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April 2009

The Past, Present and Future of Green

My wife and I attended the Seattle Green Festival last weekend. Amy spent most of her time in the exhibit area while I spent most of my time in presentation sessions, seeking and finding inspiration from Amy Goodman, Lawrence Lessig, Brett Horvath and Gabriel Scheer.

ASacredMoment Amy (my wife) spent part of her time helping out at the booth for A Sacred Moment, a local company founded by Char Bennett that provides home funeral vigils, green burials and life celebration services. Amy first read about A Sacred Moment in a Wall Street Journal Magazine article (Death Becomes Her). As a cancer survivor, she has given considerably more thought to death - and burial - than I have, and the sustainable, sensitive and sensible approach that Char offers through her services resonates on many levels with her ... and, judging from the number of visitors to the booth, many others as well.

I also spent some time milling around the exhibit area, and I have to admit I was feeling increasingly self-conscious, wondering what other people might be thinking about me, wandering around in my Weatherproof jacket, "Life is Good" (tm) t-shirt, Lee jeans and Merrell hiking shoes (not to mention the MacBook Pro in my backpack and the iPhone in my pocket). Were the things I was wearing / carrying "green" [enough]? (Maybe the t-shirt.) I was reminded of my days at Accenture, where my lack of style-consciousness in a different value system sometimes incurred negative judgments (I remember someone once referring to my "Mickey Mouse" watch, a Timex timepiece which I'd thought of as rather practical). As someone who thinks green but doesn't often act green, I was concerned that perhaps my true colors were showing.

GFTV_09_160x160 Fortunately, the person who introduced the person who introduced Amy Goodman's talk - whose name I did not catch - was very welcoming and inviting, assuring us that all people were welcome at the Green Festival, whatever stage of sustainability we may find themselves. She then introduced Kevin Danaher, who described the Green Festival as a "party with a purpose", encouraged us to reach beyond the festival with positive messages (noting "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar"), let us know that many of the presentations at this and other Green Festivals can be viewed at Green Festival TV (leading me to wonder whether the green[er] action would have been to watch Green Festival remotely), and introduced Amy Goodman.

Dn_logo StandingUpToTheMadness Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, took the stage to a standing ovation, and told us some stories about Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times. She started off asserting that a healthy population is a national security issue (not just a health or fairness issue), decrying that health care is not a right in the most powerful country on earth (setting us apart from nearly every other industrialized nation), and reporting on an article "Are the Rich Making Us Sick" written by Stephen Bezruchka (back in 2000 (!)), which shows that inequality leads to poor health (the U.S. is among the world leaders in both dimensions).

Asking "Can President Obama redeeem the White House?", Goodman noted that it's not up to him, it's up to all of us (or, perhaps, all of us's). As she put it, "The door is open a crack - will it be kicked shut, or will it be kicked wide open?" She noted that this month marks the passing of some significant anniversaries: the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (March 24, 1989), and the 30th anniversary of the Three Mile Island meltdown (March 28, 1979), "accidents" whose fallouts are still very much with us today.

NotOneDrop Emphasizing the need to break the sound barrier, listening not to the pundits, but to people on the ground in the local communities who are affected by corporate and governmental actions (and inactions), Goodman argued that we can't subsist on sound bites, that we have to allocate time for people to explain alternate points of view if we don't want to be simply and mindlessly repeating what others are saying (i.e., being ditto heads). One of her recent interviews with a person on the ground - and/or in the water - was with Riki Ott, author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Spill, who said that the "accident" was not just a pollution issue, but represents a fundamental threat to democracy. The success of the Exxon-Mobil Corporation - one legal person - in its legal battle against tens of thousands of U.S. citizens who are seeking redress, amends and compensation from the action of this powerful "person", is leading some to propose that we reconsider and revise or revoke the legal status of corporations (some going so far as to call for a 28th Amendment).

Goodman shared stories about heroes such as Peter Chase, a librarian who fought against the FBI's demand for library records, and James Hansen, a NASA scientist who went public with the Bush Administration's efforts to influence or edit his statements so as to make global warming seem less threatening. Toward the end of her talk - for which she received a standing ovation - she summed up her critique of mainstream media with a pair of pithy soundbites:

We need a media that covers power, not covers for power;
a media that is a fourth estate, not for the state.

