The following is Bioneers Executive Director Joshua Fouts’ address to the 2017 Bioneers gathering.
I am thankful to have the opportunity to return to you again now in my fourth year as forever new Executive Director of Bioneers, but like so many of us here, I come to you this morning with a heavy heart.
Bioneers have been gathering for 28 years now, ever since Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons launched this remarkable event, this “movement of movements” and “network of networks,” and the guiding principle was to reveal to world the most promising solutions to humanity’s most pressing crises and to help propel those solutions forward.
We are here to continue that noble work, but sometimes those crises, which frequently cause such devastation in many parts of the world, hit very close to home, or in this case, just about a direct hit, since quite a few of our staff and presenters and attendees and allies and my family have been directly impacted by the fires that have raged these past weeks just north of here.
In fact until a few days ago the Exhibit Hall was housing several hundred evacuees.
Let me, therefore, before proceeding any further, offer my deepest condolences to all those who have lost loved ones and/or their homes. We will hold you in our hearts this weekend, and we dedicate this gathering to you in the hope that some of the ideas and approaches highlighted and explored here will turn out to be useful in helping you rebuild a more resilient, greener region, one less likely to suffer this sort of apocalyptic event.
We don’t yet know the immediate cause of the fires, but we do know that climate disruptions and our land use patterns are contributing to making wildfires and flooding and storm events far more destructive, something we have been witnessing these past few months.
Some of what we will discuss here in the coming days is how we as a species can use the best tools of science and innovative, nature-honoring design in combination with the profound ecological wisdom of the original inhabitants of this land, to build a more resilient, restorative relationship to our land and waters.
There is, for example, much we can learn about living in a fire-prone landscape from the original inhabitants of this land, who had highly sophisticated fire management techniques, something that will surely be discussed here in the days ahead.
But we kick-off this 28th year of Bioneers against the backdrop of a great deal of uncertainty and upheaval all around us, marked not only by ever more unprecedented climatic events but by more global political turbulence than we have seen in generations.
But let us not lose sight of the fact that the potential for deep positive transformation, for a new era based on clean energy, social justice and awakened compassion, is ready to be born out of this seeming chaos.
In that light, I want to share a story with you about how my contact with some Native American people recently provided me with some much needed perspective.
A few weeks ago I had the great honor of being hosted by several members of the Navajo and Hopi Nations on the rim of the Grand Canyon in the Four Corners region.
The trip was part of a larger Bioneers partnership with the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversations Group. CPIC is a groundbreaking initiative that for the past eight years has convened regional First Nations in dialogues and collaborations to both resist the ongoing destruction by extractive industries and to create a self-directed landscape and green economy.
We spent some time in deep dialogue about a current collaboration between Bioneers and CPIC. We’re partnering with our esteemed colleagues Tom Linzey and Mari Margil of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to offer Rights of Nature legal trainings in the region and beyond. Under our current system, nature is property.
It has no rights.
We need to change the paradigm to one where nature has the intrinsic right to exist, persist, evolve and flourish – where people can stand legally on behalf of critters and rivers and ecosystems.
This is something First Peoples consider painfully obvious, but the rest of us have a lot of catching up to do on the philosophical level.
I have spent time with Native Amazonian peoples in Brazil including the Ashaninka thanks to an Invoking the Pause grant, but my trip to the Navajo Nation was the first time in my adult life that I had been welcomed onto a First Nation’s homeland in North America.
During the trip I asked several of our hosts what they thought of the tensions many people in the U.S. were feeling about the Trump Administration. To my consternation most of those with whom I spoke didn’t seem terribly upset by Trump. “Kit Carson,” one person told me, “Now he was a real challenge.” Carson you’ll recall was New Mexican mountain man and army officer noted for his savage campaigns in the 1800s to force the relocation of Navajos and Apaches to reservations.
“Columbus,” another person echoed, ”now he was super problematic.” Trump, they offered, was really just more of the same. These folks understood full well what a setback for most Native Americans and Americans in general this regime represents, but they really know how to take the long view .
Then again. Columbus didn’t have nukes.
One highlight of our trip was a visit to the farm of Rosemary Williams, a Diné grandmother. Rosemary has a multi-acre farm of corn, squash, and pumpkins situated in a small dusty valley near Tuba City, Arizona (known as Tó Naneesdizíin).
Amazingly, Rosemary only has access to one irrigation flood per season. The rest of the season her crops in this very arid land are fed from whatever scant rain passes her way and some strategically placed water bottles.
At one point we noticed some dark monsoon season clouds gathered in the distance and assumed they were headed our way. Rosemary told us not to worry. She told us that the rain usually passes over her valley. But still her crops were lush and full.
As she talked about her caretaking of her plot of land, she added that she uses no pesticides or fertilizers and is vehemently opposed to non-reproducing GMO seeds that are being shopped to some of her neighbors.
She shared a harrowing story I would hear repeated by many Native Americans of a certain age on this trip. When she was a little girl the US Bureau of Indian Affairs came to her house and told her parents they were taking her away. For the dozen or so years following, Rosemary spent 9 months or so each year away from her family living with a non-Native foster family outside of Los Angeles. Rosemary tells the story quite sanguinely. I found it shocking to imagine that Native American children as late as the 1960s were still effectively being forcibly removed from their families and placed in the homes of strangers.
And, yet, for Rosemary, it had all been a part of her journey.
Where she found real delight was in the summers when she would return from her foster care and work the farm with her grandfather. Her grandfather taught her how to talk to the plants for best results. To treat them with respect. To weed them with vigor and to run, run, run to the next assignment.
In these front line communities that have often born the brunt of the worst racism and injustice our society could throw at them, there is, at least among the elders I met, an inner core of extraordinary calm, centered resilience.
Their people survived an attempted genocide and have lived under brutal oppression for hundreds of years, and they have, as a result, developed a very long, broad view of the sweep of history.
And the psychic anchor their long-lived traditions and highly sophisticated worldview provides them with makes them totally confident in their ability to outlast their oppressors and survive cataclysms.
I’m not saying there is never a time to be in a hurry or to demand immediate change, because many of our challenges do require rapid responses, and much of what we will be discussing this weekend will be about mobilizing our resources and efforts to push forward here and now, but one of the main lessons I brought back from this journey is that these battles we are currently engaged in for healthy lands and waters and greater inclusivity and justice are struggles many Indigenous peoples have been waging for generations.
We have to understand that in quite a few cases this will be long-term, multi-generational endeavor.
So, yes, we must all work for a better world today, and rebuild after disasters and help those who need our help immediately, but also understand that we’re in it for the long haul.
Meanwhile, these people made it clear to me by their living example that we must never forget to love the Earth, the land and its bounty, and the glorious magic of life as often as we can even in the midst of crisis.
They showed me that if we can cultivate a resilient sense of joy, we will be much happier, and we will increase our odds of winning the struggles we must wage. So, I thank you, Diné and Hopi elders and especially Deon Ben, Rosemary Williams and Tony Skrelunas, for your presence and your teachings.
And thank you Bioneers. I wish you all as productive, inspiring and joyous a weekend as humanly possible.