The Coastal Post - November, 1995

Bioneers Walk Path For A Sustainable Future


Mining plants for metals, swamps cleaning up septic systems, herbs for health, sustainable agriculture bio-industry, native American wisdom, women's perspectives, industrial hemp, farmer's markets, and psychonavigation were on the bill for the Bioneers Conference in San Francisco October 13-15.

Bioneers are biological pioneers, "the pilot fish of the environmental restoration trend. True visionaries in technical solutions, and also cultural, spiritual, political and artistic approaches." That's what the press release said. With a free press pass into the conference, maybe I could learn something from these pilot fish. Better than lampreys, which hitch a ride and snatch scraps out of the shark's teeth.

Driving over the mountain, through the rainbow tunnel, and across the Golden Gate, is a little like entering into Oz with ruby slippers on. Especially the Palace of Fine Arts World Expo site, where the conference was held. If the bioneers had landed in Kansas, they wouldn't have had as much impact.

Bioneers Conference got its start in Santa Fe, New Mexico six years ago with the stirring declaration that "we've got about ten years to reverse the damage we've done to the earth." It was organized then by Seeds of Change, a heritage seeds foundation, now by The Collective Heritage Institute, a bio-diversity education and research nonprofit.

They've been presenting some of the most interesting and practical innovators in methods to restore the planet in the years since then. To say that progress has been made would be accurate, but then so would saying the Dutch boy delayed the breaking of the dike. Now the Netherlands are returning diked fields to wetlands by poking holes in their dikes.

In Marin the plan is to turn Bel Marin Keys diked bayside fields into upscale housing tracts. Ten years ago Marin was ready to build Solar Village, an ecologically designed, affordable housing town in Hamilton Air Force Base. That plan is buried in toxic dust now. This election we are voting on an I.M. Pei designed mausoleum for aging researchers, with no ecological considerations at all.

We are riding on a megadeath, monster tire, all terrain, industrial, agricultural, economic vehicle. So far it's managed to crush everything in its path, but it's obvious that a gigantic chasm lies ahead.

Humans need to breathe clean air, drink clear water, eat enough, play, work and rest to be fully human. That concept doesn't match the economic model of the value of humans.

Yet there are seeds of change in industry, agriculture, and politics which the conference presenters are nurturing. The conference was sponsored by Odwalla Juice Company, ArrowHead Mills organic foods, Aubrey Organics natural cosmetics and other new businesses which have been bulging the mold of bottom-line business practices. Bob Weir, of the former Grateful Dead's Further Foundation, also contributed.

Water is a big part of a sustainable future. Clean water, water with all of its natural properties intact. Water is the "purveyor of life," water is the blessing of this planet and all life on it. The hidden life of water was shown in slides by Jennifer Greene of the Water Research Institute. In water not damaged by pollutants or soaps, microscopic photography of running or splashing water displays stunning artistic forms. Her slides proved that the presence of even extremely low levels of toxins disturbs the complexity of the rosetta, spiral, corkscrew,and ovary-shaped morphology phenomenon in natural water. Following Rudolf Steiner's theories that it is the hidden world which supports life, hydrologist Theodor Schwenk began this research of studying the forms and rhythms inherent in water movement and how it acts to purify water. Flowing water has the ability to purify itself of pollution in small quantities.

It takes more to purify heavier concentrations, but bio-remediation methods using wetlands for waste water treatment are a proven science. Using the natural ability of microbes, algae, and plants to treat waste water has proven economical and effective as well as creating wildlife habitat.

Bolinas downtown sewage has been treated in sewer ponds since 1976. The '60s proposal to build a large sewage treatment plant with an outfall pipe near Duxbury Reef led to an epic political fight in 1974. The town that fought to save itself voted in a new slate of public utilities directors over the sewer issue.

The Bolinas bioneers rejected the sewage plant and built sewer ponds to treat the raw sewage which had been pouring into Bolinas lagoon channel. They also voted for a water meter moratorium, which has shaped Bolinas and prevented it from becoming a Tiburon West. The sewer ponds have enough capacity to sewer all the houses on the Mesa as well, but Bolinas now wants to drain the Mesa to "solve" septic tank problems.

Bioneer presenter Robert Gearheart, a professor at Humboldt State University of Environmental Resources Engineering has built a wastewater wetlands for 17,000 homes in Arcata. The natural processes of a swamp can be used to neutralize the toxic effects of wastewater for mines, storm runoff, septic systems, sewage systems and restore it to clean water. These methods were first developed in Europe, and they're still not widespread in America.

They are considered alternative to the sewage treatment industry which is highly profitable. Wetlands systems may be ready for export to Mexico which only has one sewage treatment plant in the whole country. Their current idea of wetlands for waste water is to dump it into the river. Babies born without brains or thousands of swamps.

