The Envelope, Please: Recognizing the Unsung Heroes of Sustainability

Sustainability's Melty Awards

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What would happen if the same six people won the Oscars every year?

Three things: 1) The Oscars would get so boring that no one would pay attention; 2) the awards would lose credibility; and 3) a lot of very talented people would go unrecognized.

That what’s happening in regard to our national and international heroes of sustainability – the many people who day in and day out demonstrate uncommon persistence in the face of virtual anonymity.

I received a call the other day from someone who wanted me to attend a conference. Her selling point was that her organization was giving an award to one of sustainability’s superstars – someone who already has received considerable honors and attention for his good work.

On one hand, I’m delighted that work on sustainability is rewarded. On the other hand, I suspect that some awards are based not on merit alone, but on the star power of the awardee – his or her ability to attract people to a conference or a fund-raising banquet. The result is that the same sustainability superstars tend to be recognized over and over again, while many lesser luminaries are not.

I’d like to offer this suggestion to the many organizations that organize gala dinners and national conferences on sustainable development, and who wish to recognize somebody in the movement: How about honoring the unsung heroes? The list of nominees is very, very long.

One model is MacArthur Fellows Program, more commonly known as the MacArthur genius awards. Each year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gives $500,000 with no strings attached to people – most of them little known outside their fields – who “inspire new heights in human achievement”, “exemplify the boundless nature of the human mind and spirit” and have shown great potential to continue making worthy contributions in the future.

Twenty-five such people were notified by phone last fall that they’d been selected, including a neurobiologist, a saxophonist, a critical care physician, an urban farmer, an optical physicist, a sculptor, a geriatrician, a historian of medicine, and an inventor of musical instruments.

On the other end of the spectrum is The Stranger’s Genius Awards, in which The Stranger, a magazine based in Seattle, recognizes deserving artists. As the magazine explains:

Every fall since 2003, The Stranger has given a check for $5,000 and an obscene amount of attention to a filmmaker, a writer, a visual artist, a theater artist, and an arts organization making startling, original work. There is no application process.

Winners are notified when, at some time and location they least expect, they are presented with a cake decorated with the words, “You’re a Genius”. Sweet.

How about similar recognition for the unheralded heroes of sustainability – if not a genius award, then a “Pretty Damn Brilliant” prize of some kind. Perhaps sustainability conferences in the future can distinguish themselves not by recognizing the usual heroes but the unusual ones. Here are some nominees who in my book should be honored for uncommon dedication to the environment and to all of us, present and future, who live in it:

Betsy Taylor, founder and director of the board of the 1Sky organization and founder of the Center for a New American Dream. Betsy helped organize 1Sky around the idealistic but necessary notion that the many groups working on climate change could rally around a common set of goals and learn to speak with one voice.

Gillian Caldwell, 1Sky’s Campaign Director and the quintessential working mother of the climate movement, absolutely dedicated and tireless in the goal of building a network of climate advocates in key congressional districts across the nation. When Gillian talks about saving the planet for our children, she takes it personally.

Terry Tamminen, the architect of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pioneering climate policies in California. Terry, now in the private sector, is still practicing policy architecture, often behind the scenes. He organized the conference hosted by Schwarzenegger last November, at which officials from 13 states, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, India and China signed an agreement to collaborate on climate mitigation efforts. That event may have opened the door a little wider to a bilateral climate agreement between the United States and China. It was also the conference at which newly elected President Barack Obama gave his first statement on the U.S. commitment to work with other nations on the climate crisis.

Joe Romm, Janet Ritz and David Sassoon – editors-in-chief respectively of Climate Progress, The Environmentalist and SolveClimate – three of the blogosphere’s most informative green sites. I’m not sure how they continue churning out new information and news hour after hour, or how they keep abreast of the insanely fast-breaking developments in the energy, climate and environmental fields, or how they find the money to keep going. But each of them has become a fire hose of information from which the rest of us drink.

Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Coalition. Through his leadership at the Coalition and his radio program Earthbeat, Mike demonstrates how global climate change can be brought home to the local and regional levels.

Profs. Gus Speth and David Orr, real-world academics. Gus, who founded the World Resources Institute, helped create the Natural Resources Defense Counsel and served as President Jimmy Carter’s environmental advisor among other astounding accomplishments, now is dean of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale. David is a senior advisor to the president of Oberlin College and advisor to the Lewis and other philanthropic families – a role in which he has helped empower scores of critical environmental projects around the U.S. Both are the prolific authors of profoundly important books on the environment and the values behind our relationship with it.

Michael Northrop, the sustainable development program director at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Mike is the Johnny Appleseed of climate action. For years, he has been planting small grants in the rocky soil of climate action, funding a wide variety of groups and individuals ranging from small business experts to coalitions of state officials exploring how best to work with the federal government. Few if any people are better connected to all the hard-working activists in the international climate movement. Few are more widely valued in the movement for nourishing its “green shoots”.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I have been one of Mike Northrop’s and the Lewis family’s grantees; that Mike Tidwell has interviewed me on his radio program; that Gus Speth, David Orr and Terry Tamminen served as advisors to the Presidential Climate Action Project (my project); that while trying to fund her own initiatives, Betsy Taylor generously helped me acquire other grants to sustain PCAP; that Joe, Janet and David bravely publish my posts on their blogs; and that I value Gillian, as I do all of these good people, as allies and friends.

So, I invite others to broaden this pool of nominees with the unsung heroes of their acquaintance. Let’s pat them on the back. Let’s give them some cash. Let’s present them with small ice sculptures that melt at current atmospheric temperatures and call them the “Melty Awards”. However we do it, let’s make sure the unsung heroes know we’re grateful for the incredible work they do.