GreenBuild 2011: Report from Toronto (Part 2 of a series)
Eric Corey Freed continues his report from the trenches of the largest Green Building Conference in the world
(BE SURE to read Part 1.) Despite the milestone, there was almost no mention of this being the 10th anniversary of the GreenBuild Conference & Expo. With the exception of a single display (at the top of the escalators between the halls), there was no other mention of a decade of impact. The focus of the show was clearly on the future, not lingering in the past. Besides, the 23,000 plus attendees had just barely survived the worst recession in 80 years, a recession that continues to pummel the building industry. This 10th anniversary would pass with little fanfare.
The mood in the halls was upbeat, optimistic and generally positive. (You may say that is because we really have no place to go but up.) In talking with hundreds of attendees, the real reason is more exciting. The source of this hope and confidence comes from a simple place: The built environment is a mess and it needs to be redesigned. It needs to be redesigned now. For a convention hall full of designers, this is cause for excitement. It was setting in that the world is going to need their services.
And so it was that practically the entire Green Building movement gathered in Toronto in the first week of October to share their knowledge, connect with colleagues and discover the latest innovations. The opening plenary session of the conference was held in the vast Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Within the stadium crowd you’ll find green building pioneers, such as Lynn Simon, Rob Watson and Alex Wilson.
The plenary began with customary remarks by USGBC CEO and president Rick Fedrizzi in an unsurprising introduction. This was followed by a shameful product plug by the sponsor of the plenary, David Kohler. The audience was patiently waiting for the main event.
As keynote speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman seemed the perfect fit for the forward-looking theme of this years conference. At first his talk started off badly, reading from his new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. It was rigid, poorly delivered and incredibly depressing. Everyone in the room knows all too well how screwed up the Earth is, and his reading wasn’t helping. But then, something changed. Friedman stopped reading and came to life.
He morphed into a tent revival preacher, and the result was incredibly effective. The crowd reacted and perked up. “Our future doesn’t have to be used up,” Friedman announced, “provided we fix what needs fixing today.” In a matter of minutes, he connected the 1979 film The China Syndrome and the Three Mile Island nuclear incident (occurring just 12 days after the film’s release) to 30 years of failed energy policy. “[These events] had a huge effect on America’s energy future,” he said, “and we didn’t compensate with energy efficiency. Instead we furthered our dependence on fossil fuels.”
He continued to connect recent events, such as the failure of the banking industry in 2008, with decisions we made three decades ago. “It’s not an accident that the Bear Stearns and Polar Bears faced extinction at the same time,” he proclaimed. Friedman points to what he calls a “distorted growth loop,” in which a faulty accounting in both the markets and in Mother Nature under-priced risk, privatized all of the gains and socialized the losses. Causing, as he said, for “our children to pay for it down the road.”
Though there were many gems within the speech, his big call to action came when he asked the audience to take back this Green Revolution. As he pointed out, “Have you ever been to a revolution where no one gets hurt? This isn’t a revolution, it’s a party!” To explain, Friedman noted, “How can it be a revolution where BP causes the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and gets off without punishment; or Exxon has the highest profits of any corporation? That’s not a revolution, that’s a party!”
Friedman said it will be a true revolution once we can take back the name. For example, instead of “green buildings,” they will simply be called “buildings.” He added, you won’t be able to build a building “unless it meets the highest levels of efficiency.” That is when we know it will be a true revolution.
Friedman explained how oil, coal and gas are fossil fuels and therefore are vanishing commodities. On the other hand, solar and wind are technologies. Commodities always go up in price with demand. Technologies always go down in price with demand. The first cell phones were expensive, but as they reached ubiquity, they plummeted in price. These “price signals,” as Friedman put it, will be the final sign that our revolution is underway.
He brought the crowd to its feet with his closing comment. “You didn’t get the word that everything is hopeless and that our government is paralyzed,” he explained. “You continued and kept going. Be too dumb to quit; don’t get the word!” Friedman ended by saying that our “not getting the word” gives him hope.
Watch the entire opening plenary session here (http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=2543″ target=”_blank”>here (you’ll have to log in or create an account).
As the applause faded, Friedman was joined on stage by Dr. Paul Farmer, Chair of the Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard and author of USGBC’s Project Haiti, and the role of industry in the rebuilding efforts. But no one was really listening. Energized by Friedman’s talk, the crowd was already getting restless when it was announced that Apple founder Steve Jobs had just passed away.
Now to set the scene for you: Picture thousands of conference-goers packed into this Canadian hockey rink, their heads swimming with the insightful ramblings of a Pulitzer Prize winner and all desperately trying in vain to get their American cell phones to work to confirm the grim news (at international roaming rates).
I’d like to comment on the panel discussion, but it was nearly impossible to hear over the din of the crowd. (Watch the video above.) The sad news left everyone distracted. Instead, I went out into the concourse to toast to the memory of Steve Jobs with everyone else.
The plenary was coming to a close, but not before Rick Fedrizzi re-took the stage for his final remarks. Rick surprised us all with a moving, heartfelt and passionate presentation of his “news story from the future.” Set as a New York Times article from the year 2036, it imagines a cover story announcing the closure of the U.S. Green Building Council due to the completion of its mission: where every building was now a green building. The graphics were beautifully produced, perfectly timed to his speech and sent chills through the audience. “The mission of the USGBC has been accomplished,” he proclaimed (but speaking from the future.)
(At press time, the video of the graphical part of his presentation was unavailable, but you can watch Rick’s talking head portion of it in the video above at time code 1:58.)
Next up, Grammy award winners Maroon 5 took to the stage. Oddly enough, there are six of them, not five, but it continues the GreenBuild tradition of hiring eco-minded performers (rock goddess Sheryl Crow took to the GreenBuild stage in Phoenix in 2009). The band is supporting the fight against climate change with their bio-diesel buses and support of Environmental Media Association and Global Cool.
In my life, I have climbed pyramids, broken into castles and bribed Egyptian policemen, but I can tell you that you have not known fear until you’ve been smashed against the stage by a horde of screaming, crying women at a Maroon 5 concert. Judging by the crowd reaction, lead singer Adam Levine is very popular among female environmentalists, aged 22-62. His tight pants were the topic of much of the conversation.
The following day, everyone had a Maroon 5 song stuck in their head (it doesn’t matter which, as they kind of all sound the same). Here is one I think you’ll enjoy:
IN PART THREE: I’ll be discussing the show logistics and Closing Plenary session, including a talk from the “John Wayne” of the Green Building movement.
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