“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” -David Orr, from the cover of the program book
I’ve always been curious about Bioneers, but between the location and the cost, I’ve always given it a miss. This year, however, we are feeling just a little more prosperous, and I bought a ticket months ago, at a reduced rate. I’m so glad I did, because the conference was fantastic! It was like going to the best parts of the Green Festival. The speakers are nothing short of inspirational, and they didn’t pretend to offer solutions. They did offer pragmatic assessments of a range of problems, and they dug deep for the short amount of time they had to get the message out. Bill McKibben, in particular, showed us a cellphone video of a collapsing glacier that was absolutely chilling. He told us about a video that you can see here, of the cost to the people who live in the cold places, and the low places.
These are working agents of change, not dreamers. They shared things they had learned from trying out various strategies, and how their mistakes had shaped their current thinking. Many offered actionable items. Not the things we already know we need to do, such as eating less meat and driving less, but actual things that can make a difference. Listen to people who are different from you, question the picture you have of an “environmentalist,” a “liberal,” a “conservative.” Realize that language matters, and that nobody likes to be told what to do, so meet people where they are. We don’t know where we’re going, we are in uncharted territory. We all have a piece of the answer in these times where what we do is crucial to our survival, and all our voices are equally important.
The tiny village that sprang up around the buildings was more about people than the marketplace—though it was indeed possible to drop some major money if you so chose. Yet I didn’t see any junk. No “green solutions,” nothing that was designed to catch the eye, but would be in the landfill in a month or two. No tables full of plastic “gimmes” that were frankly useless before they were even given out. Tables full of information put out by the various people who were there doing the work and looking for help to do more of it.
There were very few vendors, and they were selling socially conscious things, books (where my money went…), ethically made clothing—or demonstrating products that actually help change the way we do things. I came home, for example, with three samples of graywater safe laundry liquid that will solve a particular problem we currently have. Our washer line will not drain, and until I get a snake I’m using soap nuts and using the water as graywater. This makes it necessary to use hot water. We will see quite soon if our plants can tolerate it, and if they do, the product is sold concentrated, in glass. There was also a biogas composter that feeds a gas burner. This is out of our price range right now—but to have the option, when our circumstances change, to have a gas burner and fuel it with our compost, is definitely something I’m interested in. I loathe electric stoves, but had resigned myself to eventually going there…
The largest part of the marketplace was the organizations, though. People doing the work that needs to be done, available and willing to talk about their work, taking donations, gathering subscribers and selling a few things to support their work. I was able to learn a lot about organizations I’d never heard of, and as Nina Simons said in her remarks, synchronicity abounds there. I never expected to find the people I did, and I’m very grateful to have been able to make the connections. The World Cafe was set up specifically to be a space for networking and meetups and it was wonderful to see that much space devoted to doing these things at no charge.
The food vendors were few, but the food was excellent. Cafe Mam in particular was passing out free (EXCELLENT!) coffee in the main venue and selling coffee at the food court. No one had a problem with me handing them my scruffy steel cup, and nobody gave me a second look for cleaning it in the bathroom. That is rare. I also saw people handing over their own plates and bowls to be filled and it was treated as normal. I felt good instead of strange for whipping my bandanna and a slightly flat croissant out of my pack at the morning keynote. I carry food all the time this way, and the difference in atmosphere at this conference was palpable. The little things really do matter. Gender neutral bathrooms where everyone uses the stalls and the sinks? That was HUGE! It felt like going back to college, and forward into a world where gender truly doesn’t matter.
Nothing is perfect, however, but we are all products of the culture we live in. Marin Center is a nice venue, but it is completely car-dependent. I chose, for a few reasons, to do the conference on public transit. The first reason was economic. Renting a gig car for the weekend would have cost about $250 on top of the ticket, or considerably more if I’d even tried to get a hotel room. To be fair, I also expected to pay more the first time as I found out more about the conference and met people.
The second reason was also economic, but it was cultural as well. Buses serve a different segment of society, and they put one in contact with a different sort of Bioneer. Very, very few of us were on those buses. Marin County also gets much browner when you get on a bus that isn’t serving the commuter population. These people illustrated something that was, in fact, brought up at the conference. Environmentalists are largely seen as white. That shapes participation in very real ways. Heather McTeer Toney, whose credits include being the National Field Director of Mom’s Clean Air Force and the first African American Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, brought this up in her keynote speech in a very revealing way. She showed us what an image search for “environmentalist” returns. When you get on the bus the demographics are reversed. I shared my Saturday morning bus with a young Asian activist coming for the first time to Bioneers. In many other ways than race, I could have been looking at myself at her age. I was going to living history events back then, instead of climate conferences, but that bus system was my lifeline to get to the North Bay. It hasn’t gotten any better in the last thirty years. At night, however, it was a couple of white women who were older than I am—the ones who were around when I was a kid in the sixties and were still walking their talk, and a couple of black men. We were all leaving early because this was the next to last bus from Civic Center.
