“Healing at the Intersections: Environment and Social Justice Conjoin at Bioneers,” Nina Simon’s Remarks at the 2017 Goi Peace Awards

Editors Note: Following are Nina Simon’s remarks as delivered as 2017 honoree of the Goi Peace Foundation with Bioneers co-founder Kenny Ausubel. 

First, I must express my deepest gratitude to the Goi Peace Foundation, for honoring both of us, and Bioneers, with this award. We accept this honor with humility, and on behalf of the large and extended community of those visionaries that Kenny, back in 1990, coined a term to describe: “Bioneers.”

There’s something mysterious about a made-up word like Bioneers. Perhaps it’s like music or love, in that each of us may find our own ways of relating to it.

What we mean now by Bioneers is scientific, political and social innovators, activists, cultural bridge-builders and leaders from many walks of life and fields of endeavor who are collaboratively contributing to the great global ecological and social and cultural transformation now underway.

It is an enormous validation that you here at the Goi Peace Foundation, who have done so much to promote world peace, and are based halfway around the globe from the U.S., have heard of Bioneers and perceive value in our work. Thank you.

In accepting this honor, I wish to offer some reflections about what I think makes Bioneers a unique enterprise. On the physical plane, it’s a relatively small non-profit organization, but one that has developed into a key nexus point for many diverse but intersecting social movements.

We seek to go beyond the idea of sustainability as a goal. Merely sustaining ecosystems and communities, at their current rate of degradation, loss and suffering, we find too timid as an ultimate goal.

We aim for a human footprint that is regenerative for all of life. We seek the restoration of health and vitality to natural systems and human communities by combining the best of ancient wisdom with the leading edge of contemporary “whole systems” approaches.

At the heart of this notion is the idea that we humans need to be humble, to become students of nature’s extraordinarily sophisticated design genius.

One of the foundations of our worldview is that, as in the natural world where the most diverse ecosystems are the most resilient and vital, the human enterprise also is healthiest when it is characterized by high degrees of diversity.

In our work, therefore, we have always sought to highlight a broad array of innovative approaches to solving problems, presented from differing perspectives, disciplines, generations and cultures, including a very strong emphasis on honoring the wisdom of indigenous, “first peoples’ and of their long-lived traditional ecological wisdom.

Here in Japan, you have been able to maintain far more of a connection to your ancestral wisdom about respecting and working with nature than we have in North America, so I think we have much to learn from you in that regard.

At a conference in 1994, the physicist, ecologist and activist Vandana Shiva from India offered some crucial distinctions between a “bioneer” and a pioneer. She warned that rapid scientific innovations intended to improve upon biology through agriculture posed tremendous risks.

Aggressive scientists and corporations seeking to profit from poorly-conceived genetic manipulation will look very like the European pioneers. They thought that every land they conquered was empty of people, so they saw no need to respect any pre-existing rights.

Those who we have called bioneers, on the other hand, recognize that every step we take is on a full earth populated by a tremendous variety of species and many other people.

The pioneer ‘empty land’ ethic,” Vandana noted “leads to violence against species and to genocide. The colonizing pioneer mind assumes there are no limits to be respected, no ecological limits, no ethical limits, no limits to greed or accumulation, no limits to inequality.”

Whereas authentic bioneers, she said, “know that limits are the first law of nature, encoded in the ecological processes that make life possible. Limits of the nutrient cycle in soil, limits of the water cycle. The limits set by the intrinsic right of diverse species to exist set limits on our actions, if we genuinely respect other beings.

Ethical limits are what make us human. To be sustainable, a society must live within those limits.”

Vandana spoke of a Hindi word that means “We are one earth family,” or the “democracy of life.”

She explained that “to bioneers, it means not just diverse human cultures, but all beings. The mountains and the rivers are beings too. We bioneers respect all the beings, large and small,

without a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority, because everything has a part to play ecologically in the web of life, even if we do not fully understand how.”

Being a bioneer also means appreciating that, just as the web of life is interconnected and interdependent, so too are all the issues we face.

It became increasingly clear to me that there could no longer be any perceived separation between people and the “environment.” We are a part of nature, not apart from it. Our bodies are made of the same elements, the same DNA as plants, fungi and animals.

We are all connected, both biologically and spiritually. Since the earth is a closed loop, the cup of tea you drink today may have once been Cleopatra’s bathwater.

What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. When we harm ourselves and other people, we damage the earth. Therefore, being a bioneer must include pursuing social justice and equity for all humans as well as protecting species and ecosystems.

For the first ten years or so, I used the term “bioneer”to describe the people on stage, the presenters we invited to speak, Innovators who offered brilliant new approaches and practical models of ecological or social restoration.

I was unaware of my own internalized hierarchy, but all that changed when the late J.L. Chestnut spoke in 2001.

He was a renowned attorney and legendary Civil Rights activist since the brutal struggles in the U.S. South of the 1950s, and my definition of a bioneer expanded into something larger.

He was telling the story of winning the largest class action lawsuit in the history of America – against the US Governmentfor institutional racism against black farmers in the Southeastern U.S. It was a powerful talk, and he did something I’d never heard before. He began to use the word ‘bioneer’ to address everyone in the room.

He noted that the progress that’s being made, slowly but surely, to bring our country toward racial and social justice and true democracy was due in part to the efforts of “You bioneers, dedicated progressive people like you.”