RemixLessig The next presentation I went to was by Lawrence Lessig, on "Green Culture". The presentation seemed to be a remix of his book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, applied to the green movement. But as he demonstrated in his talk, a good remix can be just as engaging and enlightening as the original(s) from which it is created, and I was just as impressed with the content and format of his talk as I was at his closing keynote at CSCW 2004. He started out with a Wikipedia definition of externality: "an impact [positive or negative] on a party that is not directly involved in the transaction". I'll include the entire first paragraph from the Wikipedia entry below:

In economics, an externality or spillover of an economic transaction is an impact on a party that is not directly involved in the transaction. In such a case, prices do not reflect the full costs or benefits in production or consumption of a product or service. A positive impact is called an external benefit, while a negative impact is called an external cost. Producers and consumers in a market may either not bear all of the costs or not reap all of the benefits of the economic activity. For example, manufacturing that causes air pollution imposes costs on the whole society, while fire-proofing a home improves the fire safety of neighbors.

Lessig went on to claim that the market tends to produce too many negative externalities and too few positive externalities, and argued that we need interventions to force producers of negative externalities to internalize the costs and to allow producers of positive externalities to internalize the benefits.

One of my favorite quotes from Lessig's talk was a quote he shared by one of my heroes, Aldous Huxley, who in 1927 wrote about an atmosphere of passivity:

In the days before machinery men and women who wanted to amuse themselves were compelled, in their humble way, to be artists. Now they sit still and permit professionals to entertain them by the aid of machinery. It is difficult to believe that general artistic culture can flourish in this atmosphere of passivity.

This reminded me of the parable of three storytelling societies - the Reds, the Blues and the Greens - that I shared in an earlier post about mutual inspiration, which was inspired by Yochai Benkler's book, The Wealth of Networks (briefly: Red storytellers are hereditarily determined, Blue storytellers are democratically determined, but everyone is a storyteller among the Greens). I suppose this passivity and delegation (or relegation) is one of the natural consequences of the specialization of labor that was accelerated in the industrial revolution. Lessig suggested that we're seeing a concentration or professionalization not just of labor but of culture itself.

Lessig defined two types of culture: read-write culture, in which people participate in the creation and recreation of their culture, and read-only culture, where creativity is consumed (e.g., in an atmosphere of passivity). Changing technologies often change ecologies, as well as changing what makes sense to regulate. For example, the carbon emissions produced by coal-fired power plants are, essentially, free, and yet media produced by the entertainment industry is heavily regulated. There have been zero U.S. laws regulating carbon emissions passed in the last 20 years, and yet there have been 22 laws regulating the use of copyrighted media. Lessig argued that our culture (and, I would argue, our global civilization) would be better served if those trends were reversed.

He shared a number of examples of fabulously entertaining media that were produced by remixing prior media that was protected by copyright (making all the examples, technically, illegal):

As these examples demonstrate, Web 2.0 offers a platform on which others are inspired to create, and share their creations, in a participatory "call and response" or conversational culture. However, the powers that be are colluding with Congress to stifle this read-write culture, declaring war on copyright infringement and using the rhetoric of war (e.g., weapons to kill piracy). Lessig argued that we need to give up on the obsession with "copy" and make meaningful distinctions between copy and remix, as well as professional and amateur uses:

Lessig-hybrid

Professional copies of creative works ought to be protected by copyright, amateur remixes ought not be regulated, and professional remixes or amateur copies are greyer areas.

Noting that there have been 22 laws governing copyright in the past 20 years, but zero laws governing carbon emissions, Lessig proposed a new angle on the Green Revolution: eradicating the corruption of money (greenbacks) in U.S. politics, which has led government to do nothing on the most important policy issue facing us and to do the wrong things on a less important issue.

Lessig invoked his hero (and one of my heroes), Al Gore, and showed Gore's presentation on averting a climate crisis at TED [aside: having recently watched the disturbing PBS Nova episode on Extreme Ice, documenting the imminent meltdown of glaciers across the world, I like the language shift from "climate change", which seems so benign, to "climate crisis"].

Lessig highlighted the segments where Gore is emphasizing the importance of - and interactions among - optimism, belief and behavior: "We have to become incredibly active citizens ... In order to solve the climate crisis, we have to solve the democracy crisis". He went on to say that the democracy crisis is that we don't see democracy as a tool to solve problems (another dimension of the "atmosphere of passsivity that Huxley wrote about). We have to act green - be environmentally conscious in our behavior - and also act against green[backs] - fight against corruption, and the addiction to / dependency on money.

