Bioneers: Effective Activism

HtStW 3
The annual Bioneers By the Bay conference this past weekend in New Bedford MA had a wide range of themes, but far and away the most valuable session was a “kitchen table” discussion with Bioneers founders Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons. This Q&A session had no formal presentation, and was focused on helping change advocates find more effective ways to bring about that change. Its lessons are useful for any activist or change champion:

  1. Developing Holistic Change Frameworks & Approaches: The changes we are trying to accomplish are in systems that are all complex and all interrelated. We cannot isolate approaches to just environmental sustainability, or social justice, or health and nutrition, or quality affordable housing, or media reform, or education, or poverty, or women’s rights, or racial equality, or economic reform. We need to realize that change needs to occur in all of them, integrally, or no enduring change will occur in any of them. What is required is a coordinated “movement of movements”, a whole ecology of collaborative, shared ideas and activities. These efforts need overarching “big picture” frameworks that show the interconnectedness of the problems we face and how efforts in one area can reinforce (or impede) efforts in another. For example, we need to appreciate that many health problems have social (e.g. addiction), educational (e.g. ignorance of nutrition) and environmental (e.g. food toxins) problems underlying them. 
  2. Focusing on Two Common Causes: Many of the aforementioned connected problems have our separation from nature and the weakening of local community at their root.
  3. Reaching Across Ideology to Find Shared Values: Our belief systems by themselves are not enough to bring about change. The movement has to be about more than shared ideology. It needs to build bridges, and “reach across” cultural divides to find common cause. Our opinions are not as important as what we value, because many people who differ in opinion share values.
  4. Using the Leverage Points: To be effective, we need to find the leverage points in the system, the places where the need for change is understood, where change is relatively easy to achieve, and where that change will provoke positive changes elsewhere.
  5. Relocalizing + Connecting: The change must be rooted in community, in a massive relocalization and decentralization and de-institutionalization of attention, connection, understanding, power, and effort. Communities need to coalesce, self-organize, and do things for themselves, and then connect with other communities to share their success stories and lessons learned. At higher levels, our political states are bureaucratized, disconnected, unmaneuverable, corporatist, and corrupted, and trying to reform them is largely a waste of time, money and energy.
  6. Making Change Easier: We need to focus on making it easier for people to change. We prevented an ozone layer disaster by simply making CFCs illegal, so refrigeration companies found and invented non-ozone depleting coolants, because they had no choice. Likewise, by ensuring that only energy-efficient light bulbs can be sold in the market, and that only energy-efficient, healthy new homes can be certified for sale, we make it easier for citizens to do the right thing. Working models that let people see how and why they work, and how to replicate them, are likewise useful.
  7. Educasting: A major obstacle to change is the public’s ignorance and lack of capacities to bring about needed changes. We need to start using the new media for “educasting” public information to inform and build capacities. While we should not give up trying to reform public education and mainstream media, we cannot rely on either to support educasting so we need to work around them.
  8. Delivering to Those in Need: We need a renewed focus on delivery systems for change, so that resources get to where they’re needed.
  9. Thinking Generations Ahead: We need long range thinking so that we always know where we are going, balanced with pragmatism and effective, sustained implementation. Example: The 50 Top Future Crops for New Mexico is a long-range objective that inspires and directs thinking and action about food production and nutrition in that state.
  10. Speaking in Understandable Terms: We must make sure the language we use is inclusive and accessible to people outside our circles of activism. Jargon can be a useful shorthand but also an impediment to communication and persuasion. The terms “environmentalist” and “activist” are not helpful because of connotations of “otherness” and anger, which is why the more inclusive, positive term “bioneers” was coined. Stories, of course, are immensely useful in increasing understanding.
  11. More Listening and Facilitating: We need to substantially and continuously improve our active listening and facilitation skills.
  12. Taking the Responsibility That Comes With Privilege: We have to understand that our privilege — just being in an affluent nation, white, working, healthy etc. — imposes on us a responsibility to help those without such privileges, and even more importantly, to take risks that, in the interest of fairness and egalitarianism, may jeopardize our own comfort or security.
  13. Learning What We’ve Forgotten from Aboriginal Cultures: We have an enormous amount to learn from indigenous communities, who still retail [edit — oops I meant retain] important knowledge, capacities and values we have lost or forgotten.
  14. Bridging the Generations: Our projects and thinking and collaboration must involve all generations, to bring different perspectives and cross-pollinate ideas and knowledge. Did you know more people visit zoos each year than attend sporting events?
  15. Self-Knowing: Effective activism requires self-knowledge, because we each need to discover our purpose, develop our capacities and focus our effort on the work we do best, not just what is most needed. And self-knowledge also allows us to cope with the emotional stress and grief that activists necessarily deal with every day.
  16. Dealing With Religious Groups: In dealing with organized religion, we must deconstruct and separate its spiritual, social and political components, and use our common cause with adherents’ spirituality and social goals to enlighten them politically.
  17. Preparing for Recession and Enabling Volunteerism: As the financial situation worsens, funding for important work will get scarcer. We must be prepared to tap into more volunteer work; one advantage of unemployment is that it frees up time. Instead of sitting listening to boring lectures, why don’t we get students out repairing watersheds?
  18. Connecting With Social Entrepreneurs: We must get past our aversion to business and ‘profit-making’ enterprise and realize that many entrepreneurs are (or could be) part of the solution not part of the problem. The current model of psychotic capitalism is not the only model for successful enterprise. The new model is cooperatives and community-based business — what I’ve called Natural Enterprise. [John Abrams gave a brilliant speech at Bioneers on Sunday morning; I intend to work with him to establish a framework for Natural Enterprise creation.]
  19. Overcoming Learned Helplessness: Too many people are still looking for people (and governments) to do things for them, to lead them, and to tell them what to do and how to do it. Activists need to activate by getting people past reliance and dependence and learned helplessness, to believe in their collective capacity to decide what needs to be done and to accomplish anything they set out to do. The new ‘leadership’ model is not hierarchical and adulating, it is one of reciprocal mentoring, balancing critical and creative thinking, supportive and challenging conversation. Finding and deploying power through, not over, people.
  20. Making the Movement Political: Holistic environmentalism needs to move from a cultural phenomenon to a political movement, like the movement for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. To do this means both resisting and creating, fighting against regressive and repressive forces while innovating and acting at the local level to show how we can accomplish real change. But this does not mean becoming politicians, it means influencing and educating the politicians.
  21. Creating Holistic Coalitions: We need to engage cross-disciplinary innovators and knowledgeable people to help us address the intractable problems that are blocking progress. Example: If birth control pills are polluting struggling nations’ waters, rather than fighting amongst ourselves (family planners versus water conservationists) we should be tasking the medical and pharma profession to innovate green solutions to this.
  22. Embracing Biomimicry: The answers are out there. We just need to ask nature.
  23. Developing a Practice of Gratitude and Kindness: We must resist the tendency to anaesthetize ourselves against the grief, anguish and pain that comes from facing hard truths and grim realities about our current world. We have to be empathetic and give each other permission to feel the powerful emotions that we will inevitably feel in our work. This is a long-term, challenging task. We need to acknowledge and feel the pain, and at the same time we must be patient, appreciative, joyful, supportive, kind to ourselves and each other, and ‘grace-full’. 
  24. Balancing Pessimism, Realism, and Hope: This work, as important as it is, depends on us being true to ourselves, self-appreciative, giving ourselves permission to take risks, learning to accept compliments, “smelling fear and heading straight for it”, and managing our own and others’ expectations. We have to balance idealism and realism, perseverance and pragmatism, masculine aggressiveness and feminine perceptiveness and resilience. We must see that the glass is half full and half empty. We have to get past the internalized oppression that we carry inside us, the fear of saying and talking about what we most care about, even though doing so makes us vulnerable and may expose us to disbelief and even ridicule. 

