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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : May/June 2003 : Cover Story

Cover Story

The Arlington Way

By Penny Bonda, FASID
Katie Sosnowchik
Portrait Photography By Jim Robinette

More Cover Story Articles

A keynote speech entitled “The State of the World” is an ambitious undertaking, even when the topic is narrowed to focus on an environmental perspective. The state of the world is, after all, in flux in many ways with global challenges that include climate change, potable water shortages, habitat destruction and the role of the United States as it either assumes or reneges its responsibility as a global environmental leader.

The daunting task of intellectually attacking this subject was put to group of three distinguished individuals at the recent EnvironDesign®7 conference in Washington, DC.

* Bill Browning, founder of Green Development Services (GDS), a consulting unit of Rocky Mountain Institute that enables architects, developers and real estate professionals to integrate energy-efficient and environmentally responsive design into projects. GDS has demonstrated significant opportunities for improving the comfort, aesthetics, resource efficiency and value of properties while reducing pollution and saving money. Recently Browning has been working with the Chinese government as it confronts horrific environmental problems while preparing to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

* Winona LaDuke, an internationally renowned Native American Indian activist and advocate for environmental, women’s and children’s rights. She is the founder and campaign director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, a reservation-based land acquisition, environmental advocacy and cultural organization. She’s also founder and co-chair of the Indigenous Women’s Network. LaDuke organizes and hosts the annual Honor the Earth tour in conjunction with folk-rock duo The Indigo Girls, with whom she was named by Ms. Magazine as “Women of the Year” in 1997. She joined Ralph Nadar as his vice presidential running mate on the Green Party ticket in the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections. She has written extensively on national environmental issues and she lives with her family on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota.

* Robert K. Massie who, until January of this year, has tirelessly served as executive director of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), a network of over 80 organizations, including environmental groups, investors, advisors and analysts representing over $300 billion in invested capital, public interest and community groups, as well as 70-plus companies that have endorsed the CERES principles, a 10-point code of environmental conduct. Massie continues to serve CERES as senior fellow and as a member of the CERES board, allowing him to continue to contribute his powerful and visionary ideas and strategic thinking, including his organization’s Global Reporting Initiative, a mechanism to provide and promote corporate accountability and transparency.

The session began with each of the panelists talking, storyteller fashion, about some of the things that they’ve seen and experienced in their work.

Winona LaDuke’s Story

I come from the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. The issues that we struggle with in terms of cultural diversity I think are very much a mirror of the broader issues of this society. They are integrally related to biodiversity remaining on a worldwide scale. By and large, the areas where there is the most biodiversity in the world are also the areas where there are the most indigenous people.

We, in our own community, have a very rich history of architectural diversity: native houses made of planks that are ornately carved, houses made of sod and whalebone, two- or three-storied adobe houses and, of course, the teepee! Colonialism does bad things to people’s architecture and culture. Our community over the past 150 years has seen a decline in the diversity of many of our dwellings and in the sacred ceremonial spaces. So now, if you travel to most Indian reservations in the United States, you’ll see houses that look very similar, created largely by HUD. Representing about 80 percent of our reservation-based communities, they’re all lined up like pastel mints, and they create largely dysfunctional living spaces for communities.

We are intimately aware of the relationship between the need for space that is culture-based, that connects you to the broader role of where you are today. I’m concerned about the relationship between cultural monocropping and architectural monocropping, and how this is transforming us into something that we probably do not want to be.

As a theoretical construct, historically and to this day, there is a direct relationship between the development of the United States and the underdevelopment of Native America. By and large, the natural resource base that has been accumulated and created the wealth has come from many of these indigenous communities.

On a worldwide scale there are about 5,000 nations of indigenous people living in many diverse regions in the world. We’re the people who live in the Arctic. We’re the people on the Pacific Rim. Fifty million indigenous peoples live in the world’s rain forests. Fifty million acres of North America is forest land that is inhabited primarily by native people.

