When I attended my first U.S. Green Building Council event in 1994, less than 200 people showed up. At the last Greenbuild International Conference in Chicago, more than a 100 times that number showed up to crowd McCormick Place. Next week, Greenbuild descends on Boston for what promises to be another record attendance that will probably approach 30,000.
Today, I am midway through another organization's conference that has some of the same feel of the exponential growth of the U.S. Green Building Council. The second conference of the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) more than doubled its attendance from their first conference to almost 2000 attendees from 48 states and 7 Canadian provinces representing over 400 colleges and universities.
One thing that made the Greenbuild conferences so popular was the quality and utility of the presentations in rooms packed full of very eager learners, who each had their own lessons to teach. AASHE has six parallel tracks going with the constant dilemma that there are several at any one time I want to hear. One after another, the heroic stories are told of faculty, staff and students across the country tackling the defining problems of this century. Together, they tell the story of a massive retooling of colleges and universities to equip students for a whole new world. Nearly 600 colleges and universities are signatories to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which commits their institutions to achieving climate neutrality and to publishing their progress toward that goal. Many of the institutions here are not yet signatories, but they are learning a lot from those who are further along the path to campus sustainability.
In addition to the standard sessions and poster presentations, the keynote speakers have been outstanding. Lester Brown, author of Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization led things off with reminders about the limits and daunting obstacles we face and the "race between tipping points in climate change and political change." Later he also described the hope embodied in a long list of success stories from around the world that illustrate how far we have come with wind and solar energy. He called the attendees to action and noted that "saving civilization is not a spectator sport."
This morning, Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix our Two Biggest Problems, outlined how our country had recently seen the "floor fall from under our feet with the economic collapse, but also how we had seen the ceiling begin to fly with the election of a new president." A gifted speaker, Jones outlined three actions needed to "focus the nation" to transform our economy to "take America back and take America forward." He called for 1) putting a price on carbon, 2) retrofitting our existing building stock and 3) repowering America with renewable energy and a new national power grid.
This evening's keynote speaker was Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and the new book, The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. Senge called for a new way of educating with more variety and less factory-like regimentation to unlock creativity and innovation. He noted that the future will not likely look back on our age of "digging up stuff and burning it" with the mindset that finite resources are somehow infinite, but he also noted that "nobody is working hard to heat up the planet, they are just not aware of the consequences."
This theme of the need for ecological literacy and opportunity for change was common in all of the keynotes, which approached the theme in different ways, but with the same conclusion. There is no time to waste in transforming our interaction with the natural world which sustains us and the college campus is a good place to start that transformation.