Lots here to think about and act upon. Thanks to Kenny and Nina, John and others for making this a thought-provoking and valuable event, to the organizing team for their hard work, and to Margo Baldwin and all my new colleagues at Chelsea Green for inviting me, making me welcome, encouraging and teaching me, and making my book part of the solution.

Thanks too to the new friends I made there. Our conversations will continue.

.     .     .     .     .

One feature that distinguishes this event from so many others is the degree to which it has successfully recruited young people. Of the 1500 people at the conference, over 500 were under age 21. Part of this success is due to the inclusive nature of the program, which featured do-it-yourself sessions in music, art, food production, nutrition, making clothing, and design, and young performance artists, including one group whose anthem told a story about the next “Noah’s ark” catastrophic climate challenge for our world, the consequence of global warming, coming soon. It concluded:

No more water. The fire next time.

Category: Activism
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2 Responses to Bioneers: Effective Activism

  1. David Parkinson says:

    I love this post!! Very hopeful and grounded in reality at the same time. Some high-wire act!Picky quibble:”… learn from indigenous communities, who still *retail* important knowledge…”DId you mean *retain*?

  2. Nina Simons says:

    Thanks, Dave, what a terrific, insightful and well-presented summary! Since the recording was marginal, this is a terrific boon…I’m most grateful.Any chance you could send me the chart you use at the top, as I’d love to reproduce it and cannot from your posting?Warmest best, Nina Simons

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