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Inspired by Bioneers

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/26/09 @ 1:00pm

Bioneers 2007 was an enlightening and genuinely entertaining lifestyle and sustainability conference—“bringing to town” speakers with insight about how we can move society toward a sustainable path.

David Cooperrider, the Fairmount Minerals Chair in Social Entrepreneurship and founder of the Business as an Agent of World Benefit center at Case, kicked off local events by sharing his experience at a UN summit and with Fortune 500 corporations like Chardon-based Fairmount Minerals.

“At the summit, Kofi Anan reached his hand out to the world’s business leaders and said ‘let’s unite the power of the markets with the best of human ideals,’” Cooperrider said. “I’m embarrassed to say our management schools are not keeping up with the way senior management at major corporations are thinking about this.

“Where the highest human strengths are nurtured is where human evolution happens. Most people look at a deficit rather than the history of what was done right. We need to move into thinking the world is a gift to be discovered rather than a machine that is broken.”

Cooperrider described how the mining sands company embraced sustainability as “a driver of innovation,” and was awarded Most Ethical Business by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He shared an example of Fairmount’s closed-loop sustainable business model: Fairmount takes the “spent” sands from engine part molds and ships it to corn farmers for fertilizer to produce biodiesel.

At an affordable green housing session, panelist Marge Misak, director of the Cuyahoga Community Land Trust said: "people think there's no shortage of affordable housing in Cleveland. Actually, we have a lot of low-cost housing in bad shape with poor indoor air quality."

The Cleveland EcoVillage Green Cottages and Cogswell Hall, both in the Detroit-Shoreway area, and Emeritus House and ValleyView Hope VI were discussed as examples of affordable green housing projects in Cleveland.

“We should ask ‘do we really need 2,500 square feet of living space?’ when 1,200 will do,” said Jim Ptacek, lead architect of the green cottages. “The selling points are you’re starting with a smaller electric and heating bill and smaller mortgage. We need to educate the consumer on these benefits, especially as we face limited natural resources.”

It requires “a paradigm shift” says architect Bill Doty, who’s worked on a number of green buildings. “The twenty percent reduction in utilities means you can get a six year payback on green systems—compare that to a ten year payback on your retirement funds and it's a good investment,” he said.

We can look to Germany and its effort to build 6,000 passive solar homes as a model, green builder Jim LaRue added. “We should be doing our own zero-energy homes. Look at Atlanta and their problems of being down to only three months of drinking water.”

Despite some tech glitches, Cleveland, one of a handful of cities chosen for a satellite feed, sat in on plenary sessions in California where leaders from business to community development offered their stories.

Jay Harman, founder of Pax Scientific, says he learned from nature how to design more energy efficient ship hulls based on the shape of dolphins and fans for industrial uses that promise a 30% power reduction by mimicking the spiral action of water spouts: “The whirlpool is the path of least resistance, but most of today’s industrial products pay no attention to nature’s guiding principal. Industry has been about mass production from blocks and flat plates. If you needed more speed, shovel in more fuel which worked until we started seeing the ugly side effects. Nature doesn’t ‘do’ straight lines. There’s enormous potential and value in replicating nature rather than destroying it.”

The good news, Harman says, is his company received an Advanced Technology Program grant, the first U.S. government support for biomimicry.

On day two, I participated in a session on civic journalism, and learned as much as (I hope) was able to explain about GreenCityBlueLake and its role in the local online social network. I found out that the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes started a blog on its current project to build a strawbale shed. Most in the room were bloggers, including Tim Zaun and Erica Fini, who started a blog with her husband about their personal challenge to eat only local food.

“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them” was one of my favorite quotes heard at the conference (do you know which famous scientist said it?)

“The great myth is we cannot have society’s benefits without poisoning it,” is my second favorite quote, from Paul Anastas, the ‘father’ of green chemistry. “If your product is hazardous you didn’t do a good job designing it," he continues. "We need to change the fundamental way we look at energy and transportation and stop thinking about capture. We’re swimming in CO2, how can it be a value added feedstock?”

Interesting idea, although I also agree with the UN that we're living beyond our means and we need to slow down the CO2 we're pumping into the atmosphere right away.

Sustainable South Bronx founder Majora Carter, like activist Van Jones in Oakland, inspires by action, helping clean up a major dump site and converting it into a riverside park. “Environmental justice is the civil rights of the 21st century,” she said. “Right now, race and class determine where you’ll find good stuff. Proximity to fossil fuel emissions impacts on learning, so through environmental degradation, we’re creating the perfect environment for our prison system. That’s why we’re working to green our ghetto. We’re starting a green roof enterprise, we got a federal transportation grant for bike paths, and we’re fighting for a recycling center instead of a prison.”

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