A few weeks ago, I attended the Bioneers 2016 conference in San Rafael, California. I had never heard about it until my academic advisor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey urged me to look into it, almost as a therapeutic activity; we don’t often get the chance to see how our own belief in environmental sustainability and human interconnectedness is echoed outside our own little communities or academic bubbles. From my cursory investigations, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the speakers or participants. Some talks, such as Fire and Water: Land and Watershed Management in the Age of Climate Change, were hosted by scientists like Brock Dolman, while others focused intensely on spirituality, social and community activism, grassroots conservation efforts, and government resistance. I had a feeling I would be seeing many Birkenstocks.
I was correct.
Upon our arrival, my fellow International Environmental Policy graduate students and I walked through rows of booths giving out samples of sustainable yogurt and advertising solar panel installation. At this point I was a bit concerned- obviously grad students don’t have a lot of disposable income, and I hoped that I would still be able to do my part in promoting a sustainable way of life without spending money. But a recurring theme, especially one promoted by panelists in the Carbon, Climate, Food and Fiber, was that each person contributed to a healthy or unhealthy environment at least three times daily in the purchasing and consumption of foods, and more often than that in other lifestyle changes such as carpooling and bicycling instead of driving cars.
The majority of the presenters specifically pointed out that we will need to instigate a cultural shift from unsustainable practices to those which will bring us back in alignment with the planet’s natural progression. Bren Smith, a fisherman by trade, spoke about the great need for transitioning away from reliance on fish and other unsustainable seafood and toward other nutritional sources such as seaweed. His company, GreenWave, suspends kelp and bivalve-growing equipment in the water column, calling it “restorative 3-D ocean farming”. The applications and results for these “ocean farming” method seem almost too good to be true- it sequesters carbon, can replace animal feed on farms, can replace meat as a nutritious food source, and can serve as agricultural fertilizer, all while purifying the coastal waters in which these nutritional organisms are grown.
At this point, we cannot rely on merely decreasing our fish intake, or lowering our carbon footprint. We will need to make drastic changes that begin to reverse the harm that our ancestors have already caused and restore the environment as much as possible. Bill McKibben, social activist and professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, put forth that our scientists and engineers have the capacity to save the environment, a virtual “world of possibilities, should we choose to use them”.
It will be extremely difficult for us to begin to fight the current progression, but not impossible. The difficulty will not come from a lack of new innovations in science or technology—those are improving all the time. The real challenge will be to shift cultural attitudes and norms toward taking responsibility for ourselves by realizing that human beings are a part of nature, not separate from it. We already have much of the technology needed to cease the emissions of carbon and other harmful gases while sequestering carbon at the same time. According to Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed, proper ecological maintenance of land currently used for animal and plant cultivation (by transition to permaculture practices) could sequester enough carbon within five years to almost completely mitigate anthropogenic carbon emissions.
The key to our success, said Bill McKibben, lies in our innate human ability to cooperate and collaborate. He said, “The stories we tell each other can’t be about the solar panels on our particular roofs or our particular net zero homes, or our particular lives, or any of that. Those are very good things, but they’re not the thing. Those stories of I have to be replaced by stories of we.” Many of the workshops, such as those teaching solar cooking, sustainable wattle-and-daub building methods, and permaculture, focused on individual capacity. But the entire conference echoed the ways in which we had to work together as a species to ensure a healthy and beautiful future. Each night concluded with hugs and music as a reminder that our human-kindness can be leveraged for good.