The Good, The Bad, The 10,000 lb Gorilla in the Room: The 2014 Sustainability Message

During the last week of March I attended the annual Milwaukee Sustainability Summit. I do not annually attend sustainability conferences because the cost is too great for a message that year-to-year is too similar. In between conferences I get my news and statistics through trade journals and the social media (Twitter, blogs, etc.) people and groups I follow. While convenient, this can isolate the message I see, limiting myself to a selected set of sources and causing me to miss new trends and discussions. So, since it had been three years since my last sustainability or green building conference, I felt it was time for a refresh. It is 2014; what new technology is available, who are the latest start-ups and what is their business plan, and what is the overarching sustainability message? Here is what I found:

The Good: Whatever you do, do something!

The sessions and presenters provided a good variety of topics, not allowing attendees to squirrel away and only be there for ‘your’ topic. It’s beneficial to be exposed to what is happening in other fields and the arrangement of presenters, exhibition booths, and breakout sessions required you to get updates on a variety of topics. For me this meant I got my water update, and — while it isn’t a field of study I practice, study, or am particularly engaged by — I know the latest enough to collaborate with those groups on a community project. There also was a clear overall message shared through most sessions: be active on any level you can, find some way to get engaged and make a difference. This is essential for any good conference and this one met that standard.

At any good conference there are sessions that leave you feeling empowered! Ones where you leave and want to tell everyone all about your experience and discussions. For me this came from a breakout session hosted by Sustain Dane and American Family Insurance, presenting a great case study on American Family Insurance’s progress towards zero-waste. The PowerPoint wasn’t a list of statistics but instead led us through the talk, and they made time not just to have a standard Question and Answer session but engage with the audience. We had a ‘Dream Event’ (for those Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing it was similar to miniature kaizen event) in which everyone took five minutes to focus on and picture a zero-waste life, then took five minutes to map out with sticky notes what they saw, and then in groups discuss the images. I found the group I was in very engaging and our conversation to be particularly enlightening.

The Bad: Who got the message?

It was clear from the start attendance was below expectations. For the Welcome and Opening Plenary, the main conference hall was less than a quarter full. In part this could be due to a lack of a particularly ‘big name’ presenter in this session; however, I still was starting my day questioning if I had made a huge mistake in attending this conference. In the following sessions attendance did gradually improve, but it was clear they expected a lot more than the approximately 3,200 attendees over two days they attracted. Blame the economy? Blame the conference cost? Blame the order of presenters? In the end, it was noticeably underwhelming.

The Gorilla: It’s time for some straight talk

I opened this entry citing that it had been a few years since I attended a sustainability or green conference and this was an opportunity to get engaged with the 2014 message. I’m sorry to say the 2014 message is startlingly similar to the 2010. The message back then was a need to reduce CO2, that there are limits which if hit will start to enact climate change, and we will hit a point where it is irreversible. The data through 2013 shows minor (when there is any) improvement, events already happening that may in part be caused by climate change, and still a sustainability message about averting limits by 2020, 2030, and 2050.

I’m not alarmist. I played that role in college and it doesn’t do any good; you get sucked into theoretical Tragedy of the Commons discussions. During my alarmist stage everyone wanted to ask ‘When?’ like there is a clock and when it hits zero a door around the earth closes and all humans die due to climate change (nuclear annihilation maybe, but that is a completely separate discussion we can have). In reality, with climate change we go out as we came in – with a whisper not a bang.

I was disappointed that the 2014 message does not call for a pivot towards climate adaption as a strategy. Let’s be honest – we are not going to avoid or minimize climate change, the graphs are not showing progress to suggest this is feasible (Justin Gillis, New York Times). I applaud the efforts shared at the conference of Will Allen and Growing Power, who through the work they are doing understand the climate is changing and we must adapt through trying new strategies, and there were others whose message clearly understood we are entering a time of adaption. However, it is time that as a whole we switch the public message and strategy. It is time to start developing solutions and strategies for what the world is becoming.

Overall, between the low attendance and a lack of message that calls for the creation of adoption strategy, the conference was disappointing. I expect events like this to send individuals and groups back into the world more united, with a feeling of empowerment and unity, yet the lack of understanding of the times we are in was underwhelming and I did not leave feeling empowered or unified. In retrospect my decision to attend and get the 2014 message update was not worthwhile, and I doubt I will attend another conference until I start to see the larger message evolve. When the sustainability message pivots toward a local focus of adaptive strategy implementation, rather than broad planet-sized statistics, I may need another update or, by that time, to participate and share what the organizations I am an active member in are doing.