Pragmatic Passion in the Green Business World

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As the globe heats up, so does the world of green business conferences. For October 2009 alone, a web search shows almost 50 conferences and forums related to sustainability and the clean economy in the United States.

The environmental angle is of course a hovering presence at such events, but financial potential is generally the main focus.

Yet the recent Always On/GoingGreen event in Sausalito, Calif., was notable for the number of participants who used their stature and time to ramp up dramatic tension around the climate crisis as the key issue of our time — and to insist it must be central to all our business endeavors until it is solved.

The passion was pragmatic, but it was also affecting, and any strategists committed to climate stabilization would have been proud to share a stage with the speakers highlighted below.

High-profile public servant turned Vantage Point investment partner R. James Woolsey has been addressing the national security implications of our dependence on oil for several years.

Giving voice to his vision of the complicated challenges inherent to the climate crisis and its companion dilemmas, he set a wry but ominous tone. The former CIA director warned that a coalition approach is essential to solving the problems he separates into classes: the malignant (climate change, a “cascading failure” resulting from ignoring global interconnectedness); the malevolent (intentional societal interferences like terrorist attacks); and the wretched (poverty and the declining human condition caused by energy and other resource deficits.)

To remind listeners of how quickly an energy problem becomes a disaster, Woolsey re-visited details of the 2003 Northeast Blackout that threw more than 60GW of power offline in 9 seconds flat, cut power to 50 million customers and paralyzed large areas of the northeastern and midwestern U.S., and Ontario, Canada.

Though often labeled a conservative, Woolsey has served under both Republican and Democratic administrations and advocates the formation of coalitions, noting that some politicians won’t deal with climate change but will go to the mat over the terrorist threat or protectionist home state economics.

It’s another way of acknowledging the growing American tendency toward polarizing ideology, regional politics and just-plain tunnel vision, but Woolsey believes that there’s common ground between divided factions, and that’s where the road to solutions widens.

He aligned to each class of problem its own special ghost: John Muir to addressing climate change, George Patton to preparing for terrorism, and Ghandi to contending locally with societal ills. Not quite uplifting, but a humanizing and haunting device to remind listeners to stay open to the warnings of those who may be ahead of their own time.

One such critical warning that Woolsey conveyed, regarding the much discussed smart grid, came via the sound bite-y “ODAV”: “ostrich designed, awesomely vulnerable,” pinched from a grade school techie who recently confessed to hacking the grid with such ease that it soon became boring. Woolsey’s well-honed speech included clever lines he’s used to advantage before. Referring to the varying talents and sensibilities needed to address the dangers we face, he returned again to this crowd-pleaser:

"I call this a coalition of the tree-huggers, do-gooders, sod-busters, cheap hawks, evangelicals, utility shareholders, mom and pop drivers … and Willie Nelson."

And certainly, that breadth of thought and talent is what’s needed to best these challenges.

Two other keynote speakers brought an uncommon vigor to the connection between climate change solutions and success in clean tech business: Lee McIntire, the CEO of CH2M Hill, and John Woolard, the eco and econ-impassioned CEO of BrightSource Energy. With different but effective styles, each company leader brought to the stage and networkers below an infectious sense of the dual purpose behind their professional accomplishments.

McIntire told a story he swore was true, about his engineer’s ear understanding the sound of a failed engine during a flight he was a passenger on, the dramedy paces he went through to convince the pilot an unplanned landing was essential, and the subsequent manic announcements by a flight attendant that a “CRASH!” landing was imminent. Funny story, sly stuff.

He went on to understate that the world is “kind of like Monty Python these days” and to relay facts about the busy urban infrastructure firm he leads, cite statistics about water, energy and the frequent simultaneous waste of both, and warn about the elephants in the collective societal room — money, politics and fundamentalism.

Because he grabbed his audience with old-fashioned everyman storytelling, McIntire could have held the podium for much longer than his allotted half hour. A guy who gets that metaphor is often the best messenger is a guy many people will listen to.

BrightSource CEO and GoingGreen 100 winner John Woolard began amiably, but moved quickly to science-backed warnings about the hazy future of civilization.

He soon revealed himself to be perhaps the most climate-consumed speaker. Having raised over $160 million of investment capital, with 14 large scale projects in the works, BrightSource is a world leaders in solar. Yet Woolard spent much of his time on the alarming, rising rates of species extinction and non-renewable energy use, and noted a key goal of his is to pull focus back to climate, over the recession economy.

Turning a tired phrase upside down, he dryly observed that if energy efficiency was really the low-hanging fruit, a lot more people would be doing it. What gets done and what is most doable may be mutually exclusive in our freakonomics world, but John Woolard set an fine example to the room of green industrialists that there’s much more than financial success at stake.

Mary Crowley and Doug Woodring, co-founders of Project Kaisei, whose team of collaborators work on cleaning up the overwhelming plastic vortex of the North Pacific Gyre, caused a noticeable stir in the crowd with their presentation.

"We all know that plastics last," Crowley said, as a video backdrop of the endless synthetic debris that sickens our oceans and marine animals played behind her. "There is no ‘away’ when you throw plastic away. Plastic toys, plates, bottle caps can last for centuries."

Their shocking imagery effectively matched their message.

As Crowley regularly reminds people, it’s everybody’s problem: "We have to demand creative from industry to create products that are benign by design, products that are good for the earth, products that can be reused, recycled."

The non-profit Project Kaisei was a unique and powerful presence at GoingGreen West, and a striking example of the common ground between commerce and activism.