“Nature Deficit Disorder” Is Making Us Sick—But These “Bioneers” Believe They Have the Cure

In this interview, the founder of the Bioneers conference talks about what he’s learned in 25 years of bringing thinkers together.

Kenny Ausubel at the 2014 Festival of Faiths. Photo by Center for Interfaith Relations / Flickr.

Bioneers is part of the New Economy Week, which we'll be featuring prominently from October 13 to 17.

Kenny Ausubel doesn’t do despair. “There are more reasons for hope than horror,” he tells me with such vigor that you can tell he believes it. Ausubel is one of America’s leading visionaries and has for decades been trailblazing new ways of educating, activating, and connecting people and ideas around social justice and ecology.

The ecological debt we’ve incurred is dire. Climate change has crash-landed into the present.

With a vast network of allies throughout the world, including high-profile supporters like Jane Goodall, Naomi Klein, and Leonardo Di Caprio, Ausubel is an impressive figure with plenty to say at a time when visionary voices are badly needed.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of his Bioneers movement, which he co-founded with his wife Nina. I interviewed Kenny at his home in Santa Fe in advance of the annual October Bioneers summit in San Rafael, Calif.

Below is an edited transcript of what he had to say.

Ruairí McKiernan: How would you describe Bioneers, what type of people are involved and why?

Kenny Ausubel: Bioneers is a natural antidepressant. As we’ve shown since 1990, the solutions to most of our environmental and social crises are largely present, or we know what directions to head in. We highlight the profound transformation already taking hold around the globe, the dawn of a human civilization that partners with the wisdom of nature’s design and practices values of justice, diversity, democracy and peaceful coexistence. We’re working to rapidly spread, adapt, and scale the models and solutions that already exist and help shortcut innovation.

Taking care of nature means taking care of people—and taking care of people means taking care of nature.

We act as a seed head for the game-changing social and scientific visionaries through our annual national conference, award-winning media, local Bioneers Network conferences and initiatives, and leadership training programs. Bioneers is a revolution from the heart of nature and the human heart. Over and over, it’s the story of how great a difference one person can make, and how community makes the difference.

Twenty-five years into our journey, it’s impossible to keep up with the avalanche of authentic solutions, creative responses, and radical transformation occurring in global consciousness.

McKiernan: Do you remember the moment when you decided to create Bioneers?

Ausubel: Bioneers was born in the water, specifically in a hot tub in the mountains near my home of Santa Fe, N.M. I was visiting with Josh Mailman, a friend and visionary leader in social finance. I had previously been affected by ill health and later made a documentary about the corrosive politics of cancer treatment. (The film is called Hoxsey: How Healing Becomes a Crime). One of the big takeaways for me was understanding that the lineage of conventional allopathic medicine’s central reductionist belief was that the body had no ability to heal itself. The doctor had to intervene heroically to kill disease, usually with highly invasive, dangerous, and toxic methods.

To the contrary, natural medicine’s empiric tradition saw the role of the doctor or practitioner as supporting the body’s inherent ability to heal itself, using generally harmless natural products or practices. The principle was this: Working with nature to heal nature. Nature has a profound ability for self-repair and healing. We barely understand it.

The second impulse for Bioneers arose alongside the company I co-founded in 1989, Seeds of Change, the organic seed and backyard biodiversity venture, which taught me that, biologically speaking, diversity is a core principle of nature’s operating instructions.

During the ’70s and ’80s, I’d sought to learn about people who had discovered fundamental solutions to our most pressing environmental and social crises. A pattern emerged. They peered deep into the heart of nature and living systems in search of cues and clues. After all, nature has 3.8 billion years of R and D under her belt. What’s here is what works.

The most basic question they asked: How would nature do it? I came to call them bioneers—biological pioneers who looked to nature not as resource but as teacher, mentor, and model.

Only years later did I realize how profound this experience. Being in nature was like church for me.

As Josh Mailman and I sweated in the cold mountain air, I was raving about these amazing innovators and solutions, and how the world didn’t know about them. He asked: “Why don’t you have a conference?” I’d never even been to a conference and it sounded boring. I shrugged him off. Then he said, “I’m giving you $10,000. Have a conference.”

We did the first Bioneers in 1990, and it was electrifying. Who knew?

McKiernan: Were there other major influencing factors in your life before that?

Ausubel: My father taught at Columbia University and we had these glorious summers on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. That was before it was cool or expensive. My brother and I got turned loose with our bikes, fishing poles, and bathing suits. We lived outdoors. Only years later did I realize how profound this experience. Being in nature was like church for me. Also, I grew up in an academic home which was a floating salon crackling with the intense, spirited exchange of ideas. So Bioneers is very much like that.

McKiernan: Looking back over the 25 years of Bioneers, what have been some highlights for you?

Ausubel: The highlights are countless. I’d say overall the specific convergence of movements and sectors and the accompanying evolution in our collective vision have marked real high points.

For instance, we’ve been a hub for the imperative convergence of the environmental and justice movements. It boils down to this: Taking care of nature means taking care of people—and taking care of people means taking care of nature. You cannot have one without the other.

