For those in Cincinnati trying to change their lives - and their community - to be more environmentally aware and active, the challenge is to not feel isolated and alone. To not think of oneself as a struggling pioneer in a hostile urban frontier of suburban sprawl and inner-city aging.
But you aren't alone - far from it. On Oct. 15-17 at Xavier University's Cintas Center, you can be part of a growing network designed to share "green urbanism" solutions for restoring cities, neighborhoods and the entire planet. Those are the dates for Cincinnati's first Bioneers conference.
Bioneers is a New Mexico-based organization in existence for 21 years and dedicated to making people aware of the links between environmentalism and social justice. It especially supports "green" community-organizing by and for women. Its major annual event has been a conference - now held in San Rafael, California - that gathers national speakers together to share ideas.
"You can't really address the environmental crisis without also looking at the injustices in our culture and society that are allowing the environmental crisis to happen," explains Spencer Windes, senior marketing and communications project manager for Bioneers. "A just society is one where we live in balance with each other and with nature."
This year, for the first time, Bioneers will have a live satellite feed here, as part of a local concurrent conference that will also feature Cincinnati speakers, field trips and discussions. (Bioneers has satellite feeds to some 20 other smaller, local conferences.)
Cincinnati's Bioneers event is sponsored by Imago for Earth, a local non-profit founded in 1978 as an organization seeking to reconnect people with their earthly surroundings in order to help the environment and reduce their own spiritual malaise and alienation. Among other activities, it operates a 16-acre nature center at 700 Enright Ave. in East Price Hill. While a secular organization, it has been influenced by the work of Thomas Berry, the late North Carolina-born Catholic priest who wrote about the theological reasons for advocating ecology.
"We've really become an environmental organization that's people-centered since we were started by social workers," says Chris Clements, Imago's executive director. "With our mission of changing our culture and having people reconnect with our planet, we've been looking for a way to showcase examples of things going on. We want to be positive, we want to be community-minded, we want to be Big Picture.
"Bioneers made sense for us - it is solution-based, about people sharing things they've done," Clements says. "We wanted to have the opportunity to say to people, 'Look at these things going on out there, and we have all these opportunities in our city.'"
Imago had been staging its own annual conference called Earth Spirit Rising. For a variety of reasons, Clements says, it was interested in a change. So Imago acquired rights to hold a Bioneers Cincinnati conference. For each of the three days, there will be afternoon satellite-delivered lectures from San Rafael.
In the mornings, there will be field trips - such as a tour of Xavier's "green" architecture and the Civic Garden Center - and breakout sessions. At 7 p.m. on the evening of Oct. 15, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden Director Thane Maynard will talk on "The Nature of Hope." At 7 p.m. on Oct. 16, local filmmaker Andrea Torrice will address "Films Exploring Green Urban Revitalization and Climate Change." And on the evening of Oct. 17, there will be a concert/celebration at Imago's East Price Hill base.
The speakers appearing via satellite include world-famous primatologist/anthropologist Jane Goodall, speaking on the future of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania and beyond; Andy Lipkis, founder of Los Angeles' urban-forestry activists, TreePeople; and Peter Warshall addressing a Bioneers research project called "Dreaming New Mexico: An Age of Local Foodsheds and a Fair Trade State." Bioneers has also studied ways for New Mexico to take local control of its power grid.
Cincinnati Zoo's Maynard was aware of Bioneers from when he worked in Seattle in 2000-2001, running an outdoor learning center. His talk will focus on the brighter prospects for worldwide animal conservation.
"We live in a time where there is so much bad news about nature, but there's a counter to that - an equal amount of very heartening news in the form of people working like mad to turn it around and protect wildlife and wild areas," Maynard explains. "The species making a comeback are not making a comeback by chance."
But Maynard's Zoo is also serving as a "green urbanism" role model. For instance, in December it will start constructing the Midwest's largest solar array over its new visitor parking lot. By next year, that will produce 20 percent of the zoo's electricity.
And another way the zoo is leading the way is in staying put - and staying committed to - the relatively small, 79-acre Avondale campus where it has been located for 137 years and is having record attendance. "We're not abandoning an urban area - that's a great example," Maynard says.
Some other major zoos are located in suburban locations - like Columbus and Minneapolis - where they have greater room. "The challenge is can you figure out how to have the space you need, stick with an urban area and make it work," Maynard says.
That's a challenge for everyone - not just the Cincinnati Zoo. And finding answers is a key reason for the upcoming Bioneers conference.
Conference prices are $45 for one-day registration; $90 for two days and $125 for three - Imago members get a discount. Students can attend for free. To register online, go here. For more information, call 513/921-5124.
Photography by Scott Beseler.
Photo of Jane Goodall and Thane Maynard provided