Carolyn McMaster | October 2, 2017
The GreenBiz VERGE conference on sustainability and cleantech September 19–21 made it clearer than ever to me that we need to tell great stories if we want to advance policy, gain investment, prompt actions and encourage diversity in the cleantech and sustainability sectors. By “great” I mean stories with people at their heart that show what sustainable, regenerative practices and technology can do.
If the thinking, solutions and actions presented at VERGE are any indication, we’re on our way. It was an inspiring three days, with presentations covering music and tech, architecture and hip hop, and policy and advocacy, along with more ordinary topics like lean transportation, energy efficiency and the circular economy.
The most thought-provoking comments for me came from Van Jones, founder of Green for All and president and co-founder of the Dream Corps. He skillfully (and entertainingly) connected the dots between poverty, race and cleantech. His perspective should inform not only how we act but also the stories we tell and how we tell them.
Van Jones: Confronting the eco-apartheid divide
We have to design the green economy to include everybody, Jones argued, but so far, there’s been a deep divide: one camp is the well-endowed, mostly white, mostly affluent environmental movement; in the other are environmental justice advocates, who are mostly people of color and mostly poor, and whose organizations have far less money. People have been observing this divide for a long time, but rarely acknowledge the costs or propose a new course of action.
Jones got right to the point. “The dirty secret is you can’t hurt the planet without hurting people,” he said. “And the people that you hurt are usually the poorest. … If you protect the poorest, you’re protecting the planet.”
Leaving out the communities that are most hurt by pollution and the changing climate creates unholy alliances, too, and lets bad actors control the narrative. Jones cited the situation in Nevada, where the utilities commission did away with solar incentives in 2016.
“The polluters [were] able to say, ‘These people only care about rich white folks. They don’t care about black and brown voters. They only care about the eco-elite crowd.’ By positioning those solar subsidies as a handout and giveaway to rich folks in Nevada, they mobilized poor, Latino and African American voters … and damn near decapitated the solar industry.” (A new law allowing net metering was enacted last June and is bringing solar back to the state.)
“Eco-apartheid does not work,” Jones emphasized. “It’s not sustainable ecologically, and it’s not sustainable politically, because the ecological have-nots fight back.”
Nathaniel White: Extraordinary things can happen
What does work? In advancing a new economy, Nathaniel Smith, founder and CEO of the Partnership for Southern Equity in Atlanta, uses Martin Luther King Jr.’s “network of mutuality” as a framework.
“We know that economies, societies and ecosystems are only as strong as their weakest link,” he said. “Communities need to see the opportunities to take power. They need to speak for themselves.”
The night before his plenary session, I talked with Smith about how a cleantech industry group whose solutions will cut air pollution now could get support from the disadvantaged communities that will benefit. He pointed out that the poor and people of color are rightfully skeptical: they have been used and abused by both industry and environmentalists who come in and tell them what to do.
“We’ve learned that change moves at the speed of trust,” Smith told the VERGE audience. “If you are able to create an environment where individuals can trust you, and believe you have their best interests at heart, then extraordinary things can happen.”
This post is the first in a series on storytelling and PR inspired by speakers at the GreenBiz VERGE conference. Next up: Advocating for policy change, new messages and messengers, stories from startups, what data tells us, hip-hop and remixing