25 Years of Bioneers: World Transits

by J.P. Harpignies, Associate Producer, Conference & Special Projects

At and around the time of the first Bioneers Conference in the fall of 1990:

  • The Berlin Wall had fallen a year before, and the Soviet Union would still exist for another year.
  • The first Gulf War had just begun that August.
  • E-mail was not in the lexicon and would not become mainstream for several more years.
  • James Hansen had testified before Congress about the risks of climate change in 1988, and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature came out in 1989, but concepts of global warming or climate change were far from most people’s consciousness.
  • The concept of biomimicry was almost unheard of until Janine Benyus’ 1997 book, but Bioneers was strongly focused on bioremediation and other nature-emulating technologies and approaches from the get-go.
  • The Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound took place in March 1989. Some thought it would finally expose the folly of a fossil fuel-dependent economy, but like after many spills before, right up to 2010’s massive BP Deepwater Horizon debacle, business-as-usual has gone on.
  • The Clean Air Act was passed in 1990.
  • Robert Bullard’s seminal book Dumping in Dixie, published in 1990, was the first textbook on environmental justice, and built on previous work, including the first civil rights suit challenging the siting of a waste facility in 1979 and the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice’s groundbreaking 1987 report “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States.”
  • Rodney King beating: March 1991; LA riots: April 1992.
  • President Clinton signs NAFTA/GATT in 1993, accelerating globalization.
  • U.S. environmental justice movement progressed onto the global stage in 1995 when environmental justice delegates participated in the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing.
  • In 1996, environmental justice activist Carl Anthony spoke at Bioneers for the first time.
  • The Glass-Steagall Act was repealed in 1999 toward the end of Clinton’s term, contributing to the banking crisis nine years later.
  • Yugoslav/Balkan wars, 1991-1999. First major armed conflict in Europe since WWII.
  • Mass incarceration emerges as a major economic, racial and social justice issue: Between 1970 and 2000, while the general population rose by less than 40%, the number of people in prison and jail rose by more than 500%.
    • By comparison, between 1920 and 1970 overall population nearly doubled and the number of people in prison increased at just a slightly higher pace.
    • Number of prisoners per 100,000 population, 1925: 79
    • Number of prisoners per 100,000 population, 1980: 139
    • Number of prisoners per 100,000 population, 2000: 478
    • Number of prisoners and jail inmates per 100,000 population, 2000: 699
    • The crack cocaine “epidemic” that devastated inner cities in the 80s and early 90s began to ease somewhat by the mid to late 90s; crime rates began to fall; and gang violence began to decrease in many places. Incarceration rates have only fallen slightly even as crime rates have fallen dramatically.
  • 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization demonstrations and subsequent actions around the world put the anti-globalization movement firmly on the map. Jerry Mander first came to Bioneers in 1998 speaking on the topic, and Bioneers became an important focal point for discussions on the “dismantling of corporate power” with Richard Grossman, Andrew Kimbrell, et al.
  • 2000: collapse of the dot.com bubble, NASDAQ falls more than 50%.
  • Social media emerge:
    • Google founded in 1998
    • You Tube and Facebook founded in 2004
    • Twitter founded in 2006
    • Facebook, just to cite one, went from 1 million users at the end of 2004 to over 1 billion today.
  • Most of the successful independent socially conscious enterprises started in the 70s and 80s got absorbed into large multinationals in the later 90s and 2000s. For example:
    • Body Shop bought by L’Oreal in 2006.
    • Ben and Jerry’s bought by Unilever in 2000.
    • Cascadian Farms bought by General Mills in 2000
  • Stolen presidential election of 2000 in the U.S. Controversy among progressives over Ralph Nader’s run.
  • 9/11/2001 followed by the wars in Afghanistan (2001-?) and Iraq (2003-?). Immense shift of resources to the national security sector and enormous lasting expenses from the wars that will run into the trillions, contributing to national infrastructure eroding, cost of education rising, middle class shrinking and squeezed, leading in turn to political instability and paralysis.
  • 2005: Hurricane Katrina; the mess in New Orleans exposes structural racism and coming climate threats.
  • Financial crisis of 2007/2008.
  • 2009: Emergence of the Tea Party in the U.S., and right wing populist and anti-immigrant groups in Europe also continue to grow; political instability rises as middle classes are squeezed and desperation, poverty, war, and climate change generate ever more refugees.
  • 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill drives home once again the folly of fossil fuels.
  • 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United and subsequent decisions open the floodgates for money in politics.
  • 2011: Occupy Wall Street adds the 1% to the lexicon.
  • 2011: Hurricane Irene does major damage in New York and Vermont, among other places
  • 2012: Superstorm Sandy wallops New York and New Jersey. Climate change, sea level rise driven home.

To today: a period of apparently ever-increasing instability with China’s rise, disruptive climate events, water shortages, cyclic economic crises, permanent structural shrinking of the living standard of developed world’s middle classes, political instability, increasing full-blown regional wars or low level guerilla conflicts all over the place (Congo, Sudan, Nigeria, Mali, Algeria, Libya, all over the Middle East, Ukraine and Chechnya/Ingushetia in Europe, Maoist rebellions in India, Uighur resistance in western China, long lasting rebellions in the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, among others) and immense refugee crises globally, spread of tropical and zoonotic diseases to temperate regions, etc.

What Will the Next 25 Years Bring?

The ways the world will change in the coming years hinge greatly on what we do at this once-in-a-civilization moment.

If you share our belief that the solutions to global challenges are largely present and we all need to step us as leaders to spread and scale them quickly in the face of urgent crises, please join us for the next 25 years of even more breakthroughs for environmental, economic, and social transformation.

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