Majora Carter: “Greater Environmental Equality Will Lead to Greater Prosperity”

At the opening session of the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco, the co-hosts of “Morning Joe,” Mika Brezinski and Joe Scarborough, hosted a series of panels with leading environmental experts like Majora Carter and Paul Hawken; technnology and product innovators such as Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, and David Kohler, The Kohler Group; and policymakers such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, and former New York governor George Pataki. While Morning Joe seemed a bit obsessed by the losses of his Republican Party (he says he’s on the libertarian side of the spectrum), the morning show team still ably led the panelists through a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion on the business and ideological forces pushing forward the sustainability movement and the policy actions that enable or impede it.

Perhaps the most powerful statement to come out of the session was from MacArthur “genius” Majora Carter, who said that movements for “greater equality lead to greater prosperity for all.” Following up on USGBC President Rick Fedrizzi’s argument that the green building movement is indeed a movement and comes in a long of line of movements that have expanded rights for women, African Americans, and gay Americans, Carter said “environmental equality” was the next frontier. With environmental improvements for all, “we all benefit” and the economy grows as new jobs are created.

Hawken, the author of four bestselling books on how ecology and commerce can be better integrated, said that groups like the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) are critical because they are places “where ideas have sex.” However, both he and Carter argued that “everyone needs to be in the room: poor, rich, black, white.” When everyone is in the room, “the questions become important,” and they also change because they address the needs of the underserved. Also, Carter added that “we need to preach outside the little temple we’ve built for ourselves” and truly link jobs to environmental equality. “This will be huge opportunity, one that can be embraced by all,” not just the environmental movement.

Stone succeeded in making the case that technology – whether in the Internet or green building realm — can be an enabler if used to create more understanding. He quoted Einstein, who said that “information is not knowledge.” With the rise of the Web and big data, there’s more and more information out there, but it needs to be “turned into understanding and then action.”

Lt. Governor Newsom believes that the new digital divide exists between society and the private sectory on one hand and the government on the other hand. “Technology hasn’t radically altered governance yet.” Tools like Twitter help people “amplify their voice, connect, form new coalitions.” However, government is still using an old model: one-way communication. To really connect with young people, “two-way communication is needed.” Stone added that “technology democratizes and enables us to empathize with people across the world.”

Both agreed that technology enables policymakers to better listen and “find patterns” that can be turned into support for green programs. Technology can also improve transparency so people understand what they are buying and using everyday.

For Mayor Booker, all of these new approaches and technologies need to be harnessed so they support a grand holistic vision. “Green thinking affects everything, not just the environment. The American dream must be a green dream.” He said in Newark he has started projects saying that “green is our value, but what is the multiplier effect?” As an example of the type of projects he wants with significant multiplier effects, he pointed to a new program that puts ex-offenders to work building urban gardens, which also has huge urban heat island reduction benefits.

Governor Pataki said incentives can also help create that multiplier effect. In New York, he put out a $300 million bid for “clean hybrid buses.” His advisors told him he was crazy because “they don’t exist.” Pataki said his bid actually created the market, because, sure enough, a NY-based firm stepped up and created a solution. “Someone is now making these buses. They weren’t before. That’s leadership.”

Still, Brezinski seemed to ask the telling question, which the policymakers didn’t seem to answer at all: How do you incentivize real change when the change required is a “hard sell?” For example, New York City never built out those sea walls to protect the city because they were expensive and a “hard sell.” Climate change mitigation may be another one. The true test of the innovative new approaches and technologies will be those hard sells.

Image credit: 2012 ASLA Professional Residential Design Award of Excellence. Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments. Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture / Bruce Damonte photo copyright.

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