Bioneers Launches Formal Education Program Focused on Town-Gown Collaboration for Systemic Change

January 7, 2011

By Kenny Ausubel, CO-CEO and Founder, Bioneers

(This article appears in the January, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

In the words of filmmaker Tom Shadyac, “The shift is about to hit the fan.” We’re experiencing the dawn of a revolutionary transformation. This awkward ‘tween’ state marks the end of pre-history – the sunset of an ecologically illiterate civilization. The revolution has begun – but in fits and starts. The challenge is that it’s one minute to midnight – too late to avoid large-scale destruction. We have to fan the shift to ecoliterate societies at sufficient speed and scale to dodge irretrievable cataclysm.

Anthony Cortese Second Nature Bioneers 2010As H.G. Wells presciently said over a century ago, “We’re in a race between education and catastrophe.” The urgent question today is what education means in the context of catalyzing the widespread mobilization and action needed to accelerate this transition effectively in the shortest period of time.

Since my partner Nina Simons and I founded the Bioneers conference in 1990, we’ve brought together leading social and scientific innovators focused on practical and visionary solutions for restoring Earth’s imperiled ecosystems and our human communities.  For the last 21 years, the Bioneers conference has served as a platform for cross-pollinating ideas and highlighting the solutions already available to us, helping bring them mainstream and inevitably creating leverage for change on larger scales. Every October, thousands gather in northern California to immerse themselves in this environment of hope and transformative possibility; thousands more gather across the country as participants in our Beaming Bioneers satellite conferences, as well.

One hallmark of the Bioneers conference has been a systemic approach in the recognition that everything is connected. Human systems and natural systems are one system, and addressing the environmental crisis requires a “solve-the-whole-problem” approach. Taking care of nature means taking care of people, and taking care of people means taking care of nature.  Another hallmark has been a fundamental shift in our relationship with nature, embodied in the emerging science of Biomimicry, which Janine Benyus calls “innovation inspired by nature.” With four billion years of R&D, nature has done everything people want to do without mining the past or mortgaging the future. Game-changing breakthroughs in biomimetic science, technology and design are revolutionizing our very ways of knowing, and biomimicry remains a keystone of Bioneers’ educational efforts.

What we’ve found over the past 21 years is that in great measure the solutions are present, and even where we don’t know exactly what to do, we have a good idea what directions to head in. The central challenges are not technological:  they are political, economic and human. As Oberlin’s David Orr has said, the real object of ecological design is the human mind. It requires this different way of seeing the world, as well as a change of heart.

At Bioneers, we see education as one of our most powerful tools for nurturing the leaders of a sustainable future.  And while supporting and cultivating educational communities has been fundamental to our work since the beginning, Bioneers is in an exciting moment of deepening our roots in the world of formal education.  Over the past several years, Bioneers has expanded on our primary efforts of public education and cultivating a network of networks across a broad spectrum of issues and constituencies. In particular, we see key leverage points in formal education and the movement toward re-localization, including the connection between the two.  This month marks the official launch of our Bioneers formal education program, focused on supporting educators and institutions in effectively integrating more holistic forms of education for sustainability into their curriculum.

Given U.S. political gridlock at the federal level and the parallel reality that both China and the European Union have seized the high ground on renewable energy and clean technology development, the U.S. faces grave challenges both domestically and in our future national competitiveness unless we change course quickly. By far the most constructive problem-solving initiative is arising at this time at the local and regional level from cities, counties and states, where local officials and an active citizenry including the robust NGO sector have rolled up their sleeves to create innovative advances toward a low-carbon and green economy. Colleges and universities also have a major role to play, as evidenced by the ACUPCC and by initiatives such as the exemplary Oberlin project.

In this re-localization context, Bioneers launched the Dreaming New Mexicoproject (DNM), an award-winning initiative to reconcile natural systems with human organization at the state level using a systems approach. Resilience arises from more decentralized, localized and redundant systems. The shift away from a society built on cheap oil entails a radical reorganization of everyday life into a more local economy and infrastructures. The political borders on maps must transform to reflect the ecological and intensely local realities of watersheds, “foodsheds” and “energysheds.” The DNM premise is that dreaming the future can create the future. We create a refuge and step back to ask ourselves: What would success look like? Rather than settling for what we think we can get, what do we really want? What is our dream?