He went on to say: “I raise these concerns to you because fighting on behalf of women, on behalf of minority people of color, fighting on behalf of the environment and the planet are all one big battle. We bioneers know (he said) that violence, greed, racism, unchecked materialism, and abuse of this planet and the nature in and on it is its own form of terrorism. And will eventually destroy us if we don’t first put an end to it.”

It was a revelatory moment for me. Suddenly, the word didn’t just describe the visionary speakers on stage, but applied to us all. Not only the presenters, but every man, woman and child present, hearing our podcasts or seeing our videos, or anyone working toward healing our relationship with Earth in thousands of different ways.

All our contributions, all our collective creativity and imagination were needed to remake this world. We were all bioneers, if we chose to be. We each had a role to play.

As J.L. Chestnut said, the way that we have treated women, people of color, Indigenous people and the Earth are all just different octaves of the same legacy. We all – regardless of our many differences – bear scars from a culture that was founded on conquest, exploitation and oppression.

I began to see that we are all, in varying ways, responding to often-unconscious influences and implicit biases from a legacy of disrespect and violence that manifests on all levels of society – from the personal, emotional and physical to the economic, political and environmental.

Thankfully, we also know the power of community and connection, and we are gifted with a capacity for self-reflection and choice. Each time we relate caringly, meeting others where they are or on common ground, instead of reinforcing separation, we begin to help heal and restore our social landscape.

Each time we renew ourselves in nature, sensing with our full bodies, hearts and intuitions the repair and guidance she so abundantly offers, we help the healing happen.

Over the years, Bioneers has evolved greatly, prompted in part by this understanding.

We hope to educate, inspire and ignite engaged action and leadership, while identifying and illuminating many of the most promising solutions and strategies.

By juxtaposing seemingly disparate issue areas, and mingling them with arts and ceremony, we help reveal how all issues are part of one dynamic, inter-related living system, which embeds us within the context of the living world.

We all need each other to make the large-scale changes we face. Relationships of authentic cooperation, collaboration and community will become absolutely critical in the years ahead, because we are facing immense challenges.

Bridging our differences respectfully will determine whether and how we may succeed at shifting human civilization from our current ecologically suicidal trajectory.

In the past several years, I have realized that for me to be able to help create effective change “out there” in the world, I must also work on seeing – and then changing – myself.

There have been many ways in which I have internalized the unresolved wounds and blind spots of our U.S. culture, from gender bias to racial injustice. I am trying hard to reconcile them to make peace within myself.

As I’ve searched for insights to help me in this quest, I’ve come to feel that – while racial divides still rupture our societies (and the discrimination and wounding that so many minority people experience each day horrifies me) – the biases that privilege the masculine over the feminine create at least as great an unconscious barrier to equity and peace among people around the world as faith, race or cultural differences.

In recent years, studies have shown that globally, gender is the bias most deeply embedded in the human psyche.

Like most or many women, I’ve experienced thousands of moments of feeling diminished, threatened or intimidated because of my gender.

Inwardly, I also see ways I’ve unconsciously acquired some learned beliefs about women, and limited my own options and pathways as a result.

I realize that gender and race are only two of the many ways we diminish each other and ourselves. Nearly all of us have experienced feeling slighted or disrespected somewhere – whether for our ethnicity, age, size, sexual preference, ability, class or appearance.

While I am inspired to see that much progress has occurred in some of these areas, we have far more work to do to heal the wounds that separate us.

I believe that investing in the leadership of women – and restoring the ‘feminine’ to a place of equilibrium with the ‘masculine’ throughout all of our lived experience as individuals, as well as in our institutions and culture – are essential to the global transformation that we, as a species, are being called to make, in order to shift our course to a life-affirming future on Earth.

Around the globe, we see clearly that wherever the rights, opportunities and safety of women improve, benefits result for all areas of society. As women’s leadership and gender equity increase, so too do economic prosperity, public health, education, peace and the security of nations.

As women’s education and reproductive rights improve globally, they will also have significant effects in curbing population growth, drawing down carbon and slowing climate change.

Since we’ve inherited some skewed stereotypes about what the masculine and feminine really mean, I’d suggest we seek to identify and reclaim healthy identities that can welcome a full array of our human capacities, regardless of what our physical gender identity might be.

And, because we all contain masculine and feminine within us, this is ultimately about restoring our human wholeness. About practicing listening and not-knowing, more often than asserting that we know the answers. About evolving from power over to power with and power to co-create change.

It’s about trusting that leadership is often better shared, and that win-win solutions frequently exist, if we seek them out patiently, practicing mutual respect, patience and trust. As indigenous peoples of Central America say, “the bird of humanity has been trying to fly for far too long with only one wing.”

May we have the humility to listen for guidance from the land,

from our ancestors, and from our bodies and hearts,

as well as our minds, dreams and intuition.

May we find the collective vision, courage and will

to decolonize our minds and hearts,

reclaiming a balance of feminine & masculine,

of receptive and active, of yin and yang in equal measure

that flow through us each and all.

May our partnership with mother Earth, Gaia,

and the sweet and salty waters that flow in her veins,

the winds and clouds that caress and bathe her,

and the fires that cleanse and restore her vitality,

and our kinship with all the creatures large and small

who share this magnificent home

become our devotional, long-term relationship practice.

May this lead us collectively toward a world

that’s re-infused with a sense of the sacred,

where the future children of all species live and flourish in peace,

and where restorative justice, peace, health and regeneration thrive.

May it be so. Thank you.

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