This week’s guest on Rootstock Radio is Kenny Ausubel, who is a fascinatingly multi-dimensional person. He is a social entrepreneur, author, journalist and filmmaker and has won numerous awards for his work.
At CROPP, we know him best for founding the non-profit organization Bioneers with his business partner and wife, Nina Simons. From their website, ” ‘Bioneers’ are social and scientific innovators from all walks of life and disciplines who have peered deep into the heart of living systems to understand how nature operates, and to mimic ‘nature’s operating instructions’ to serve human ends without harming the web of life.” Bioneers are humans working with nature, not against it, to create positive change in our world, and the organization Bioneers is the hub through which these people can come together, share ideas, and be reinvigorated for their work.
But Bioneers is not Kenny’s only passion. He founded the non-profit Seeds of Change in 1989 and served as CEO until 1994. He has written many books and writes for Huffington Post, and he is an acclaimed filmmaker.
In this interview, Kenny opens up to us about a wide range of topics: entrepreneurship, becoming a filmmaker, philosophy, family and the many interconnected things that brought him to where – and who – he is today.
Transcript: Interview with Kenny Ausubel
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. This week’s exciting guest: Kenny Ausubel, who is an award-winning social entrepreneur, author, journalist, and filmmaker. Kenny, with his wife Nina Simons, is the co-founder and CEO of Bioneers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting practical solutions for restoring people and our planet. He’s accomplished so much, and I know you’ll enjoying hearing him talk about his work that is near and dear.
TM: Kenny, you are a tremendous creative thinker and entrepreneur, and I can’t help but wonder, was it your mother or your father, or what do you think launched you into being such a creative entrepreneur in so many ways?
KENNY AUSUBEL: Well, it’s a great question. Thank you, Theresa, and great to be with you here today. You know, it’s an interesting question, where we come from and what the influences are. But my father taught at Columbia University; he was a professor of British history. And my mom—actually, my birth was announced in Variety, the show business trade journal. My mom worked there till I was born, and she’s a maniac for movies and the arts, and incredibly sophisticated and well read. And so our home was always, growing up, it was like sort of a salon with this constant festival of ideas and interchange. And there were people who just…you know, it was very sort of classic Jewish, Talmudic tradition in the sense of absolute love of learning and interchange. And there would be butting of heads, but it was never hostile; it was always really about the quest to understand life. So I think that’s part of what I grew up with.
And then the entrepreneurship was not really present in either parent. And what I know, partly from remembering but also from what my mom has told me, is that I was obsessed with collecting bubble gum cards as a kid, baseball cards in particular. I mean, I literally used to dream about getting the one missing card in the eighty-card series that I needed, and have the…you know, visualize it, in lucid dreaming and things like that. But what I also got really good at was hustling my brother out of his allowance! I realized—
TM: A natural entrepreneur!
KA: Exactly, exactly! I didn’t know till many years later, but the seed was there from the beginning, you know. It was being able to inspire someone with this vision and pick their pocket at the same time. So I think that’s where I started.
And then my mom tells me also, because we grew up in New York City, but because my father was a teacher, we had these glorious three-month summers, and we used to go up to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket before it was cool. I mean, it was a very inexpensive, lower-middle-class place at that time. And I used to love to play baseball, and I used to organize these pick-up games all the time. And so I was the one who did all that, who got everybody to play. So I think, in retrospect, actually these things are profound when you realize that the seed was there from the beginning.
TM: So Kenny, then you became a filmmaker, and kind of a little bit more going in your mother’s area of work. And what attracted you to becoming a filmmaker? What did you think you were going to do with that?
KA: Well, I always loved film. I mean, growing up in the kind of household I did, and whatever, for my own reasons, I’ve just always been very moved by movies. And so it’s a longer story, because I had a very severe health crisis when I was in college, when I was twenty—symptoms of a stroke. And I thought I was going to die, for quite a few years. Actually, I left New York City as a result of that and ended up going to New Mexico. And I knew I needed to get back to nature, and I landed on a small farm, actually, ultimately, recognizing that I needed to get back to the land and regenerate my health and be very active physically. And I sort of fell through the rabbit hole there because I learned about organic farming and solar building and composting toilets. And I was very fortunate to land in a place with several very sophisticated sort of back-to-the-landers, people who were high-level professionals who had kind of dropped out at that time and did all that. So…
Well, I kind of felt like an idiot. You know, growing up in the city, we never even had a houseplant. My mother has what she calls a black thumb—you know, anything green near her dies. And so I really felt like, god, these are basic life ways and life skills that I may not be good at it but I would like to at least learn it and know that I could do it if I had to. And the world is better off without me farming, to tell you the truth, after six years of it. And what became clear is this was not my path in life. And so I went to film school in Santa Fe, the Anthropology Film Center, which is a documentary film school.