The reality is that we consume too much energy in this country. I was in Colorado recently, and I was looking at coal trains coming from the Powder River Basin, from the Northern Cheyenne and Crow communities. This is a state that gets one percent of its energy from renewables, yet 10 times as much wind blows over the state as would be required for power, and they have over 300 days of sun a year. It has to do with choices. It has to do with selection. It has to do with public policy.

There is also the issue of selection of products which contain persistent organic pollutants that are showing up in women’s breast milk. We have Inuit women in the Arctic who have PCB contamination of their breast milk that is 12 times that of an average American woman. Indian communities have worked hard to secure agreements on eliminating persistent organic pollutants at an international level. In our community, we have a teaching which says, “In each deliberation, one should consider the impact upon the seventh generation from now.” And I think that that is perhaps a teaching that we could all learn from.

Bill Browning’s Story

Wendell Berry is a farmer, poet, raconteur and essayist. Some of his most powerful writing asks the question: “How do we all become native to place? How do we all figure out a relationship to place and land?”

In the environmental movement you hear again and again the notion that all people can do is screw up the land. And yet, as you begin studying other cultures and as you work with some of the restoration ecologists, you start to learn that there are many ecosystems here in the U.S. and other places that cease to exist when you take the humans out of them. The prairies of the Midwest, the oak savannahs, which are one of the most beautiful and stunning ecosystems I know anywhere in this country, cease to exist if they aren’t burned every year and it is the people who set those fires.

At the Rocky Mountain Institute we’re increasingly doing more and more work in China and many wonder why. Getting paid is nearly impossible, the problems are just intractable. You can be in Beijing in April and go for days and not even know where the sun is. Sandstorms resulting from desertification, from cutting down trees and overgrazing the grass have shut down airports for days at a time. There are estimates that 10,000 people a year are dying from respiratory problems.

So what are they doing about it? Well, this sounds a little glib, but they’re hosting the Olympics. In China, the implication of having the Olympics is something phenomenal, something they never thought they could do. There’s a level of pride that they have not had in a long time. You can be in remote villages where people haven’t seen a European person in 20 years, and you’ll see a little billboard or a sign that says, “Green Olympics.” There’s an enormous pride and they’ve made commitments that during that two-week period they will have clean air in and around Beijing.

They’re cleaning up the dirtiest factories. All the taxis are being converted to compressed natural gas. They’re cutting out coal burning and they’re going to natural gas. All of the buildings being built for the Olympics are being done as green buildings. In fact, they’re starting now some of the demonstration buildings for the Olympics using the LEED™ Green Building Rating System, and their goal is to achieve platinum (the highest) level. Because they have massive government support, they’re using the Olympics to kick off a green building campaign. This is for us a very intriguing and hopeful note.

Bob Massie’s Story

We have just passed the 10th anniversary of the release of Mosaic, which was the early Web browser, and that really struck me, because in 10 years, so much has happened globally with the release of information. In 1992, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore were running for president, they issued a position paper that said as part of their administration, they were going to work to insure that schools and libraries and businesses and government would be connected to the internet by 2015. They thought it would take 23 years to achieve what we have almost achieved, if not completely achieved, much faster than that.

I wanted to raise that because I think we haven’t fully absorbed how this can affect our ability to organize differently, to design differently, to bring people together in new and diverse ways that find our common humanity and find our common desire for the future. I want to give you a very specific example that I have had the privilege of being involved with, which is the creation of the Global Reporting Initiative, and I offer this as an example of what might be applied to other things.

The Global Reporting Initiative, very briefly, grew out of the experience of CERES, formed almost 15 years ago, to try to urge companies and other organizations to disclose their environmental impacts. There is an implicit theory that if you could get an organization, a company, to set a goal and measure and disclose its progress against that goal, you could create both an internal and external pressure dynamic for change.

By 1996, this idea and principle was being widely accepted, but there was an enormous debate about, well, what do you disclose? And how do you measure? And what does it mean? Who gets to determine it, and how will it be verified?

