Where Have All the Covers Gone? Behind the Headlines at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green

Where Have All the Covers Gone? Behind the Headlines at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green

Apologies to Pete Seeger, but last Monday, when I checked in at registration for Fortune's annual Brainstorm Green conference and was handed the magazine's latest issue, I didn't expect the cover to be grey with an image of an unnerved executive, chair blasting into space (at least I hope that's what the picture is supposed to be, the delinquent in me has other ideas). Yes, there was a story about "The Truth About Green," but it wasn't the cover story.

I walked up to the gift shop to peruse the magazine rack. My search eventually took me to several newsstands and book stores. The most I could find a week before Earth Day was a green issue of Scientific American and a Harvard Business Review special issue rolling up articles from their past. The only other significant feature I had seen was last week's New York Times Magazine cover story by Paul Krugman on "Building a Green Economy," but then anyone employing Tom Friedman is likely obligated to feature at least one green story in the run-up to Earth week.

Alas, will there be no one to follow Vanity Fair's green cover trail after Madonna and Julia and Leonardo?

I've lost count of the number of presentations I've seen that used magazine covers on top of magazine covers to validate the importance of environmental sustainability. In my cursory search last week, it seems the covers are gone. And at an event like Brainstorm Green, it seems the cheerleading has been replaced by an engaged, if some times nuanced, discussion.

BSG without PPT

Fortune's Brainstorm Green brings together senior executives from across a wide range of industries along with leaders of non-governmental organizations, a few high-profile consultants, representatives of the investment community, and others. The event is a collection of main stage one -- on-one interviews, panel discussions, and numerous breakout sessions.

Suffice to say that the conversations, both on stage and in the hallways, are some of the best I get to participate in all year. Part of the reason for that is they highlight the challenges facing business in dealing with the environment and climate change. But there's also a candid openness to the event that is encouraging when you're interacting with Fortune 500 executives whose investor relations departments often try to tamp down the chief's enthusiasm.

Lee Scott, former CEO of Walmart, kicked off the event with a wide-ranging discussion during which he cleared up something I'd always been curious about. Namely, when Walmart set its emissions reduction, waste, and other sustainability goals there was no time frame attached to them. Environmentalists criticized that but his explanation is a great example of the challenges of leading any sizable organization. Consensus was dragged down by individual interests and meetings turned into negotiating sessions about what the exact goals might be. To his credit, Lee took a stand to publish bold goals and figure out the timetable later. It might not have been a popular decision, but it's the type of decision many leaders shy away from, delegating their responsibility.

Author and iconoclast Stewart Brand wasn't shy in his comments during a dinner interview where he advocated for building more nuclear plants and perhaps more tellingly asserted that the environmental movement's strategies of the 1970's and 1980's needed to shift 180 degrees from confrontation to working in alliance with business if we're to address climate change. And therein lies why Brainstorm Green may be the best annual conference around. Challenges are issued and panel discussions bring together a wide range of opinions on specific issues.

The next day Brand was on a panel discussing nuclear energy that included executives from Fluor, two electric utilities, and the executive director of the Sierra Club. It got testy at times but everyone got a hearing and the audience benefits from a more nuanced discussion instead of a Powerpoint promotion from any one side.

When you bring this many senior leaders together, it's almost a guarantee that you'll pick up some great one-liners. Yvon Chouinard was more than likely the most tweeted when he confessed "Living an examined life in business is a pain in the ass." But for pure visceral imagery, I'd nominate National Geographic Society's Explorer in Residence (how cool a title is that?) Sylvia Earle who was part of a panel entitled "Tragedy of the Commons: Protecting the Oceans." When commenting on the harvesting practices of shrimp boats, she compared it to "using a bulldozer to catch squirrels," and on the toxicity of the oceans she noted that "After a beluga whale dies it should be classified as a superfund site."

Getting it Right for the Next Ten Years

For all of her vinegar, Earle focused even more energy during her keynote at lunch later that day to make the point that "the next ten years are the most important." That's where a conference like Brainstorm Green has the greatest impact. It serves to bring together many of the parties who need to talk -- many who have been disappointed by governments both here and around the world, but who are not willing to abdicate the responsibility business has in working toward solutions.

{related_content}In Krugman's New York Times article on green economics and the need for a cap-and-trade system, he writes "It's a shame, but climate altruism must take a back seat to the task of getting such a system in place." Certainly, Stewart Brand's call for activists to "think differently" mirrors that sentiment. To get it right for the next ten years, it's going to take a different level of dialogue than businesses and environmentalists have had in the past.

If the Brainstorm Green conference is any indication, the right discussions and subsequent actions might be possible. At many conferences I attend, speakers parachute in for their sessions and fly out quickly after. But last week, executives like Bill Ford and Walmart's Matt Kistler were there in the audience with Cradle to Cradle author Bill McDonough, EDF's Gwen Ruta, and Sierra Club's Michael Brune from the opening session to the closing one. They were there to be part of the conversation. The easy cover stories might no longer be on the newsstands, but it appears that business leadership may quietly be writing the environmental story for the next ten years.

John Davies is Vice President for GreenBiz Intelligence at Greener World Media.