I could have stayed longer if I’d been willing to hike out to the freeway bus pad, a little over a mile away. The last bus is around 11 there. I did that walk during the Friday lunch period because I wanted to know what it entailed. Again, the same demographics were in play as soon as I’d walked past the Civic Center. I was the only white person walking. The bus shelters were few and far between and occupied by brown people and kids. The route to the bus pad entailed crossing the on-ramp farther along a blind curve than I liked, and then crossing the offramp. That was why I eventually decided not to stay late. It was twenty feet of spooky with a narrow island in the middle and I decided not to chance it in the dark. I was very glad I’d chosen to have this experience though, because this is the reality of public transit, and it explains a lot about why we stay in our cars. It’s one of those negative feedback loops that need to change if we expect people to use the system unless they’re foolish idealistic adventurers like me or economic prisoners.
So I missed Caroline Casey on Friday night, someone I’d particularly wanted to see. One of the women I rode back to San Francisco with on Saturday night said that as usual, Caroline had run way over time, and it was only because she’d run into a friend who drove her to the transit center that she’d been able to get home at all that night. To be fair, I did have choices that many others don’t. I could have rented a car. I could have called my father and had rides, and/or a place to stay. I wouldn’t have learned as much, though, and we can’t change what we don’t know. For what it’s worth, on Friday evening I did one more experiment. I’d gotten to the bus stop a half hour early and I decided to go back to my college days and try hitchhiking. After all, I was a white woman in a skirt (and I admit, a strange Scots bonnet) with a conference badge hanging around my neck. Lots of people were leaving for dinner, and maybe I could get a ride to the transit center. Not one person would even meet my eyes, let alone stop. These people were more than willing to talk to me at the conference, but once I was standing in the road, I became a stranger. This is not really a value judgment on any one individual, more an illustration of the tragedy of the commons. This is where we are now, not where we will be in the future, depending on our choices. Cars, sadly, make us strangers, even at an event like Bioneers.
The conference does have a rideshare board, which is awesome, but they could do one simple thing to encourage the use of transit—and incidentally, to help out all of these young activists whose resourcefulness in transcending barriers of many kinds is astounding and who were properly celebrated at the conference. It’s something Renaissance Faire used to do for their actors, back in the 80s.
Please consider running a shuttle. Not all day long, or all night. Two trips would be enough, really. Mornings are probably OK, because the San Francisco bus is timed to meet the Civic Center bus at least on Fridays and Saturdays. A bus after the last panel and the early night events to the Marin transit center would really help. A bus at the end of the films and night events—say at 11, would be a godsend. It would allow those who take transit to walk our talk and not have to pay the price of missing the evening events. It would put us on a par with those who choose to drive, and maybe even get some of us out of our cars. We wouldn’t have to spend our conference time lining up a ride, we’d just have to show up at the entrance to the venue instead of walking all the way around the lake for buses that can’t take the conference schedule into account. This is one of the simple actions that would mitigate the fact that this very expensive conference is held in the middle of one of the largest transit deserts in the Bay Area.
I decided not to go back Sunday, though I regretted missing some of the panels. Transit and money were factors, but were not the decisive factors. When I talk about money, what I’m really saying is I needed to keep my butt out of the conference bookstore. So many EXCELLENT books! I took home as many as I can practicably read before they become part of the wiggling stack I intend to read “someday.” I made the connections I really needed to make and contact information was exchanged. I got a taste of how the world might be, and fresh inspiration to shape my part in the song of the future. I actually got to sing in an amazing workshop that introduced me to song circles, which I’d never heard of before.
I’m very glad I came. I’m on the fence about returning because there are so many places I can put the time and money that attending this event takes that will also help to change things. I considered volunteering, but again, the bar for entry is very high in so many ways. I love the Brigadoonlike community that springs up for a few days and then disappears for a year. The container that is created is a piece of a world that isn’t yet here, but might be. Getting a glimpse of what it could be like really does make a difference. The seeds planted here are vital to our survival and the things I learned here will stay with me for a long time. Riding the bus is such a small price to pay—but there are so many things that need to be done…