Taking the Rose-Colored Glasses Off the Green Building Movement

Taking the Rose-Colored Glasses Off the Green Building Movement

There's a difference between a green revolution and a green party, and many in the sustainability movement have been mistaking the latter for the former.

That was one of the key messages that New York Times columnist, author and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman brought to Greenbuild Wednesday.

The opening night ceremony for the green building industry's largest annual gathering served up thought-provoking talks that focused on truth-telling -- a welcome departure from the celebration-affirmation-aspiration sendups that are typically the fare at convention curtain-raisers for any industry.Thomas Friedman

"I always love it when people tell me we're having a green revolution," said Friedman, the keynote speaker. "Really, us? Having a green revolution? Have you ever been to a revolution where no one gets hurt? That's the green revolution: Each and every one's a winner. General Motors is a winner. BP's a winner. We're all winners."

"That's not a revolution, friends, that's a party. We've been having a green party, but that has nothing to do with a revolution," Friedman said, adding, "This isn't meant to be downbeat. it's meant to be realistic. We've had a couple of bad years here."

Rick FedrizziIndeed. Three years ago, soon after U.S. voters elected Barack Obama president, Desmond Tutu's welcome to the thousands at Greenbuild resounded with hope and jubilation. Al Gore's address the following year called for action at  the Copenhagen climate talks, though by then it was growing apparent that political polarization would stymie efforts for productive agreement.

Then last year, Colin Powell commanded the green building movement to build better leaders to meet the challenges brought by an economy that's struggling to right itself and an escalating cycle of vicious politics in the U.S. that has paralyzed policymaking on climate issues -- and just about anything else.

In assessing the situation, Friedman drew on themes in his most recent book, "That Used to be Us. How America Fell Behind In The World It Invented and How We Can Come Back," which he wrote with Michael Mandelbaum. Last night, Friedman laid out the distressing legacy of poor judgment and worse decision-making in environmental and economic spheres over the past generation that has brought us to where we are today.

To regain our bearings, "we need to be the Re-Generation," said Friedman, alluding to the ills of the Me Generation, "the generation that creates a virtuous cycle to counter the vicious cycle."

In his address to the 23,000 Greenbuild attendees this year, U.S. Green Building Council President, CEO and Founding Chair Rick Fedrizzi also offered an unsentimental look at today's reality -- albeit less starkly stated than Friedman's remarks.

The banner phrase for this year's convention is NEXT. "Tonight we're focusing on what the USGBC has labeled a Resiliency Agenda," Fedrizzi said. "Resilience is not just a word, it's a paradigm that requires insight and a broad societal understanding."

It's essential, he said, "in a world that's become more interconnected and more fragile than ever. This agenda is the urgent work before us."

The sobering themes were perhaps a reflection of the USGBC's coming of age and the maturity of its Greenbuild conference. The organization was founded in 1993 and this year's gathering in Toronto, the first to be held outside the United States, is the group's tenth convention.

The only disappointing element of the evening's program was that relatively few people heard all of it. Held in the Air Canada Centre, the arena that is home to the Maple Leafs' hockey team and the Raptors' basketball team, opening night speeches and a panel discussion moderated by Cokie Roberts were frequently drowned out by a boisterous group that congregated on the concourse of the facility. Video clips as well as photos of the event will be posted later at greenbuildexpo.org.

Top photo CC licensed by Flickr user paul (dex). Insets courtesy of the USGBC.