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Bridging the color gap

In November, the Oxford American Dictionary announced that its Word of the Year was "carbon neutral," which means "calculating your total climate-damaging carbon emissions, reducing them where possible, and then balancing your remaining emissions." Greens may have fared poorly in the midterm elections, but they seem well on their way to winning the culture war.

On the forefront of the battle to expand green consciousness are the Bioneers (a contraction of "Biological Pioneers"), a group dedicated to uniting "nature, culture and spirit" (bioneers.org). Each year the members convene for three days in Marin County, Calif. (You can be one, too, if you cough up the $50 annual membership fee.)

The 17th Bioneers Conference, held in October, was like a progressive hybrid of a yoga retreat and Burning Man, replete with the obligatory drum circles, dance parties and meditation workshops. Inside, however, distinguished speakers from various fields spoke with an impressive thoughtfulness, conviction and clarity.

Veteran Bioneer Paul Hawken, a naturalist author and green business entrepreneur, performed an ideological coup when, speaking to the 3,000-plus crowd on the last day of the conference, he recommended that the Bioneers dedicate themselves next year to "racial understanding and reconciliation."

"It's very easy for the environmental movement to turn to social justice and say, "You should come on our bus and join us,'" Hawken said. "But I think that it's upside down and backwards. Global warming is injustice. It's a type of colonialism. We have to slow down and stop and change the bus. I think the environmental movement has to get on the social justice bus."

While Hawken's call came at the end of the weekend, the idea of coalition-building was prevalent throughout. One of the most popular speakers was Thomas Linzey, a radical lawyer from Pennsylvania and co-founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), an organization that provides free and affordable legal services to those working toward sustainable communities.

Linzey, in a polo shirt and khakis, didn't look the part of the typical Bioneer. But he and partner Richard Grossman have found a way to combat environmental degradation while simultaneously empowering communities. The two founded the Daniel Pennock Democracy Schools, named after a 17-year-old boy who died from exposure to toxic sludge (now euphemistically called biosolids). They provide three-day crash courses on the history and workings of the U.S. government.

The aim is to teach students how to "reclaim their rights to democratic self-governance," particularly in regards to rights now usurped by corporations. Democracy Schools now operate in 26 states, and more than 100 Pennsylvania municipalities have adopted anti-corporate ordinances authored by CELDF.

The Bioneers' movement to combine green living and community empowerment does not stop with government. Organic, locally sourced agriculture has also proved a fertile vehicle for environmental activism. At one panel, author and "slow food" activist Anna Lapp told the story of a feast she recently attended at Red Hook Farm in Brooklyn. The farm employs young people from the community until recently the neighborhood did not even have a grocery store and teaches them agriculture and job skills.

Lapp spoke of a young man who told her that before working on the farm, the only produce that he ate was the lettuce and tomatoes on his burgers. Now his favorite food is borage an edible, lilac-colored flower. The boy took Lapp to the garden and told her, "This is borage, and it's the best thing you'll ever taste."

Urban farms like Red Hook are popping up around the country, providing low-income communities with access to healthy, sustainable foods. Yet organic options are still mostly relegated to high-end stores like Whole Foods, and sustainable lifestyles remain affordable only to the rich. Connecting these struggles remains the next battle for groups like the Bioneers.

As Hawken put it, "There can be no green movement unless there's a black, brown and copper-colored movement."

This column first appeared in In These Times.

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