You say you want a revolution?
Alrighty then. GoingGreen 2007 highlights the wide scope of the environmental movement.
Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are A-Changin'” played as Peter Le Lièvre, CEO of Ausra, took the stage. He was here to present on his Silicon Valley-based company, which develops utility-scale solar technology to serve global electric needs. The system uses sunshine to boil water, producing high-pressure steam that drives conventional turbine generators on a massive scale, helping utilities meet renewable standard portfolios.
At first, I was like, what? Then I was like, ohmygosh, that’s really cool.
If you think environmentalism is just a trend, you should’ve attended the GoingGreen 2007 conference at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center a few weeks ago. I didn’t see a single hipster kid with a diagonal haircut and tight jeans in the place. No, all I saw was a vast expanse of middle-aged white men in gray and black suits, and, come on, that’s pretty much the epitome of untrendy.
On that bright September morning, I fluctuated between condemning the conference for highlighting the whiteness and maleness of the environmental movement’s “upper echelon” and praising it because I never had to wait in line for the women’s restroom.
If someone told me a year ago that listening to Ivy League-educated rich people talk about how desalinating seawater to increase global water supply by nearly one-third requires only 4 percent of global energy production would fascinate me, I would have said guess again. I’m not usually one to ooh and ahh over status, but when thousands of CEOs, venture capitalists and scientists from all over the United States converge to talk about how green-technology innovators are transforming global energy, water, agriculture, transportation, construction, manufacturing, resource recovery and ultimately the Earth as we know it, well, that’s a different story.
In the spirit of open media, event sponsor AlwaysOn webcast the conference free-of-charge around the globe, estimating that about 30,000 people from 100 countries would tune in. A large screen above the stage displayed viewers’ instant messages from as far away as Hong Kong, and in the audience bloggers sat alongside members of old-school print media, both typing away.
Greentech has become the third-largest investment class for venture capitalists, with $6.4 billion invested, so it made sense that during the first panel four venture capitalists discussed the “green energy of tomorrow.” Ray Lane, managing partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, said we need new big energy sources to replace the old ones, suggesting the massive solar reactor in the sky (we’ll call it “the sun”) and heat from the Earth’s crust (thermal energy). Raj Atluru, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, talked about silver bullets and incremental change. He discussed the importance of supporting young entrepreneurs who will do the great research that will create the great technologies we want the large companies to buy. Not everything will succeed, he said, but some will. And those will be the Googles and eBays—the ones that forever alter the paradigm.
Then it hit me: Something major is happening here.
As much as my radical grassroots tendencies cringe at the notion of compromise, business and politics, I’d be remiss to deny the 21st century environmental movement’s inclusive identity. Individuals, “treehuggers” if you will, have long been the face of the environmental movement, and now capitalists look at these individuals as “consumers,” which opens up a whole realm of green possibilities. Consumers have taken note of the climate crisis. As Bill Green, managing director of Vantage Point Venture Partners, said during the conference, “There’s a huge consumer consciousness around this. Why are people offsetting their flight travel?”
Lately, the treehugger has taken on some interesting incarnations. We have institutions, such as UC Davis, pouring research dollars into clean technology like money’s going out of style. And we have Dennis Rogers, senior vice president for government and public affairs of Northern California’s Building Industry Association, telling SN&R that the organization has meetings planned with members of the U.S. Green Building Council because, “We’ve come to the conclusion that green building issues are here to stay.”
I’ve always envisioned the face of positive, transformative change to be who we’d least expect, the underdog who would rise up. Maybe my revolutionary vision has been too narrow. Maybe change has many faces, all with at least some degree of beauty to offer. I guess we’ll find out. In 1964, Dylan sang about changing times and from what I can see, he continues to be right with Mother Earth and all her inhabitants possibly being the ones to benefit. And that, my friend, is glorious.