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The Bioneers Conference: Five reasons to be hopeful for humanity’s future

Bioneers Conference held at the Palace of Fine Arts from May 13-15, 2022. | Masha Karpoukhina / Colorfool Films

The last time the Bioneers Conference was held at the Palace of Fine Arts was 1995. Back then, humans weren’t walking around with supercomputers in their pockets, electric cars were the dream of out-of-touch hippies, and there were 360 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Today, there are around 420 parts per million of CO2 in the air, electric cars are a status symbol embraced by people across the political spectrum and push notifications on our smartphones remind us just how dire the environmental crisis is on a near-daily basis—to say nothing of the war in Ukraine and pandemic.

To put it another way: While many of the aspirations of environmentalists were out of reach in the ’90s, there was a lot more hope floating around—especially at Bioneers, which relocated to the Marin Civic Center in 1999.

For the past 33 years, thousands—and then tens of thousands—made the yearly pilgrimage to this enviro-mecca. The conference introduced attendees to concepts such as biomimicry, First Peoples’ principles, social and environmental justice, local living economies, eco-literacy and scores of other alternative approaches to business as usual. Every topic covered at Bioneers was treated as a prismatic part of a single necessary, and possible, paradigm shift toward sustainability.

There’s plenty to be cynical about these days. When Bioneers announced it would be holding its first physical conference in three years, it was impossible to avoid the feeling that the unabashed optimism of the conference might be naive, or worse.

However, upon returning from the 2022 installment of the three-day conference—which was held once again at the Palace of Fine Arts this past weekend, May 13-15—I find that my cynicism has been banished… At least for now.

Here are five concepts I picked up at Bioneers that have helped me find some hope for humanity.

Living Buildings

One of the highlights from this year’s conference was a wide-ranging report from Jason McLennan, author of The Philosophy of Sustainable Design (2004). He spoke about a vision of “living buildings,” which would contribute to the environment. Almost 20 years since the publication of his book, the City of Seattle has hired him to renovate their new hockey arena using the concepts he incubated at Bioneers. Think of the first solar-powered Zamboni. All ice from rainwater runoff. A concert venue that grows all its own food.

Bioneers Conference held at the Palace of Fine Arts from May 13-15, 2022. | Masha Karpoukhina / Colorfool Films

Death to the Internal Combustion Engine

When asked what good news he had for the future of our planet, McLennan said he was certain that gas-burning cars were finally on their way out.

“We are going to end fossil fuels,” he told me. “We’re going to get rid of the internal combustion engine in our lifetimes. Imagine saying that 20 years ago.”

McLennan may just be onto something. Teslas are just about everywhere you look, General Motors has committed to going fully electric by 2035, and Ford has even started shipping all-electric Mustangs and F-150s. Observant commuters have surely noticed the new line of electric trucks from the Irvine-based Rivian automaker zipping around Bay Area freeways.

“We’re going to have better air quality than we’ve had in several hundred years,” McLennan said.

Radiation- and Oil-Eating Mushrooms

Paul Stamets was not in attendance this year, but his ideas about mushroom mycelium consciousness—which were introduced and nurtured by Bioneers—are beginning to gain international acceptance as the new model of how flora communicate.

Stamets has recently shown that mushrooms can do more than help plants talk to one another. They can also aid in cleaning up and remediating oil spills. They can even reduce radiation from nuclear accidents. So in the case of Stamets or McLennan, ideas that were the subject of discussion 20 years ago are getting implemented today.

Bioneers Conference held at the Palace of Fine Arts from May 13-15, 2022. | Masha Karpoukhina / Colorfool Films

Indigenous Wisdom

One of the great things Bioneers has always done is to create a forum for First Peoples to speak their truth, and 2022 was no exception. Very often, Indigenous people are living on land that is bearing the brunt of climate change’s worst impacts. At the same time, many within the Indigenous community are connected to traditions that work synergistically with natural cycles, rather than in the mode of extractive capitalism, which is focused primarily on taking.

Doing Good, Despite the Odds

Turnout at Bioneers 2022 was far less than it has been in previous years. And the general tone of the gathering was very sober. However, even in the face of serious, existential challenges, an overarching theme of determination and resolve permeated the event. As one Bioneer presenter reminded the audience, our only option is to “do good anyway.”

With that mantra in mind, here are a few local organizations that can help you “do good” even when things look bad.