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Big Ideas at the Aspen Environment Forum PDF Print E-mail
By Andy Mannle | Tuesday, 01 April 2008



The world famous Aspen Institute put on its first ever Environment Forum last week in collaboration with National Geographic, and opened with a host of high-caliber speakers talking about their ‘Big Idea’ for protecting the environment:


Daniel Nocera, Professor of Energy at MIT is working on a plan to engineer photosynthesis at the molecular level. He said his ‘Big Idea’ is this equation:

Light + Water = Oil + Gas + Coal + Methane

“If we can catch light, and have it act on water  - that’s the trick. Because that’s what photosynthesis is. By putting sunlight in you break water into Hydrogen and Oxygen. If we can recombine them, we can get the sunlight out, and get the energy back.”

Using artificial photosynthesis to supply our energy needs is a big idea indeed, but it was just the beginning.

Majora Carter is the founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, and a MacArthur Fellow in 2005. She spoke about the impacts of pollution on her neighborhood in the South Bronx, the devastation in Appalachia, and the melting environment of the Inuit in Alaska.

“My 'Big Idea' is to make the invisible places visible, by making them the point sources for the new economy,” she said.

“The investments made in the waste economy were not made with the consent of the people in these communities,” she said. Speaking of urban revitalization, green roofs, and wastewater mitigation systems, she urged us to form industrial enclaves where the waste from one industry could be used by the next.

Van Jones joined Majora at a panel the next morning to speak about their program Green For All:

“What if we took our children who are standing in the back of the line for the last centuries’ pollution-based jobs and put them in the front of the line for the new clean and green jobs?”

“What if we turned to our young people and said we’re going to give you the tools, the training and the technology so you can go out and retrofit a nation. Rather than seeing you as the problem, we’re going to see you as the problem solvers, to help this country go from being the world leader in  environmental pollution to being the world leader in environmental solutions.”

Last fall Jones spoke to 30,000 people in groups all across the country, inspired speaker Nancy Pelosi, and got congressional funding in the Energy bill for a Green Jobs Act to begin these training processes. If you’re looking for an inspiring, practical, diverse, community-focused face to the green movement, Van Jones and Majora Carter are a team to watch.

Josh Dorfman is the author of ‘The Lazy Environmentalist’ among other things.

“My big idea is to reconsider the framework of environmental action. Instead of saying we need to solve global warming, or air pollution, we need to reframe the issue and say that by taking environmental action we can create opportunities and make our lives so much better.”

He gave inspiring examples of green schools where students learn better, green hospitals where patients heal faster, and green jobs that are transforming the former industrial 'rust belts.'

“Going Green is not just something so we don’t die. We have to shift the dialogue of what Green can mean. It’s THE path to a future we all want.”

Carl Ganter, founder of the organization Circle of Blue, is putting faces on the story of global warming. “We have a huge drama unfolding. If all we do is crunch the data, we move the hearts away. My idea is as old as the story. Water, climate, energy – these are the stories knocking on our door. We need to put the faces on them.  Lets turn on our passion, move beyond the statistics, and go back to the great storytelling that cultures have passed on through generations.”

Cheryl Rogowski is putting a face on our food as an organic farmer. “Many say organic farming is the answer to global warming. That’s a big challenge to us tiny farmers,” she said. But it’s a challenge she is up to, having pioneered Community Supported Agriculture programs that partner with HMOs, making positive impacts on “government, health, neighborhoods and farmers.”

“I can’t think of a better way to represent what we represent,” she said.

Bill Ritter, the Governor of Colorado spoke about the success he had running on a platform of “Wind farms in wheat fields;” forming a “collaboratory” between universities and researchers; giving farmers compensation for low-till practices which improve the land, and working with the National Governor’s Association on “Securing A Clean Energy Future.”

Architect Jeff Burkas collaborated with environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy to design the Aspen Institutes’s LEED Platinum building. “I have a big idea you can feel right now,” he said, as the shades rolled up letting in beautiful daylight reflecting off the snow all around. Burkas works toward a day when we can “wake up every morning and be aware of our place in Nature.”

It was a beautiful beginning to a wonderful forum. Stay tuned for Arcwire’s interview with Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, briliant ideas from Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins, a report on the Psychology of Climate Change, a conversation with Peter Liu of the New Resource Bank, and more.

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