And having been through and survived this health crisis, I became very, very clear that I wanted to give something back. I was glad to be alive, and I did not take that for granted at all. And when you faced your mortality, in Flamenco they call it duende. It’s that sense that death is always on your shoulder, and it kind of colorizes life—you know, it brings things into very clear relief.
And because I’d ended up learning a lot about natural medicine and alternative medicine, which really barely even had a name at that time—this was the early 1970s, it was just beginning, in a sense—I felt like that was what I’d really learned a lot about. And so I had a project that I wanted to do related to herbal medicine. And I went to this film school and learned everything—it was like a boot camp for about six months, and you really learn a lot and get thrown through it. And the last thing you do is an exercise, a fifteen-minute film that you get to make. And I figured, well, whatever I do with this, I should try to create something that I could use to parlay into a real movie. And so I ended up making a film about herbal medicine that in fact that’s what happened: I was able to parlay that.
But I got out of the school and was all dressed up with nowhere to go, because the one thing they hadn’t taught you was how to raise money. As an independent filmmaker, you’re actually totally dependent on funding. And I’d never hung out with rich people; I had no idea…I mean, I really had no idea what to do at all. And I knew this one woman in Santa Fe who had started a hospice center, and I knew that somehow she had raised money to do that. So I went and called her up and took her out to lunch, and asked her, how do you do it? And she seemed really puzzled by that question, and said, “Well, I pray.” And that was so not what I wanted to hear, I will tell you! I came from a very secular family where prayer was definitely not a happening thing. And I didn’t know what to do.
And I realized in the course of that was that we live in a world where it’s very easy to give but not so easy to receive. And I realized that I had that dynamic happening internally for myself. And I’m from a very generous family and kind of grew up with generosity as a value, and that’s really easy for me. But receiving or asking for something for yourself, that’s a whole other deal, and I actually had a real blockage around that. And I realized that that was going to be a problem—that if I wanted to raise money, I had to feel 100 percent good about receiving it as well as asking for it.
And so that shifted for me internally, and then the first or second person that I approached, I think, gave me like $200 or something, you know. But they gave me money! And I was going to really use it. And then the next fifty people said no. But finally I was able to parlay it and horse-trade and all the things that you do, because when you don’t have money you have to be really resourceful, which no matter what you’re doing is a great thing to do. You know, don’t spend it if you don’t have to, or make sure it all shows on-screen, as they say.
So anyway, that happened. And then in the course of all this, you know, I’d been very involved in my own health drama, and it was very real—I mean, it wasn’t, you know… And one evening I got a call from my mom that my father had cancer. And six months later, at the age of 56, he was dead. And it wasn’t even treatable, which is fortunate, actually, in retrospect. But about two weeks after his death, in the mail, unbidden, I got this newsletter containing all these testimonials from cancer patients who got well when they weren’t supposed to, using all manner of different treatments. And as sympathetic as I was at that point to natural medicine, this was a bridge too far for me. I thought, I believed what the doctors told me: that cancer was largely incurable, and curable only by surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
But I read these things very carefully, and it was these astonishing stories of people who were given up to die and got well, you know. And so I decided, okay, my father freshly buried and my heart broken, if there’s anything at all to this I want to know about it. And so I started on about two and a half years of research, just reading everything I could get my hands on and talking to absolutely anybody who’d had a direct personal experience.
And in the course of this, I came across this amazing story of the Hoxsey cancer clinics, which were once very, very famous in this country, from the 1920s through the 1950s. It was actually the world’s largest private cancer, with twelve thousand patients under treatment in the main office in Dallas, which is about the size of Sloan Kettering and MD Anderson today—huge!—and clinics in seventeen states, and blah blah. And it was an herbal formula that was repeatedly discovered by the founder’s great grandfather’s horse. He’d been a horse farmer in southern Illinois, and his prize stallion got a malignant tumor on its right hock. He was a Quaker, he didn’t want to kill the horse, so he put it out to pasture to die peacefully, where within three weeks it started to stabilize, and within three months the horse was completely well. So the farmer started to observe the horse very closely and found that it was eating all these unusual plants and herbs, not part of its normal diet—mostly roots and barks.
