Live From the Ceres Conference: How Do We Change the Rules of the Game?

Live From the Ceres Conference: How Do We Change the Rules of the Game?

"Sooner or later, Mother Nature will come and break our kneecaps."

So said Denis Hayes, the founding co-chair of Ceres and the CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, in the opening keynote to the 2009 Ceres Conference.

Hayes was talking about the size and scope of the problem that we're facing in this global ecological bubble, where costs are costs, and sooner or later the piper has to be paid.

Throughout the morning at the 20th anniversary Ceres Conference, the global economic crisis lurked in the background, but it actually served a beneficial purpose: The collapse of the economic system has led to a huge opening for exploring not just how business-as-usual failed the economy, but how it's also destroying the environment.

The theme of the conference is "Achieving a Sustainable Global Economy," and the conference began by exploring how to change the rules of the game.

Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres, laid out this idea clearly when she said that climate change poses the same kinds of hidden and not-so-hidden risks as subprime mortgages did. As a result, corporate leaders and policymakers alike should be paying close heed to the steady stream of warnings we are seeing about the environment.

The global economic collapse also offers us the chance to reimagine how the economy functions, an idea expressed repeatedly throughout the morning. Majora Carter, a director of Ceres and the founder of Sustainable South Bronx, put it most succinctly when she said, "The pollution-based economy was built and it exists because we built it on the backs of poor people. ... [But] we are in a new era: The green economy is now, and it needs to look at how everyone is a contributor and a participant and it shows that you don't have to build an economy at the expense of the planet."

In her welcoming remarks, Lubber was the first (of several presenters this morning) to offer a roadmap or a set of goals to help get us out this economic and environmental mess. With the start of the conference, Ceres detailed its new "Ceres 20-20" plan, "How to Get There." We'll be covering it more fully in the coming days, but in a nutshell, the plan lays out four pillars to a sustainable economy:

• Pillar One: Ensure Honest Accounting
• Pillar Two: Set New Standards and Expectations
• Pillar Three: Accelerate Green Innovation
• Pillar Four: Change the Rules of the Game
Hayes followed Lubber's presentation with a clear-eyed look at the severity of the situation, and how it's all connected. No one country, he said, can solve its climate crisis. For the first time, humanity will have to come together to develop a solution.

Hayes' three much-needed solutions are, he admitted, likely to cause some amount of uproar, particularly his first proposal: Reduce the global population. If we wanted everyone in the world to live at the level of comfort of the average Swede, Hayes said, the planet could support about 2 billion people -- a far, far cry from the 6.6 billion on the planet today or the expected 9 billion by 2020.

The planet also needs to move back to designing for the future. Colleges at Oxford, in Hayes' example, are as much as 800 years old. Today, we build structures to last for maybe 50 years, and as Hal Harvey, the CEO of the ClimateWorks Foundation, said later in the morning, a poorly designed building is an environmental and economic burden for its entire life, while a well designed building is a boon for the same length of time.

"Finally," Hayes said, "we need to temper the extremes of wealth and poverty." In discussions with Jared Diamond, the author of "Collapse" who looked at how civilizations throughout history have failed and disappeared, Hayes said the single biggest factor in a collapse is often when the rich and powerful can shield themselves from the consequences of their actions.

The final session of the morning at Ceres 2009 was aimed at discussions of how to change the game, or what needs to change in the game for success.

Carter, who notably called this age the OBAMA Era -- not just for the new U.S. president (whose campaign pin she still wears), but because it stands for Officially Behaving As Magnificent Americans -- bringing the American people and government back in step toward a solution, instead of being part of the problem.


Dave Douglas, the chief sustainability officer at Sun Microsystems, followed this point by asking what exactly is the United States' role in the climate fight. "Maybe this is our destiny," Douglas said. "Is our role to be the innovators? We weren't first to sound the alarm, or to develop a policy framework, but maybe it is to innovate?"

In the final set of prescriptions this morning, Harvey of ClimateWorks Foundation laid out six policies that really matter for the economy and the environment:
• Building energy efficiency
• Appliance standards for energy efficiency
• Fuel efficiency for vehicles
• Renewable Portfolio Standards
• A nationwide energy efficiency standard
• A cap on carbon emissions

Note that half of these recommendations deal with energy efficiency: While the world moves toward clean energy and a low-carbon economy, energy efficiency has to fill in the gaps.

"Efficiency is the initial jab," Douglas told the audience. "Renewable and green energy can be the roundhouse that finishes it, but efficiency needs to be the first step."

We'll have much more from the Ceres conference in the coming hours and days. Read the full agenda at