder (with Nina Simons) of Bioneers, is an award-winning social entrepreneur, author, journalist and filmmaker.  To learn more about Bioneers go to

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