So old Farmer Hoxsey went out in the barn with his mortar and pestle and began to screw around based on this horse sense, right? And came up with these several formulas, two external salves and an internal tonic. And it’s a very long story, but his grandson, Harry Hoxsey, then took it out into the world, ended up in a pitched battle for 35 years with organized medicine, with primarily the AMA and then the FDA and NIH and Uncle Sam, and won most of the battles, only to finally lose the war.
So I ended up making a film about this. That was my first really major film, was a feature documentary called Hoxsey: When Healing Becomes a Crime. And in the course of that, we did all the research, by the way. No one had ever actually looked into these herbs or the science behind them. And every single one of them had major anti-tumor, anti-cancer, and immune-boosting properties, right? Every single one of them—and seven of the nine had a long history of Native American usage. So ultimately, after the film was released and I wrote a book as well, we got the NIH to send researchers down to the last remaining Hoxsey clinic, which by then had been banished to Tijuana, Mexico—they were the granddaddy of the alternatives, they were the first ones to set up shop there in 1963. But anyway, these NIH researchers did what’s called a historical cohort study, where they back-cast—they looked at patients who had had no other treatment, who were clearly pronounced terminal and who’d done only Hoxsey. And they found seven bullet-proof cures, including a melanoma and a lung cancer, which are otherwise largely incurable.
That was how I got started on the filmmaking and the fundraising. And what you discover very quickly is that once you’re in, you’re in, and there’s no turning back. And it’s not for the faint of heart—it takes a lot of perseverance and endurance and good luck and all kinds of things.
TM: So did that kind of lead you to Seeds of Change? I’m just wondering how you got to Seeds of Change from there.
KA: Yeah, no, well, very good question. And you know, growing up, my father taught at Columbia, so by the time I was fifteen, it was the height of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement. And so I became very much part of that at that time, and I became an activist, essentially, at a very early age and continued that through college. And then I had this health crisis, which is like a kind of a lightning tree—if it doesn’t kill you, you grow in other directions. And so that’s what threw me through the rabbit hole into the whole world of health and medicine.
But during that time as well, this one cousin of mine did kind of a family roots of my father’s side of the family, which is unusual in Jewish families to be able to trace it back very far because of the Holocaust and the many diasporas, and all of that. Anyway, he did it—he was able to go back thousands, actually to biblical times because the name Azubel is the original name. Azubel is a German version of a Hebrew word that means marjoram, which apparently was an herb used in temple ceremonies in olden times, whenever. So a whole part of the family on my father’s side lived in Smyrna on the border of Greece and Turkey for about three hundred years, where they were Turkish pharmacists, which means they were herbalists, basically.
So in 1985, when I was doing the Hoxsey film, I had the opportunity to meet Christopher Bird, who co-wrote the book The Secret Life of Plants, which was very famous at that time. And if I thought what I was doing was controversial, you know, an herbal treatment for cancer, he was talking about plants having consciousness and sentience and communicating with each other. Anyway, he ended up calling me a few months later and asked me if I would make a film, a sponsored film about a friend of his on an Indian pueblo near Santa Fe, where I lived.
And I didn’t really know what I was doing when I went up there, but it was there that I met Gabriel Howearth, who was a master organic farmer and seed collector. And he’d been a student of Alan Chadwick, the famous biodynamic master, in Santa Cruz. And Chadwick had told his students, you know, if you really want to learn farming, go study with native peoples—they’ve been doing it forever and they have the best practices, basically. And so Gabriel did that, and he went to Mexico, and ultimately kind of wandered through Latin America. And as the indigenous peoples came to trust him, they shared with him what they felt was the most precious of gifts, which is the gift of seeds, because each time you plant a seed you become, you know, an ancestor for the generations to come. Through the seeds speak the voices of the ancestors, and each time you plant a seed you become an ancestor for the generations to come.
And so as we were filming on one day, this fellow was in front of the camera—James Chancellor(?), actually, a native of San Juan Pueblo. And he was holding these beautiful red corn seeds in his hand against the turquoise New Mexico sky, just extraordinarily gorgeous. And he started to weep, and tears were streaming down his face. And the story that he told was that Gabriel had put out the word—wherever he went, actually—if anybody had any old seeds. So throughout the pueblo, people were kind of poking around, and this and that. And James found these red corn seeds buried in a small pot in the mud wall of his adobe home and didn’t know what they were. And he took them around the pueblo, and one of the elders, the only one, remembered that this was actually the sacred red corn of San Juan Pueblo, and it had not been grown in forty years, right? So this marked a huge kind of spiritual homecoming for the tribe.
