Beyond LEED to Net Zero Energy: RFK Jr., Suzuki and Sinclair's Keynotes at Sustainability Summit

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaking at Sustainable Operations Summit. Photos courtesy of Craig Michaels

A solar-powered health clinic traveling on a camel. Windmills on Bangladesh tut-tuts recharges cell phones. Military bases converted to civic spaces. A community center outside Rio drives out drug dealers. "Sustainability is a matter of survival," said Cameron Sinclair about Architecture for Humanity's 400-some projects in 40 countries including post-traumatic locations from Haiti to Japan. Opening the 6th Sustainable Operations Summit, recently held in Pasadena, California, he dazzled the crowd with descriptions of Plastiki's mission and Biloxi housing. Other keynotes by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and David Suzuki continued the inspiration, as well as impressive presentations like the net-zero National Renewable Energy Lab. Last week I described the tour of CalTech's Energy Retrofit which kicked off the three-day conference. There were two simultaneous tracks - business and public sector sessions with meetings that brought together government representatives, from Iowa State to Miami-Dade County, and companies like CBS-TV Studios with green suppliers, such as Dyson, Demilec's recycled soy-based insulation, LiveRoof green roofs and Sika white roofs.

While the theme, ROI: Reduce Our Impact and Return on Investment, promoted initiatives that benefit both the environment and the bottom line, the recurring imperative was to create sustainable models that could be replicated, from the NREL to the Empire State Building.

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David Suzuki gives his "Legacy" speech at Sustainability Summit in California.

David Suzuki threw down the gauntlet to the corporations and government leaders to "put the eco into economics," with his stirring speech, "My Legacy: an Elder's Vision for Our Sustainable Future." Illustrating how humans are made of earth, air and water, the renowned environmentalist spoke of how nature creates the essentials that keep us alive. He explained how the commitment to "growth" is not only unsustainable but suicidal, undermining out support systems. In the interest of time, he skipped the "hopeful" part of his talk, stating that we're past peak oil and onto "extreme oil" with shale gas, tar sands and deep water oil. His big dose of reality told those present that "we're headed toward a brick wall -- brace for impact." Or take the kind of action against climate change that we faced with the Space Race in the 1960s. "We didn't say: 'It will hurt the economy.'"

At various sessions it looked like companies were finding serious ways to lower costs and turn green efforts into financial advantages: Adobe addressed energy efficiency "Beyond LEED" and Walmart showcased its rainwater harvesting projects. Local Governments for Sustainability referenced efforts by its 600 cities around the world, including New York City's PlaNYC environmental efforts, such as the GreenStreets program which mitigates storm water impact in sewers and Beth Jines spoke of 50 Los Angeles initiatives, from Brownfields to the Native Tree Ordinance, across 55 departments.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. roused the crowd with facts and stats, from his efforts with the NRDC about stopping the devastation of mountaintop removal to the Riverkeeper success with the Hudson River clean-up, the BrightSource solar project in the Mojave to Tesla's electric vehicles. He suggested that the same revolution that happened with the Internet in 1979 in building a $20 trillion economy could happen with energy innovations. "Pollution and waste lowers our quality of life," he said, challenging the group "to transform America to be consistent with our values, to ensure the strength of the economy and give us communities we want to live in."

More on sustainability:
Sustainability and the Importance of Engaging Everyone
The Sustainability Institute Makes a Case for Corporate Responsibility
Sustainable business:
Fed Ex Makes Major Move Towards Sustainability: All New Buildings Will Be LEED Certified
Further Proof: Preserving Biodiversity is Profitable Business
Sustainable governments:
Philadelphia Announces Ambitious Sustainability Plan
Funding Sustainable Cities in an Era of Economic Crisis

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