Another highlight has been to witness the rise of both women’s leadership and the awareness of how crucial it is to restore the balance of masculine and feminine in our institutions, society, and within each of us. For us, this may be the single “trim tab” that shifts the entire system—it’s not just another issue.

A third highlight has been to witness the field of biomimicry really take off. The field literally had no name when we began, until Janine Benyus published her landmark book in 1997, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

The principle was this: Working with nature to heal nature.

McKiernan: Any major low points along the way?

Ausubel: There’s no light without shadow. We had a couple of financial near-death experiences, but we came through them with heroic support from some key individuals. The 3-year organizational restructuring we’ve recently completed was harrowing. Thankfully things are great now. We’ve got a new headquarters in San Francisco and hired the inspirational Joshua Fouts as executive director.

I never set out to build an organization, and then I realized it was completely necessary if we were going to take the work to the level of influence it deserves. For many years, especially at the beginning, few people understood what we were doing, especially in terms of systems thinking. We might as well have been UFOs. I have a Gary Larsen cartoon on my wall. Two beetles are talking, and one says: “Of course we eat a lot of shit—we’re dung beetles.” So all this goes with the territory.

McKiernan: Has Bioneers made a real difference in people’s lives, and in the world around us?

Ausubel: There are countless stories of tangible outcomes. Through a daisy chain of connections we made and related conference programming, Ecuador became the first country in the world to put rights of nature into its national constitution.

Part of our M.O. is as a kind of star search for the greatest people you never heard of. We referred Michael Pollan to the organic farmer Joel Salatin, who became the protagonist as the farmer “who proves organic can feed the world” for The Omnivore’s Dilemma and for “Power Steer,” Michael’s cover story in The New York Times Magazine.

We’ve spawned many award-winning third-party films for the greatest people you never heard of and we were the main source of subjects for Leonardo DiCaprio’s feature documentary The 11th Hour.

Through our Resilient Communities network of local chapters we helped advance numerous initiatives including the Dreaming New Mexico Project. This helped the state achieve greater clean energy and systemic changes in local food production.

In New Bedford, Mass., Bioneers By the Bay helped establish the city’s first energy office and energy department to expand renewables, conservation, and green jobs—including energy audits for more than 3,000 residents, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. For this work, the city won a U.S. Conference of Mayors grant for $300,000.

McKiernan: How do you feel about the state of the world today compared to when you started Bioneers 25 years ago?

It is crucial to restore the balance of masculine and feminine in our institutions, society, and within each of us.

Ausubel: As the state of the world has hurtled from urgency to emergency, we can move from breakdown to breakthrough. The years between now and 2020 will be the most important in the history of human civilization, the decisive window to make the shift.

The ecological debt we’ve incurred is dire. Climate change has crash-landed into the present. The hyper-concentration of wealth has captured our political systems, impoverishing humanity, nature, and democracy. The bottom line is we’re living beyond our means and the collection agency is at the door.

Fortunately, nature has a profound capacity for healing. As a community of leadership, Bioneers is helping disrupt our current failed institutions by offering people better choices. We show a compelling vision, models, and the how. It’s showtime.

McKiernan: How do you see the link between ecology and mental health problems in our world today?

Ausubel: There’s a whole new condition called nature deficit disorder. It’s serious. Overwhelming evidence now exists showing the profound healing capacity of just being in and around nature—even in a park or having a window box with a plant. Hospitals are picking up on it because it saves money by reducing hospital stays.

But it’s bigger than that. In some intuitive way, everyone can feel the horrific destruction that’s going on. We’re part of nature, and we resonate. Everyone is suffering from some background level of post-traumatic stress disorder, or worse. There’s little doubt our psyches and emotions are being ravaged.

There are many other factors too, including behavioral effects of heavy metal poisoning, pesticides, and chemicals. For instance, several studies have shown how violence dropped after lead was removed from gasoline.

The reality is that we’re in for some serious pain but social ties save lives. Over and over, the communities that make it through crisis are the ones where strong relationships exist.

Nature has a profound capacity for healing. Bioneers is helping disrupt our current failed institutions by offering people better choices.

McKiernan: Many people feel lost when it comes to figuring out what role they can play in creating change. Do you have any advice for these people?

Ausubel: Today’s problems are too complex and interrelated for any individual or single discipline to solve. These daunting realities require new forms of leadership and organization anchored in collaboration, teamwork, diversity, and network organizing models.

I have enough trouble figuring out my own life, so I’m not big on giving advice. But really the issue is to engage. Educate yourself, find the issues you most care about, and then learn about the people and groups doing good work and reach out.

As a wise mentor once told me, life is like crossing stepping stones across a rushing river. Often you can’t see the next step till it comes. Take that first step of learning and reaching out. The rest will likely take care of itself.

McKiernan: Finally, is there anything in particular you’re excited about for this year’s Bioneers event?

Ausubel: Everything! We’ve got many of the genuine visionaries with both feet on the ground who’ll be illuminating some of the pathways, such as Naomi Klein, Eve Ensler, Manuel Pastor, and john a. powell. We’ll be looking at how California can become a world leader in responding to climate change, how mushrooms can save the world through detoxifying land and treating breast cancer. We’ll also be exploring cheap solar-energy solutions and indigenous leadership, not to mention having a lot of fun.

More information on Bioneers at www.bioneers.org