The question we began to ask ourselves that I would like all of you to consider in your work and in your lives: What do we really want? CERES was working on, in some sense, interim strategies, but what we truly wanted was for everyone to agree on a common disclosure standard on human rights, on the environment, on greenhouse gases, on land use practices and so forth, and then for people to report against that, and then for that to be linked to the other systems in our society of finance, economy and government. We then proposed to convene the group to work on a common standard, and the way we did this—and I think this is significant—is we basically set out from the beginning, saying, “We are going to create a public good,” and we were able to create a kind of swirling whirlpool of people who wanted to make it happen. And I can tell you when you start to unleash that, amazing things begin to develop. My general principle that I drew from this is: exciting is stronger than boring, and big trumps small.

We pulled this together very quickly. Because of the Internet, once we’d met, we could then share documents in real time, in ways that none of us had ever really seen before. We had people from Japan, South America, Africa, Canada and all over Europe globally working together, we approved things in three weeks, four weeks and had an exposure draft out in March ’99, an early prototype out in June 2000 and the next version out in 2002. We launched the permanent organization with its own board and staff, based in Amsterdam and it’s now being used by more than 200 global companies and we have blown away the argument that it could never be done, which was the biggest single impediment. We made real progress because we were able to take this new Internet technology and combine it with desire and vision and the willingness to cooperate in a way that was additive over time.

We live in a society where the dominant model is winner take all. You win by 1/100ths of a second, or by a few dollars, or by a single point, and you get all the credit, and the person who just barely missed it gets nothing. That is not a sustainable model. The sustainable model is people coming together from many points of view, from cultural and global diversity, and coming to understand what goals we really want as a community on the earth.

Human beings desperately need to be encouraged to build what they really want, and what they really dream about. Some people have the privilege of being able to invite you into their lives and are able to ask you to help them do that. But people need that vision, they need that sense of the possible, and sense of imagination that you can help release, not just in your professional lives, but in every part of your lives.

The Dialogue

BROWNING: Bob, bringing up the Internet for me is intriguing as well. I have a friend who’s native Hawaiian. She has organized a group, largely run by women, to recapture their language and their culture and help celebrate place again. Going from island to island would be hugely expensive, and these are largely folks who can’t afford to get on an airplane and go to meetings. So they run this whole network through the Internet. The Internet is becoming a place for empowerment of people who didn’t have voice before.

I get excited when people talk about engaging themselves on all levels. I think that people need to engage politically. I also think that there are many ways to do that, whether it’s a renewable energy standard in a state, or whether it’s one of these issues of toxins in buildings or zoning issues, or one of the things that I’ve been involved in most recently—funding energy projects such as wind turbines. I like this technology and I’m working on trying to leverage funding for tribal wind projects.

Renewable energy addresses a lot of the social issues in our society. In my mind, whether it’s the choices you make in the construction of your house, making it energy efficient and putting in passive solar systems, it is about democratizing power production in this country, which is one of the things that we absolutely need to be about. Because in doing that, what we do is we allow ourselves to be responsible more for our own production. You hook up to the grid, and you sell the power back to the grid, if there’s a surplus. You have these power lines that don’t just distribute, but they collect. This begins this process of transformation from a society in which there is centralized production and profits made by some and expenses incurred by others, to much more local control. How do we engage in some other processes of transforming, of change?

I’d like to take a crack at that, because I forgot to mention something that I think is quite exciting and encouraging, and that’s sort of outside the normal political realm. It was mentioned earlier that CERES does a lot of work with institutional investors, and one of the things that we realized is that institutional investors have a lot of money, and they own a lot of companies, and big pieces of companies. And despite what’s happened in the stock market recently, the total portion of pension money and institutional investor money continues to grow in the United States, and yet for the most part, that has never really been mobilized. One of the things that is happening now is the assertion of the rights of the diversified capital over corporate governance.

The largest physical changes in the history of human civilization that are coming down the pike in the form of global climate change are not evaluated in the potential long-term consideration of portfolios. Think about that. The biggest thing human beings have ever seen in terms of what it could do to our economy is not even considered.

