Emerging awareness

Local, national environmental leaders spread message of hope at Bioneers Conference

Environmental activist Bill McKibben addresses the crowd at Marin Center at the 2012 Bioneers Conference.

Environmental activist Bill McKibben addresses the crowd at Marin Center at the 2012 Bioneers Conference.

photo by leslie freeland

Bioneers connection:
Go to www.bioneers.org to learn more.

Caleen Sisk, chief and spiritual leader of the Mt. Shasta Winnemem Wintu tribe, spoke at this year’s Bioneers Conference, asking that her tribe’s way of life be remembered, respected and given a chance for revitalization. She described how her attempts to persuade the government to help restore the chinook salmon population—the historical source of the tribe’s subsistence—to the McCloud River have been thwarted because the Winnemem are not a federally recognized tribe.

The Winnemem believe that all life is interconnected, and when the salmon go, the people will soon follow.

Sisk was among a roster of impressive speakers at the recent 23rd annual three-day environmental and social-justice seminar. Bioneers—aka the Collective Heritage Institute—is a nonprofit organization founded in 1990 by Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons to promote social and environmental health using the earth’s natural systems as an operating manual.

The Bioneers Conference invites pioneers in the fields of conservation and restoration of cultural and biological diversity—“bioneers.” The presentations at the conference may be heard via the public-radio series “Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature” (go to www.bioneers.org/radio to learn more).

Sisk explained that when Shasta Dam was erected during World War II, it flooded most of the tribe’s sacred land and sacrificed the run of the chinook. Prior to that, the Baird Hatchery on the McCloud River had captured the fish for breeding and exported eggs around the world. When the Winnemem recently learned that descendents of the McCloud chinook were thriving in a hatchery on the Rakaia River in New Zealand, Sisk and her tribe traveled there and were welcomed by the native Maori tribes.

The Maori, said Sisk, have agreed to transport some of those salmon eggs home to the McCloud River; the Winnemem are proposing a plan to circumvent Shasta Dam and provide a viable run for the salmon.

Sisk presented a portion of the documentary Dancing Salmon Home, which chronicles the Winnemem tribe’s journey to New Zealand, and said she is hopeful there will be a part two, celebrating the return of the salmon.

The hope of rising triumphant in order to preserve life was at the core of this year’s conference theme—emergence. That message of resilience and regeneration rang clear throughout the seminar.

Bioneers speaker Caleen Sisk (second from left) with members of the California Student Sustainability Coalition.

photo by leslie freeland

I had first attended the annual Bioneers Conference—which is always toward the end of October in San Rafael—in 2007 as part of a Chico State Bioneers class. It was an electrically charged, informative experience, and everyone in the room seemed to feel it.

This year, the presenters were equally charged, speaking to an estimated 3,000 attendees from all over the world—political figures, educators, artists, business owners, students, entrepreneurs and community members of all ages and color.

One of the conference’s headliners for 2012 was environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, co-founder of climate-change activism organization 350.org. McKibben was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd—one of the event’s most enthusiastic audience reactions. Widely known for his book The End of Nature, about the threat of global warming, McKibben was recently celebrated for his Rolling Stone magazine article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” (go to http://tinyurl.com/billmcclimate to read the article), in which he discusses the amount of carbon emissions being dumped into the atmosphere, the rising temperature of the planet, and the skyrocketing profits of the fossil-fuel industry.

McKibben reiterated those topics at the conference, where he also promoted his cross-country “Do the Math” tour (go to http://math.350.org/ to learn more): On Nov. 7, 350.org hit the road to rouse activists and students to organize, in the fashion of the 1980s anti-apartheid movement, to persuade universities and other investors to stop supporting Big Oil companies considered by environmentalists as dangerous to the health of the planet.

He shared a slideshow about 350.org’s Connect the Dots campaign (go to www.climatedots.org to learn more), an international effort to demonstrate the relationship between extreme weather and climate change around the globe. He also spoke of the 350.org-led demonstration in August 2011 in Washington, D.C., during which 65 activists were arrested while peacefully “sitting in” in front of the White House. The campaign was successful in halting the Keystone XL pipeline project, intended to tap the oil in Canada’s tar sands. McKibben cited NASA scientist Jim Hansen’s assessment in a recent New York Times article that burning the oil from Canada’s tar sands would equal “game over” for the climate.

“This is the moral crisis of our time,” said McKibben of climate change. “There is no more room for speculation or indecisiveness. If we do not act now we will operate on emergency response from here on in.

“It’s going to be a fight,” he said. “We’re going to do it peacefully and we’re going to do it civilly, but we are going to fight.”

In addition to McKibben, Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club and author of Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal, was another crowd pleaser. Brune spoke about the victories of the grassroots Beyond Coal Campaign (go to www.beyondcoal.org to learn more) to shut down existing coal plants and prevent the creation of new plants, due to environmental and community health concerns.

Ditto for the Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and executive director of GreenFaith, a national interfaith environmental coalition (to learn more go to www.greenfaith.org ). Harper underscored the sentiment that the climate crisis is a moral and spiritual imperative. Interestingly, he pointed out that, aside from Facebook, religious institutions are the largest social network on the planet, with a reach and scope that is unparalleled, and therefore, an untapped resource for environmentalists.

“We have to blush in the presence of the Native Americans who are scratching their heads wondering how we are only realizing now the importance of the environment to our spiritual well-being,” Harper said.