Knox Students Draw Inspiration from 'Bioneers'

Conference spotlights environmental and social issues

February 07, 2011

When Knox College sophomore Hannah Basil discovered that she and other students had the chance to attend a conference where speakers would include Jane Goodall, the renowned researcher of chimpanzees, and Gary Hirshberg, head of the world's largest organic yogurt company, her decision was easy.

"It looked like something that was too good to pass up," said Basil, who has a major in economics and a minor in business and management. The Chicago native plans to pursue a business career after she graduates from Knox.

"This is just something that could really benefit my future, and I really wanted to become more aware of these (environmental) issues," she said.

First-year Knox student Max Potthoff felt much the same way.

Potthoff, who is from Western Springs, Illinois, has a wide range of academic interests that include creative writing, business and management, and environmental studies. He became aware of the Bioneers Conference during Knox's fall term while taking an environmental studies class taught by Knox Associate Professor Peter Schwartzman.

"He had been promoting it very strongly all term, so I figured if he was interested in it, then it must have some value," Potthoff said. "Mostly, my approach to it was: ‘I don't really know what I'm getting into, and that's sort of why I want to go.'"

About two dozen Knox students, including Basil and Potthoff, and Schwartzman traveled by bus to Louisville, Kentucky, one of 20 sites where people gathered to watch speakers at the San Rafael, California-based conference by satellite connection. The conference brings together people who are working to create a healthier world.

Schwartzman has accompanied Knox students to Bioneers conferences since 2001.

While in Louisville, conference attendees also spent time getting to know one another and exchanging ideas in breakout sessions. One of the sessions was led by Knox College student Ben Boor, a senior from Bel Air, Maryland, who has majors in biology and anthropology and sociology. He spoke about aquaponics, which combines fish-keeping and the cultivation of plants -- without using soil.

"The conference really gave me confidence that there's a whole movement and reason behind living sustainably," Potthoff said. "I want to continue to be a part of the movement. This was sort of the starting point."

Basil said she came away from the conference with "the sense that there is a crisis at hand. The way things are being done, we're just not connecting to nature." But she added that a lot of people, including Bioneers participants, are working to change that.

She was especially impressed with Hirshberg's remarks, which covered the origins of his company, Stonyfield Farm, and its environmentally responsible business policies, which he hopes his competitors also will adopt.

She also liked the company's profit-sharing plan for employees and its practice of donating some profits to charity.

"In the short run this will hurt their bottom line, but this is the kind of social responsibility that's leading the way in the business world. A triple bottom line -- that recognizes people, the planet, and profits -- is emerging as a norm," Basil said. "And those are things that I want to eventually apply to my career in business."

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 45 states and 48 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.