One of the things that we’ve done is convene a state comptroller/treasurer and investor summit on climate risk. Because we may have it at the U.N., we’re going to pull in a lot of people. We’re simply going to ask the question, “Under what conditions could the radical changes that may take place in the climate affect your long-term valuation?” There is no current answer on Wall Street to that question and that’s going to be something that corporate America is really going to have to think about.

One other thing that many of you may not have noticed is that the Securities and Exchange Commission has ruled that, starting in 2004, all mutual funds must reveal their proxy voting. So if you have a 401(k) or any kind of mutual fund, you should write to your fund manager and ask how they plan to vote on the issue of climate change. I also want to fully endorse what Winona said. I know we’re all busy, but really, if you have a lever on power and you don’t pull it, then we bear some responsibility.

Twenty-six percent of the real estate of the country is held by pensions. Most people don’t even realize it, don’t even think about it, because of the way it’s aggregated and purchased and all of that. A year and a half ago, when the state pension for California announced that all of their new investments would be in LEED-certified buildings, that had a bit of a ripple. Sometimes it means chasing the money to see where it’s going—and have conversations with those folks.

On our reservation we work on a lot of issues. For example, we’re trying to recover our land base by acquiring land and holding it as a trust. Then we capture the value added by our work force, such as a maple syrup operation or the wild rice grown on our lakes. We’re also doing some work with wind turbines. We put one up on our reservation, and now we have what I call ‘wind turbine envy’ from farmers and other reservations. These are all examples of our response to globalization: relocalization or the rebuilding of local economies that not only add value, but they empower communities.

MASSIE: I would say that the industrialization of agriculture is mostly a very bad thing. Unilever is this global monopoly that controls and distributes something like 13 percent of the world’s frozen peas and 15 percent of the world’s frozen spinach or something of that magnitude. What can we do? I would say to try and buy more stuff locally and while you may pay a little more, think of it as a health and happiness tax.

There’s this great movement that started in a couple of villages in Italy called “slow food” and it’s more than just an anti-fast food thing. What it’s really about is celebrating what’s produced locally, but it’s also become a really powerful economic development tool.

Similarly, let’s start asking the questions. For example, is sustainability even possible or is this merely prolonging our own inevitable extinction? Or, as Paul Ehrlich asked, “Are we just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?” All species eventually go extinct. We’re the first to be able to make the choice. How we behave will largely determine that. But I sure wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I thought that there wasn’t hope.

We have a teaching from a long time ago that talks about a prophecy that said there would be two paths ahead for our people. One was well-worn, but it was scorched. The other path was not well-worn and it was green. It was our choice on which path to embark. That is our teaching—that you have a choice. And that’s what I really believe. We are the richest, the most powerful country in the world, and there is no absence of technology or the finances to do what needs to be done to make the kind of changes that would protect and restore. It’s just a question of the commitment.

MASSIE:: Sometimes people in the environmental communities ask why people aren’t more active on the question of climate change. Maybe we haven’t explained to them that this thing is really coming and is really going to be bad.
One of the unaddressed problems is the issue of despair; particularly if you’ve been committed to a better world, you can get to a point where you feel as though you bear the whole world on your shoulders. The bigger the problem, the smaller you feel, the more the temptation of despair. It’s actually okay to feel that as an individual for awhile because we’re human, but I think it is a real sin for a community to despair. We’re here to help and reinvigorate each other, reimagine the future, bear each others’ burdens, and to carry forward. If somebody has to sit down, or if we have to carry somebody for awhile, that’s okay. I think hope is a gift. We give it to each other, and that’s how we’re going to keep this thing going.

I’d like to finish with a verse from a poem that I love from Gerard Manley Hopkins, which, despite its slightly antiquated gender language, captures something about the challenge that we face.

Generations have trod, have trod,
have trod,
And all is seared with trade,
Bleared and smeared with toil.
And wears man’s smudge, and shares man’s smell.
The soil is bare now,
Nor can foot feel being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent,
For there lives the dearest freshness, deep down things.

I think that as citizens, we’re called to find that dearest freshness, deep down things, and bring it into our world and into our lives.

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