To date, DNM has created breakthrough ideas, tools, processes and strategies in a widely collaborative framework including the centerpiece of “future maps” and accompanying booklets and other information for “The Age of Renewables” and the “Age of Local Foodsheds and A Fair Trade State.” The project has put these “do-able dreams” into play through strategic convenings, targeted briefings, education, collaborations and alliances. The project garnered a 2010 New Mexico Governor’s Proclamation and was named runner-up for the 2009 Buckminster Fuller Challenge award. We’re currently working on a methodology or field guide that can be universalized and customized by other communities. Project co-director Peter Warshall highlighted the program at the 2010 Bioneers conference. DNM materials are being used in classrooms across the state at the high school and college levels.

Oberlin’s David Orr, who serves on the Bioneers Board, has invited DNM to become involved with the Oberlin Project, an innovative and ambitious partnership between the town and college to take the community carbon-neutral by 2020, while driving a major downtown green economic redevelopment and 20,000 acre agriculture and forestry belt. The collaboration, which we expect to begin in 2011, will explore how the DNM materials and methodology can be adapted into an action-based curriculum with support materials using project-based learning in a town-gown collaboration to help make systemic change at the municipal or possibly regional level. In truth, education in this context is inherently reciprocal, with much to teach and learn on all sides.

One reality facing us in the U.S. is there’s little prospect of creating enough paying green jobs in the foreseeable future to address the magnitude of the work that needs to be done. As such, educational institutions have a unique opportunity to employ practices such as project-based learning, internships and partnerships with local communities and citizen volunteers to provide “education for action” – actually solving problems on the ground while also actively learning. If even a significant fraction of the nation’s 4,100 colleges and universities were to adopt this kind of model, it would be a game changer – locally, nationally and globally.

Similarly, Dreaming New Mexico is in a process with Santa Fe Community College to develop a training and certification program for Ecoservices Portfolio Management to help farmers and ranchers be compensated and rewarded for the active enhancement of the ecosystem services provided by their land, including carbon sequestration. We believe this would be a breakthrough in terms of moving beyond a narrow and functionally destructive view of agricultural “production” to monetizing and rewarding the profound contributions agriculture can make toward the overall health of ecosystems. Community colleges are and must be front and center in the leadership of this movement as a primary design lab and training ground for green jobs.

About ten years ago, we found that numerous educators and students were regularly attending Bioneers and using our media materials (conference keynotes and panels, anthology books and the award-winning annual radio series) as curriculum support in classrooms. Because Bioneers annually presents a multi-disciplinary kaleidoscope of social and scientific innovators with breakthrough solutions, we act as a kind of search engine for cutting-edge work that inherently serves to provide unique cross-pollination.  For instance, along with Dr. Cortese and Peter Warshall, other 2010 topics and speakers includedDr. John Warner on the ascendancy of Green Chemistry (and related work in formal education), Mary Gonzalez on successful cross-racial community organizing, Andy Lipkis of TreePeople on transforming Los Angeles including the creation of a first-ever major urban department of the watershed, Jess Rimington on creating One World Youth Program, her remarkable global youth network, Dr. Jane Goodall on biodiversity conservation and her Roots and Shoots youth program, and Dr. James Hansen on climate strategies.

We’ve also produced multiple programs at the Bioneers conference to convene educators as well as educate the public about the role of formal education – in collaboration with groups and leaders such as David Orr, Dr. Anthony Cortese, Jim Buizer of ASU, Julian Keniry of National Wildlife Federation, Second Nature, AASHE, SCUP, the Center for Ecoliteracy, Cloud Institute and others.  We’re working now to launch ongoing regular webcasts and interactive webinars in 2011 to help bridge innovators and innovations in formal education with other key people and projects where cross-pollination and collaboration can add important value for all parties.

As Anthony Cortese outlined in his 2010 Bioneers keynote, higher education is poised to lead, including ACUPCC’s nearly 700 college and university presidents: “Higher education is the first and only sector in U.S. society that has a large percentage of its members committed to becoming climate neutral. It’s unprecedented. The college and university presidents have made this commitment and are doing what’s scientifically necessary, not what’s easily doable. They know this is hard, but they’re saying because it’s urgent, and because it is about the future of humanity, we need to lead. That is unprecedented leadership by higher education since World War II.”

Then again, in the immortal words of Groucho Marx, “Why should we care about the next generation? They have never done anything for us.”

That is indeed the question. Who better to respond than students, teachers and educational institutions?