Archive for October, 2010

Bioneers 2010 Conference in St. Paul

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Kari and I attended the 5th Annual Northland Bioneers Conference over the weekend, the first one held at Macalester College in St. Paul.  I’d stopped in at previous Bioneer Conferences over the years, held at Willey Hall on the University of Minnesota West Bank Campus.  The new venue, along with a tighter program schedule, more in-person sessions, a stronger focus on permaculture, and the sturdy key-note presence of Bill and Becky Wilson, all added up to making this year’s event, by far, the best one I’ve been to.

Bioneers, as a term, started in California, one of many “movements” emanating from the west coast.  For awhile, I wondered why we in the Midwest would even follow their (California) terminology and terms in staging such an event.  After all, we have our own level of meterological, political, social currents to deal with — who needs to stake their fortune on what is going on in California?  But, after this weekend, and knowing the importance of permaculture and what it offers individuals and the planet, I surrender all qualms about “bioneers” or “permaculture conference” or “west coast”.  The key is to be relevant, to be effective, to be cutting edge — and to have a vision for the future that is truly positive, creative and whole.   This year’s Northland Bioneers Conference was all of that.

Let’s touch a couple of highlights.

First, Bill and Becky Wilson came up from Illinois.  Together, they run Midwest Permaculture, a little for-profit organization in Stelle, Illinois that offers courses in permaculture topics all the way up to a full PDC (permaculture design certificate), which is the educational cornerstone in permaculture.  They were both great, highly accessible– taking time to visit with conference attendees –knowledgeable, warm, welcoming, fun and fully engaged.  Bill, in particular, as keynote speaker, was vibrant, well-informed and effective in bringing the message of permaculture to his diverse audience.  He’s been at it since 2004, and his fluidity with the material, his slides, his key points — he gets it to work in a powerful way.  He works the big picture down toward specific systems, then comes up for air using permacultural principles to reinforce his message:

  1. “We need to move from a culture of consumption to a culture of creation.”
  2. “Like the old Scout Masters’ favorite proviso, we need to leave the planet in a little better shape than how we found it.”
  3. “We have the creativity, the ingenuity to deal with the planet’s challenges responsibly and in a way that ensures a good quality of life for future generations, if we choose to do so.”

As a teacher I especially appreciated Bill’s ability to work with groups in an “Open Space” format where topics are suggested by the audience, individuals form their own groups by choice, people are asked to either be learning or contributing or move elsewhere, and then key take aways are shared with the larger group.  I am certainly an educator who believes in the wisdom of the crowd and that is a brilliant format for accessing it.  That melted my butter.  Thanks to Bill and Becky for their passion, leadership and warmth.  The Midwest is well-represented on the international permaculture stage!

A couple of workshop presentations also caught our attention.

Mark Bailey, an auto-didact with a fascinating back-story, presented on “Scenario Planning”, a tool used by decision-makers to plan for and understand the range of likely future conditions and what steps to take in preparation for dealing with them.  Scenario planning creates a matrix of possible outcomes and typically isolates a couple of variables to focus thinking around which outcome is most likely.  For me, the tool seems extremely useful as we try to weigh scenarios that will flow from our current fossil-fuel dependency, global climate change reality and burgeoning economic instability.  As in: when and how is this thing going to unravel?  Hopefully, at some point in the future, Kari and I and our team at RNH will run through some variables in this exercise, see what is most probable as a future storyline and share that.  One thing that is clear from the scenario planning exercise:  the more people structure resilience and collaboration into their vision of the future, the more probable it becomes that we have a good chance to get through this.

On Saturday as well, we stopped in on the Transition Towns presentation of Bill and Becky Wilson.  Started by Rob Hopkins in England, himself a teacher of permaculture, the Transition Towns movement recognizes a couple of important truths about how we get from our current culture of consumption and atomized living units to a new paradigm of creativity and social collaboration, and that is:  we do it by having fun and including everyone.  In other words, whatever is coming down the pike at us, the best approach to adaptation is to plan for having song, beer, stories, shade trees, shoemakers and everything that a village needs in order to keep the individuals in that village engaged, purposeful and creative.  The human race survived and thrived for thousands of years without access to fossil fuels and high technology because it was able to work together and provide for its members in scaled communities–having fun in the process.  That will always be a necessity if we are going to continue.  And most of that is about understanding how relationships are vital.  All kinds of relationships, between people, between plants, between landscapes, between humans and animals, animals and plants, plants and people, the present and the future.  I like the Transition Towns movement in its breadth, depth and soulful understanding that we can make a happy place to live on this planet without simultaneously destroying it.

Again, kudos to Bill and Becky for bringing a coherent presentation on this emerging movement which can be legitimately considered an offshoot of permaculture.

Sunday, Kari and I sat in on the presentation of Wilhelm and Leslie Reindl, like us rural homesteaders from Wisconsin.  They spoke about the need for an alternative rural economy, a reconsideration of America’s “social contract”, and rebuilding resilience from the ground up out in the country.  A weighty topic to be sure.  Most of the presentation though, focused on the realities and history of communities that did not get it right: like, how on Easter Island, as the native tree population dwindled, the inhabitants of the island postulated that they were not building their statues tall enough, and that they needed to perfect their appeal to the gods in order to be saved, before it was too late.  Well, guess what?   They cut down the last of their trees, ran out of resources and it really was too late.  In other words, when push came to shove and the need to change was manifest, they opted to double-down on their existing paradigm, resulting in disaster.  Not a good model for the modern world to follow.  Wilhelm also astutely pointed out that, here we are at the pinnacle of the modern world economy, and we have created as many undesirable outcomes as we have desirable:  in terms of poor and displaced populations, in terms of environmental degradation, in terms of unequal distribution of resources.  If this is what things look like at the top, pray tell what will they look like when we get into climate change, peak resource depletion and economic chaos?  That truly is frightening.  So, while he did not get to fully flesh out his system, Wilhelm and Leslie propose an economic model where the links between businesses (on boards of directors and such) in an area are so diverse  and numerous that the default decision-making model of “self-interest” results in choices that are of benefit to the common good.  The big destructive troika currently operating in our society, “self interest”, “indifference of others”, and “fear”, is resulting in a social order whose contract leads to inevitable collapse.  Wilhelm’s solution, “common interest”, “compassion” and “a sense of belonging” do indeed fit within the permaculture pantheon of essential ethics.

Ron Spinosa gave an interesting presentation about mushrooms late in the afternoon on Sunday.  Past president of the Minnesota Mycological Society, Ron talked extensively about how oyster mushrooms have tremendous utility in providing food, jobs and environmental remediation to human populations.  Permaculturalists are inherent lovers of mushrooms because of fungi’s uncanny ability to provide linkage between nutrients and plant roots, and because they are so incredibly representative of everything that we don’t fully understand happening below the soil.  In any case, this presentation focussed on a couple of very fascinating developments involving an organization called Zeri, founded by Gunter Pauli, whose entire effort is to create industries which produce absolutely zero waste.  (Zeri’s acronym is Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives.)   They use mushrooms at key points to handle waste products and turn them into viable inputs for other systems, like taking spent grain from a brewery operation and turning it into pig food.  Any reader of Paul Stametz books, (Mycellium Running, for example) would understand that the power and utility of fungi to transform our world is truly unlimited.

Anyway, those are the highlights from the Bioneers Conference of 2010.  We missed more than we took in, but if our small sample was at all representative of the whole, this area can rightly feel confident about the work being done– here in the Midwest– to make this world a better place.  Recognition should go out to Northland Sustainable Solutions and all the volunteers who worked so very hard to make the conference a success.  Blessings on every one of you.