And in native communities, when you say “agriculture,” it’s a real culture. We have agri-industry here, we don’t have agri-culture, right? And so I was profoundly moved in that moment, and I knew how important this was. And then Gabriel went on to talk about the loss of biodiversity, the loss of seed diversity. And it’s something that we still don’t hear nearly enough about. But seeds are the first link, you know, in the food web. And we’re facing this giant crisis of extinctions that’s largely, in fact entirely, driven by agri-business, which favors essentially monoculture and patents. It really comes back to patents and commercialization, that you want to essentially own something and that you can do that by hybridizing and claiming ownership. And then they built, essentially engineered these seeds to grow well with chemicals—it’s a package, it’s an integrated system, and so forth.
And these seeds that we were looking at were all open-pollinated; they reproduce freely. So you don’t own them—they can’t be patented, actually. And this is what was under threat, yet this is the thin green line that separates us from starvation, is our seed diversity. And you know, you think of the Irish potato famine, what did they do? They had one variety that they were relying on, which became subject to a blight. Millions of people died. They went back to Latin America, the home of the potato, where there are over three thousand different varieties, and they found one that was not subject to this blight, and life went on. That’s the practical value of diversity.
And then in a larger sense, when you see the sheer…it’s the origin of human creativity, in many ways with nature, is this relationship that we have with seeds and with that creativity. I mean, you look at the original ancestor of corn, called teosinte, from Mexico, and it’s this stubby little thing that doesn’t even look like corn or a food. And people somehow figured out that this was edible and you could change it and work with it and make it to become a really powerful plant, which is so profound.
So anyway, I realized how incredibly important this was and that it was really under threat. And this was a time that I think a lot of stuff happened in the 1960s that seeded the idea of organics. But it was really in the late 1980s that the organic movement began to pick up steam. And we realized that there were no organic seeds. Well, how are you going to have an organic food system without organic seeds? Hello-o, you know? And so anyway, because of doing the Hoxsey film, I was very involved with marketing the film in those kinds of markets as well. People were very interested in organics and things of that nature, natural living. And so we realized that we could actually market Seeds of Change through health food stores, because it was an organic product. And that was what helped launch the company.
Well, you know, in retrospect, all this stuff is this breadcrumb trail that in a way seems, has an air of inevitability about it, but it certainly didn’t at the time. But I’d started Seeds of Change in 1989 with this fellow, Gabriel Howearth, who was the master organic farmer and seed collector. And so I was very actively raising money at that time. And I had become very good friends with someone named Josh Mailman in New York City. We actually went to high school together, but I didn’t know him really at that time. But he had invested in the Hoxsey film, and then I talked to him about Seeds of Change, and he was very interested.
So he was visiting in Santa Fe one time, and we were actually in a hot tub called Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese hot tub establishment in the mountains, and I was ranting and raving about all these amazing people that I’d found who had major solutions to huge systemic environmental crises that we were facing throughout the 1970s and 1980s. And having essentially had an environmental illness—I mean, it turned out my symptoms of stroke were related to massive pesticide exposure, some kind of chemical, possibly dioxin. It’s not clear exactly when or where it happened, but there’s no question that’s what happened. And so I was acutely aware of environment at that point and the harms that were very real. And so what I wanted to know is I don’t really want to sit here just sort of shivering in the dark and worrying and being depressed. What can I do? What can we do? You know, that’s what I wanted to know.
And so one by one by one, I just started to find or come across all these amazing people who had come up with really profound systemic solutions. And as I looked across all of them I started to see a pattern. And number one, they were all systems thinkers. So they were taking what you can call a solve-the-whole-problem approach, the recognition that these things are not isolated, they’re not single issues. Everything is connected. In nature that’s certainly true. As John Muir put it, in nature everything is hitched to everything else. Well, we’re part of nature—guess what?! We are nature, in fact. Nature invented us, we didn’t invent nature. And so human systems and natural systems are one system and you really can’t separate those. And so systems thinking was one filter.
And then also, these people had all looked to nature not as a resource but as a mentor, a model, and a metric. The disarmingly simple question being, how would nature do it? Right? How does nature heal? How does nature create energy? How does nature create food? How does nature deal with social organization? I mean, there are all kinds of ways to look at this.
So one by one I began to find all these amazing people. And I was in this hot tub with Josh Mailman, ranting and raving and saying, “Nobody’s ever heard of these people. This is insane! Do you have any idea what is possible here?” And he kind of looked at me and said, “Well, why don’t you have a conference?” And I’d literally never been to a conference in my life. It sounded intensely boring, and I just ignored it and just kind of kept on talking. But a little while later he stopped me again in mid-sentence and said, “Kenny, I’m giving you ten thousand dollars. Have a conference.”
