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Looking at climate from the social angle

Youth protesters in climate strikes in Australia in September.
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Youth protesters in climate strikes in Australia in September.

As the stains of inequality and injustice persist worldwide, equity and inclusion are front and center to countless discussions about a sustainable future. With natural resources dwindling and sea levels swelling, frontline populations are in peril of being left even further behind. But the story doesn't have to end that way. These compelling discussions from recent GreenBiz events are among those that make it possible to break with the adage that history is doomed to repeat itself.

With a great amount of grace, Angela Glover Blackwell made the case that the future of the United States hinges upon communities who historically have been left behind. We're in an amazing moment, with the planet in peril and upward mobility becoming more out of reach to so many Americans, the PolicyLink founder and president said at VERGE 19 in October. "I wish that we could just use the words 'inclusive economy' and make it so." But it's more complicated than that. By 2040 most of the population will be people of color. Already since 2012, most babies born are of color, as are 73 percent of children under age 18 in California. It's imperative to put the marginalized in the center, she said.The author of "Searching for Uncommon Common Ground"

Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg has plenty of company. Emerging leaders from three U.S. states and an array of backgrounds described their political involvement in a discussion dubbed "The kids are alright" at VERGE 19. They may demonstrate preternatural maturity, despite or because of the ecological instability they foresee in their own adulthoods. But they're not waiting around for the future; they're striking out and speaking out in courtrooms, classroom talks, street protests, viral videos and the halls of Congress.

How do power, privilege and bias interplay within a circular economy? Carrie Freeman, managing partner at SecondMuse, launched a discussion calling for everyone in the room at Circularity 19 in June in Minneapolis to own their privilege. National Geographic Society VP of operating programs Valerie Craig, for example, said she was proud of the magazine's race issue for owning up to its racist past. Tawanna Black, CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion, also partook: She works on helping organizations to identify and replace policies of exclusion.

"Having a voice is important," she said. "Having power is more important." For instance, when looking at a supply chain, which companies are owned by people of color? Economic growth and inclusion are not separate tracks, as research proves, she said, and a data-driven approach is important to helping people understand their self-interests and potential biases.

What are the impacts of closing a polluting plastic plant that offers local jobs? What does it look like to manage waste in a given community? Freeman pointed out the challenge of rethinking plastics, whose conveniences have benefited women in particular ways as caregivers. "How does business catch up?" Black asked. "Often we miss the things and opportunities that are right in front of us because we tend to operate in silos."

Ovie Mughelli said he's more excited about his namesake foundation than he was about his NFL career. "I have a chance to change lives," he said. The former Atlanta Falcons fullback engages children and families on sustainability through sports camps and green tailgating events. The Ovie Mughelli Foundation also produces a comic book, "Gridiron Green," starring a black hero and teaching about the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

At GreenBiz 19 in Phoenix in February, however, Mughelli said he used to think like some children he meets, that the environment is a rich person's issue. He had a change of heart after his child was born two months early, and it was risky to bring him home because of air pollution, something his fame and personal fortune could not prevent.

Why is conservation is a bourgeois concept? National Geographic Magazine photographer Charlie Hamilton James accidentally bought a Peruvian coca farm, from which cocaine is made, as well as an illegal logging camp. He thought he would conserve a piece of rainforest near Manu National Park, which holds 10 percent of the world's bird species, 1,300 species of butterfly and perhaps 250,000 species of insects. Camping there, buzzing chainsaws terrified him at night.

"It wasn't until I went on a journey to understand people I realized, if we want to cure the problems of the planet we need to really understand people a lot more." He worked for free at an illegal gold mine, an apocalyptic landscape of toxic waste. After two weeks, he watched his boss collapse from bankruptcy and lose a child in utero, possibly due to mercury pollution. That was just the start of his journey. He found that the people blamed as "bad guys" are just trying to make a living. "I didn't meet the nasty loggers I'd always heard about." It's a luxury to consider things beyond basic survival, Hamilton James found. How can we expect people not to touch natural resources to survive? "That's rich people shouting at poor people for doing something we don't like," he said.