Phytoremediation is a buzzword for growing plants on toxic sites. Rufus Chaney has been growing different hyper-accumulating plants, finding ones which take up enough heavy metals or radioactive elements to be harvested and gradually detoxify a site.

The Superfund has been one giant sucking sound by lawyers, but very little actual cleanup has been done. It's expensive to dig up toxic dirt and bury it at a hazardous waste landfill. Even more expensive to detoxify it in special chambers. Plants can take up cadmium, lead and zinc through their root system, while microbes specially selected for feeding on oil wastes helped clean up the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

The oil companies have come a long ways since 1972 when Standard Oil just buried the oil fouled sand and cleanup materials from Bolinas beach in long trenches above RCA beach. You can still strike oil in them thar bluffs.

Some of the biggest changes are happening in industry which is eliminating pollution by not generating it in the first place, or totally recycling their waste. The bottom line, it's cheaper to not waste and not create toxins, cheaper than handling them. Most of the manufacturing firms doing away with toxic chemicals and processes are in Europe, according to Michael Braungart, an industrial engineer who has helped Swiss industries clean up their act. One large dye and cloth company now has end-use water more clean than they begin with. In America Kodak Camera has become an industry example on how to save money and reduce pollution.

Amory Lovins, the energy efficiency guru, has recently helped retrofit several large office buildings in Detroit. By replacing worn out windows with new types of layered windows, they were able to eliminate the heating and cooling infrastructure of the buildings. Savings were immediate and paid for the retrofit in months and the whole building in 40 years. Thousands of office building will have to replace their aging windows in the next five years.

Agriculture has become agribusiness in America. It feeds us and we should be grateful, but it's poisoning the groundwater, lowering the water table, mining top soil and eventually will fail. America will have famines with current trends within a decade. John Jeavons talked about bio-intensive gardening, and Fred Kirshenmann, the country's largest bio-dynamic farmer, talked about cosmic carrot farming which he grows for Odwalla Juices.

Even "organic farming" is not sustainable. Hauling in tons of cow shit per acre, sucking up creek water to spray, irrigate and growing lettuce for six dollar salads may be organic but it is hardly ecological.

Not enough compost is being created to organically farm all the food we eat. Petrochemical fertilizers are putting food on your table. Dinosaur fodder is what sustains our agricultural system. The transition will have to be gradual, but it must begin now with small farmers and gardeners.

With current rates of human population growth, erosion of top soil, and loss of arable land within 20 years, only the most intensive, sustainable bio-intensive gardening and permaculture environmental lifestyles will prevent widespread famines. Even the rich starve when potatoes are preferred over gold. Of course, the poor starve first, unless they are growing their own food. Small gardens and farms are providing two thirds of all food in the former Soviet Union now.

Gardens and village-based small farms are going to be essential to feed the people. More people are going to grow food, if they have land to grow it on. Soil will be precious and all human waste will be seen for what it is, compost.

Sustainable agriculture in temperate climates must grow at least 70% compost crops to replenish a garden's soil. These are rapid-growing, nitrogen-fixing plants like broom, which are cut down to decompose into soil.

Most waste can turn into earth. Santa Cruz landfill has begun making compost from shredded yard wastes. Cardboard, newspapers, paper cups it can all be added to the mix. It's as organic as cow shit with fewer nitrates.

There were presenters on natural healing which relies heavily on healing the earth and our role on it. Women and native Americans gave their unique perspective on a vision for a healthy planet. Jim Hightower talked about grassroots politics and the essential, formidable task of changing the political structure.

The most valuable aspect of the conference was meeting many other people who share a common vision, and are actively involved in creating a sustainable future. Especially one lovely young woman from UC Santa Cruz, who is growing food with the homeless in a sustainable garden near the college. She inspired me to create a similar project on my land.

The Bioneers conference had a work exchange program and many younger people were in attendance. Talking with them was stimulating. They are even more intelligent, well-informed, determined and aggressive in pushing for change than I was at their age. I've deteriorated since my radical youth as an alternative transportation advocate and practitioner; the starry-eyed vision of an environmental future I held in the '70s has been tempered by 20 years of being on hold. The youth of today don't understand this, they grew up with call waiting and they just don't have the patience or time.

The common trait of all the Bioneers or people who made a change towards more sustainable lifestyles is they didn't wait for someone else to do it for them. They didn't just click their heels together and say I wish we were home. Yes, there are confusing directions, even though the path lies shining before us. Yet, toothless lions roar, and wicked witches want our magical shoes. Many will say it can't be done, you're ignorant, wrong and just plain foolish. If you know you're right, Just Do It.