Lessig differentiated between evil soul corruption (e.g., former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich) and good soul corruption (living inside a system that is corrupt and not changing it), and noted that most members of Congress exemplify good soul corruption. Comparing political corruption to alcoholism, he said we have to solve the addiction (to greenbacks) problem before we can solve the other problems, and invited those who are interested to learn about - and do - more at ChangeCongress.org. One near-term action he invited us to take was to actively support the Fair Elections Now Act that was introduced this past week by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT) and Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC). If anyone reading this is inclined to take such action, here are some links on how to contact your U.S. Representative and how to contact your U.S. Senator.

Rvl The final presentation at the Green Festival I saw was - fittingly enough - entitled "What's After Green?", by Gabriel Scheer and Brett Horvath, co-founders of Re-Vision Labs. Motivating their talk, the presenters articulated two fundamental problems with the green movement:

  • Green has lost its focus (environment, energy, social justice, food?) How do outsiders know what to make of us? At this transformational moment, it's critical that we define ourselves and communicate our values.
  • The Green movement is unsustainable (fueled by a real crisis and a fake economy). Green Industry piggy-backed on the housing bubble. How many green businesses can survive the economic downturn?

Green consumerism means that our only - or at least our main - weapon has been our wallet. There are only so many donors, customers, foundations, investors, volunteers. The growth of the green movement is not sufficient to keep pace with the growth of the crises we hope to solve, and so we most grow and adapt.

Steering us toward "collaboration, not congregation", the presenters suggested that the goal of the Green Festival next year should not be so [solely] an increase in attendance but an increase in impact in governments and other organizations. For example, they noted that no faith-based groups were represented at this year's festival.

Green_collar_economy_cover In order to grow and adapt the movement, we need to build more bridges and become more [obviously] relevant to more groups, as is exemplified by the Blue-Green Alliance between labor and environmentalists, whose goal is to create "good jobs, clean environment, green economy", and Van Jones campaign Green for All (and its companion book, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems) [aside: Jones' recent nomination as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) seems to opens the "door" that Amy Goodman referenced a little wider.]

Another example is the T. Boone Pickens Energy Plan, which redefined the energy crisis by reframing it from an environmental issue to an economic and national security issue, and signed up 1 million people in its first 7 months (and is now at 4.5 million), representing the potential for what they called a trans-ideological movement: "enviro-enthusiast meets NASCAR fan". One of the presenters, Brett Horvath, who is Director of Social Media for the PickensPlan, claimed they achieved a faster pace of growth than Al Gore's Repower America organization. This may be true, but I was glad to see that Repower America, which I believe was formed about 4 or 5 months ago, has 2 million members ... and I wonder how many people are members of both organizations.

While I'm in favor of seeking trans-ideological solutions, I'm not sure I can support an ideologue like T. Boone Pickens. I find it ironic that the man who is now championing energy independence helped fund the deceptively named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which torpedoed John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, and helped keep George W. Bush in The White House, where he was able to continue colluding with his anti-environmental advisors, increase his dirty legacy and thwart many of the efforts of the green movement, ultimately leaving us more energy dependent than ever before. I wonder how much more progress the green movement (however it is defined) would have made, and how much more energy independent we would be, if John Kerry (or Al Gore) had been in the White House instead of Bush. President Obama, ever the community organizer and unifier, whose speech on trans-racialism was so inspiring, is willing to seek common ground with Pickens and his plan (and its supporters), and while I continue to distrust Pickens, I'm willing to withhold [further] fire in an effort to form a more perfect union ... and a broader, more inclusive community in the green movement.

Scheer and Horvath invited us to view - and focus - the green movement through the lens of community, noting that what brings us together is the desire to create healthy and powerful communities. Despite their earlier critique of a lack of focus in the current green movement, they proposed a rather broad agenda of 8 core components to growing and expanding the movement in the future: economy, ecology, governance, story, design, networks, commons and food. I found myself wondering whether, given the shifting priorities brought about by the current economic recession, the utilization of Maslow's hierarchy of needs might help add more structure to what might otherwise be a linear list of issues.

Invoking images of the front porch, the water cooler, and the campfire as prototypical examples of community spaces, they defined three dimensions to modern healthy communities: built space, spontaneous physical interactions and online networks (interestingly related to the themes that motivated our design of the Community Collage place-based social networking system). Reframing the Internet as a network of people (vs. a network of computers), they argued that a healthy network builds community, and that even "ungreenies" (online and offline) understand the power and necessity of healthy communities.

Scheer and Horvath made a compelling case that the current power of our movement is no match for the gravity of the crisis, and helped me think - and hopefully act - more broadly. Perhaps next year's Green Festival should be renamed "The Community Festival".