9/11: A Sustainability Story

On that sunny September Tuesday, as the planes hit their targets, I was sitting in a windowless conference room, inside a Sheraton Hotel sandwiched between Terminals A and B at Bradley International Airport, just north of Hartford, Connecticut.

I was part of a small team brought together for a one-day brainstorming session on behalf of the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, established a year earlier by the state’s legislature to invest in clean-energy resources. The stated mission of the exercise was “to map out the investment opportunity space and suggest which areas of opportunity will provide the most fruitful focus in the search for ventures that meet both social and financial criteria.” We had been asked to consider a broad range of investment options, both short-term and longer-term -- high-tech bioreactors for farm waste, biomemetic membrane technology, tide and river flow energy, self-assembling solar cells -- from the mundane to the exotic.

We began the exercise on the morning of September 11, 2001.

It was an interesting group, assembled by my friend Gifford Pinchot III, a longtime entrepreneur, author, and conservationist, now president of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. Pinchot was the connective tissue among our group of seven, which included Janine Benyus, whose 1997 book, Biomimicry, had become required reading among green-minded innovators; Amory Lovins, co-founder and life spirit of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the leading energy-efficiency think (“and do”) tank; Anita Burke, at the time a sustainability executive at Shell International, the Anglo-Dutch oil company, now managing director at the Catalyst Institute; Joe Romm, former assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewables, now a senior fellow at American Progress and author of the influential blog Climate Progress; and Benjamin Brant, a veteran entrepreneur in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

An hour or so into our conversation, Arnold Brandyberry, our lead client from the Clean Energy Fund, rushed into the room saying, in effect, “Come into the hallway. You have to see what is happening.” We walked a short distance to the lobby, where the TV in the hotel bar had attracted a small crowd.

It was standing there, arms linked, that we watched the towers fall.

Brandyberry and his team had the presence of mind to get us out of the hotel and away from the airport. Romm, the only East Coaster, split off to take the train back to Washington, D.C. The rest of us scrambled into two vehicles and were driven into Connecticut’s Farmington Valley, about 15 miles away, to the largely vacant Simsbury Inn — what Benyus quickly dubbed “our 5-star bunker” — where we spent the next five days trying to get home — to Montana, Colorado, Washington, and California, all too far to drive or bus, or so it seemed at the time.

It was a rare opportunity for this normally peripatetic group of individuals to dial down, spend time digging deeper in conversations, both personal and professional, than is normally possible. It was an extraordinary experience for several reasons, not the least of which was being marooned with a group of renowned systems thinkers during a time of unprecedented, catastrophic systems failures.

Like everyone else, we were in a state of shock. We all knew someone who worked in the Pentagon or on Wall Street. Some of us had been en route to New York or Washington. (Lovins was headed to D.C.; Burke planned to see a friend who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald high atop One World Trade Center; I was to speak at a clean-tech conference in Midtown, slated to begin on the 12th.) We tried to get in touch with friends, families, and those we thought might have been in harm’s way. The communications technologies we take for granted today weren’t as evolved — no social media, spotty cell coverage, few news media websites, primarily TV and radio to keep us in the loop.