So that’s actually how Bioneers started. And it was kind of a side gig to Seeds of Change—that was our main thing for the early years of that. But we held this first conference in Santa Fe. It was about 250 people. The approach was entirely holistic from the beginning, along with a strong perspective, I would say, of progressive politics—you know, with a strong commitment to justice, to equity, to democracy, to freedom and freedom of speech, and a very strong economic analysis that included the inordinate power of corporations. So that was always part of the mix. Many of these are not just abstract or accidental situations. “Who benefits?” is the question you always want to ask.
And so it was just electrifying, this first event. It was kind of like being in church in the best sense, you know, like a revival meeting or something. And these solutions were real, they were doable. The people were these geniuses who were so inspired and inspiring. And it just kind of took off from there. And after three years we actually outgrew the facilities in Santa Fe. And because of all the work with Seeds of Change, the Bay Area was our big base for the company, and the Bay Area is such a progressive hotbed of cultural ferment and new thinking and all kinds of good stuff. And so we moved Bioneers out there.
And then it’s progressed over the years. And in the early 1990s, particularly the mid-1990s, there was a lot of…it was the beginning, really, of the big movement for environmental justice, the recognition that it’s low-income communities and communities of color that really bear the brunt of a lot of the harms that go on, and they’re kind of the canaries in the coalmine in that sense; and that you could never solve the environmental crisis without addressing social and economic justice, period. End of story. So that was really part of it from the beginning.
And then my wife and business partner, Nina, really was very committed to the leadership of women and to… It’s really bigger than that. It’s really about the rebalancing of the masculine and feminine, which we all carry those qualities. But our civilization and our society is so one-sidedly masculine in its approach that it’s really a fundamental systems error of the first order as well, in that regard.
So, you know, it’s evolved very much over the years. What we were really talking about at the beginning only eight years later got a name, called biomimicry, when Janine Benyus published her landmark book. But it’s this idea of solutions inspired by nature—you know, how would nature do it? And that’s now a very large field of design science.
But you know, it’s been fascinating to get to do something over a period of time and to kind of co-evolve with the world. And at the beginning, we might as well have been UFOs, frankly. I mean, it had very little credibility. We were… Forget being on the radar screen—what radar screen?! But for the first eight years, Bioneers was entirely volunteer. But you know, this was our twenty-fifth anniversary last year, and so I decided—reality is consensual and memory is such a shape-shifter, and I decided to go back and actually look at the documentary history in our archive and try to understand, really, where we came from and exactly how it evolved year by year, and all that. And it was really, really interesting.
But the two biggest takeaways for me, the first one is this community simply did not exist twenty-five years ago, and did not exist as a holistic community. You know, there were people in any given area, but they were not connected with each other. And I think, in many ways, that’s been the greatest contribution of Bioneers, quite apart from the information itself, is to actually connect the dots among all these different issues, all these different walks of life, different ethnicities, different kinds of communities, and really build community.
And when we look today at the state of the world, you know, in 2006 we started using the word resilience a lot. But when you really think about resilience, what we now know today is that really resilience grows out of community. Social ties save lives, quite literally. This is not an abstraction. And this is an era where heroism is going to move from this idea of the lone individual—you know, Thomas Edison or John Wayne or whatever the archetype is—to really the fact that leadership can only grow from community. The issues that we face today, the magnitude, the complexity, the scale—I mean, forget it. No one individual can even begin to get a handle on that, much less do it. So I think that that’s really important, and I’m so grateful that this community exists.
And then the other thing is, you know, as we like to put it, but that the shift is hitting the fan. These things that were UFOs twenty-five years ago, they’re heading straight into the mainstream, with the organic food movement being perhaps the centerpiece of that, in many ways. You know, it’s still much smaller than it needs to be, and it’s going to grow in a big way, but it’s no longer marginal, that’s for damn sure. And it’s a major economic force, and so forth.
So I’m actually more hopeful in a lot of ways than I’ve been in a very long time. I think we’re seeing these things really turn over. Biomimicry is going mainstream; issues of racial and social justice, corporate power—these things are really in the mix now and not going away anytime soon. And I think that we’re going to see huge shifts in the next few years. So I’m very grateful for all that.
TM: Thank you, Kenny, for your most important contributions to our planet. I highly recommend his book, Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature. Thanks for listening, and join us next week.
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